Lofty expectations go unmet in '08

Lofty expectations go unmet in '08

DETROIT -- Consider the 2008 Tigers as Exhibit A for the fact that championships aren't won on paper.

With an offense that had stud players at just about every position, many of them veterans, and a rotation that ranked among the best in baseball in 2006, the Tigers came into Spring Training among the American League titans. Fans talked openly in January about World Series tickets. Opponents talked about Detroit as if it had a title to defend, not as a team trying to make a play upward.

A funny thing happened on the way into the season -- just not ha-ha funny for Detroit.

The offense that supposedly rivaled the best lineups in modern baseball history started out colder than the late-March Detroit weather that it entered. The rotation that was seemingly stacked struggled to hold down opponents, and injuries left the pitching staff filling holes from the second week of the season onward.

The result was an early-season hole that took more than two months for the Tigers to escape, then they fell back in over the season's final two months as injuries piled up.

"This just hasn't been disappointing," manager Jim Leyland said as the season entered its final days. "It's been unbelievably disappointing."

Unbelievable was an accurate term for many in Detroit. Instead of threatening to win 95-100 games, the Tigers finished with their first losing record since 2005. Instead of a highly anticipated playoff race with the reigning AL Central champion Indians, Detroit and Cleveland ended up battling for third place in early September while the retooled White Sox and supposedly rebuilding Twins fought for the title into the season's final days. By season's end, the Tigers were in the division cellar behind the surging Royals. The Indians, despite trading away several top players, ended up finishing around .500.

"As mesmerized as I was by 2006," closer Todd Jones said, "it's as mesmerized as I am about 2008."

2007 Tigers statistical leaders
Hitting
Pitching
Average: Magglio Ordonez, .317 Wins: Armando Galarraga, 13
Doubles: Miguel Cabrera, 36 Losses: Justin Verlander, 17
Triples: Curtis Granderson, 13 ERA (starter): Galarraga, 3.73
Home runs: Cabrera, 37 ERA (reliever, min. 10 appearances): Denny Bautista, 3.32
Runs: Granderson, 112 Saves: Todd Jones, 21
RBIs: Cabrera, 127
Stolen bases: Granderson, 12

The bullpen was the one serious question mark about the club heading into the season, and one of the few predictions about this team that turned out true. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski built the relief corps around the expectation that Fernando Rodney would open the season as the setup man and that Joel Zumaya would be back pitching again around midseason.

Instead, a Spring Training bout of shoulder soreness cost Rodney the first two months of the season, and while Zumaya returned in late June, he wasn't the same shutdown reliever before a shoulder injury knocked him out down the stretch. Jones was out of the closer's role by the end of July and sidelined with injury for much of the final two months.

"Our bullpen has not been in sync all year," Leyland said. "That's No. 1. And the last two months, it's really been in disarray. And you really find out the value of a proven closer, because it has a trickle-down effect."

The rest came largely as a surprise to the Tigers, and it piled up quickly. Though club officials knew the offense was centered around doubles and home runs rather than speed, they didn't anticipate how much that one-dimensional attack would hamper them on nights when opposing pitchers were on their game. The Tigers could score runs in bunches, but they generally couldn't manufacture them.

TIGERS TOP PERFORMANCES
4/22, DET 10, TEX 2 -- Power returns
Ramon Santiago hits his first home run since 2003 in a big win.
Highlights: Watch
5/7, DET 10, BOS 9 -- Polanco connects on walk-off
Placido Polanco hits a broken-bat single off Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon to give the Tigers a come-from-behind win in the bottom of the ninth.
Highlights: Watch
6/12, DET 2, CWS 1 -- Walk-off seals sweep of White Sox
Miguel Cabrera's walk-off home run completed a three-game sweep of the White Sox and marked his first game-winning homer in a Tigers uniform.
Highlights: Watch
6/17, DET 5, SF 1 -- Thames' homer run
Marcus Thames' 465-foot shot gives him homers in five straight games, which ties a Tigers record.
Highlights: Watch
6/28, DET 7, COL 6 -- Cabrera delivers in walk-off
Miguel Cabrera notches his second walk-off hit in a Tigers uniform to give his team a come-from-behind win over the Rockies.
Highlights: Watch
7/20, DET 5, BAL 1 -- Inge still sharp at third
Utilityman Brandon Inge shows he can still flash the leather at the hot corner.
Highlights: Watch
8/13, DET 3, TOR 4 -- Granderson flashes leather
Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson lays out to rob the Blue Jays of a hit.
Highlights: Watch
8/21, DET 4, KC 3 -- Inge saves the day
Brandon Inge chases down Fernando Rodney's wild pitch and records the game's final out at home plate.
Highlights: Watch
8/22, DET 4, KC 3 -- Cabrera's lengthy tater
Miguel Cabrera nearly hits a car beyond the left-field wall at Kauffman Stadium.
Highlights: Watch
9/19, DET 5, CLE 6 -- Cabrera's tape-measure shot
Miguel Cabrera's second homer of the game travels a long way to center field.
Highlights: Watch

The defense was a major disappointment, not just in error totals, but in range. Dontrelle Willis' control issues not only became a season-long issue, it became a symbol of how the Tigers' effort to build a powerhouse team didn't work. Then came the injuries, from the relievers to Willis to Jeremy Bonderman and onward.

Tigers officials are serious when they say they believe this team is capable of a quick turnaround in 2009, based on a core group of talented players. But that depends on a lot of things going right for them. In 2008, just about everything went wrong that could.

Record: 74-88, fifth place in AL Central

Defining moment: When the snapshot of a season comes in early April, it usually isn't good. When it's part of an 0-7 start, it's even worse. A late-inning White Sox comeback off Jason Grilli on the first Friday of the season was the first of many blown leads for a Tigers club that lost 12 times when leading after seven innings.

What went right: The offense didn't score 1,000 runs, as some columnists predicted was possible, but it still produced some mighty totals. Most of them came from Miguel Cabrera, whose inaugural season in Detroit almost singlehandedly justified the mega-trade that brought him here last December. Curtis Granderson bounced back from a season-opening stint on the disabled list and matured as a hitter, eventually punishing left-handed pitchers and earning everyday playing status. Armando Galarraga became a huge surprise in the rotation, locking up a spot for next year.

What went wrong: The list is too big to fit in this space, and obviously was too much for the Tigers to overcome. Willis' control issues and Justin Verlander's season-opening skid set the tone early for a rotation that was constantly in flux and never consistently effective. Injuries to Zumaya, Rodney and Jones left the bullpen in a makeshift state, resulting in 26 blown saves and 12 games lost when leading after seven innings. Edgar Renteria seemingly aged several years upon arrival in Detroit, and his limited range and arm at shortstop became the symbol for a defense that gave away too many outs. Even the offense, for all its lofty total, was shut out an AL-high 12 times and stranded too many runners on base.

Biggest surprise: For all the praise heaped upon Detroit's offseason trades, no one would've guessed that the one unquestioned success would've been the Minor League deal in February that sent over Galarraga from Texas. The little-known right-hander surprised many in the organization with his solid command, reliable pitching instincts and unflappable mound demeanor. He ended up topping Detroit's better-known pitchers in victories, and it's almost scary to think of what the rotation would've been without him once Willis landed on the DL less than two weeks into the season.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.