Tigers' step back in 2013 wasn't without its thrills

Tigers' step back in 2013 wasn't without its thrills

Tigers' step back in 2013 wasn't without its thrills

DETROIT -- When 2013 began, a World Series title was the only step up left to go for the Tigers. As the year ends, fans and players alike are still processing the first real step back in this three-year Tigers reign atop the American League Central.

The Tigers began 2013 with Jim Leyland as the most experienced manager in the game. They ended the year with Brad Ausmus as a first-time manager taking over a roster with veteran players who aren't that much younger than he is.

Detroit entered 2013 with arguably the most complete rotation in the game, from ace to fifth starter. By the time '13 ended, the big five had been broken up with one big, heavily scrutinized trade that will likely be remembered for years as either the shuffle that shakes the Tigers back into shape or the beginning of the end for this run to the postseason.

A team that began 2013 with a stacked bullpen but no set closer ended it with one of the best closers in history on board in Joe Nathan, but with question marks all around him.

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Looking back at 2013
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Even Justin Verlander, the heart and soul of the Tigers' rotation for years, wasn't immune. A year that began with Verlander unquestioned as the American League's nastiest pitcher ended with him as either the second- or third-best starter in his own rotation.

In many ways, this was a year of transition for the Tigers, unlike any they had gone through in the last four years, and it'll continue into 2014 as Ausmus learns the ropes as manager and the club adapts to a new style of play.

It wasn't earth-shattering, maybe a little foundation-shaking, but it was a reminder in so many ways. Playoff runs don't always follow a linear pattern from one year to the next. Fantasy-type lineups don't always deliver fantastic results, especially in the playoffs against teams with balanced rotations. And last but not least, every run of playoff appearances has a window that doesn't stay open by itself. If the window isn't extended, it eventually shuts. It's up to the team to decide which it wants.

The team that began 2013 talking about four more wins fell two victories short of last year's endpoint, and instead ended the year hoping to make at least one more run at a long-coveted title before more difficult decisions threaten to shift the outlook some more.

It was perhaps the most eventful year in the franchise's recent history, and it changed everyone's thought process about the Tigers' quest for a title and their place in history. Here's a look at five of the Tigers' top storylines from the year:

5. While Verlander proves mortal, Max Scherzer just keeps on winning.

In Spring Training, a massive contract extension for Verlander was seen as a common-sense inevitability. After all, no team with the means lets the best pitcher in the game even sniff free agency. By the stretch run, fans were questioning whether the new contract was a big mistake.

In fairness, a 13-12 record and 3.46 ERA and 3.28 FIP isn't bad for a down season. The FIP and Wins Above Replacement actually were better than either of his first two Major League seasons. For a pitcher who had stretches of no-hit bids over the previous two years, of course, that kind of season stands out. Verlander saved his best pitching for October and sent a message that age isn't creeping up on him quite yet at 30 years old.

If Verlander's season was a year out of the bizarre, Scherzer had the season when nearly everything came together -- and everything else just went right. After a Spring Training in which his workload was tempered to watch his shoulder, Scherzer not only wasn't vulnerable, he wasn't beatable for half the season. He won his first 13 decisions -- the first Major Leaguer to do so since Roger Clemens in 1986 -- and put up the first 19-1 start since Clemens' 2001 campaign. Along the way, Scherzer became the second Tiger in as many years to start an All-Star Game, racked up double-digit strikeouts in eight starts and enjoyed seven eight-inning performances.

Lest anyone diminish his regular-season numbers, Scherzer responded in the postseason by beating the A's twice in the AL Division Series, including a relief appearance on three days' rest in a must-win Game 4. He then struck out 13 Red Sox over seven innings of one-run ball in the ALCS.

4. Miguel Cabrera one-ups his Triple Crown season, repeats as AL MVP.

A year after becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, Cabrera didn't repeat, but he improved in most statistics, from a career-best .348 average to a 30-point jump in slugging percentage to a 49-point leap in on-base percentage. He became the first player to lead the league in all three categories since Joe Mauer in 2009 -- the year Mauer won the AL MVP Award in a near-unanimous vote.

Cabrera matched his home run total despite hitting only one in September. He fell one short of his previous season's RBI total despite playing in 13 fewer games and having 18 fewer at-bats with runners in scoring position. He not only led baseball with a 1.078 OPS, he topped everyone else in baseball by at least 74 points, the largest gap by a player since Barry Bonds in 2004.

Cabrera did it not only with a groin injury that hampered him in September and required surgery at season's end, but with injuries that limited his mobility since the end of June.

"I think 90 percent of baseball players would've been sitting on the couch not playing, dealing with what he's dealt with this year," Verlander said in October.

In the end, it was enough for his MVP voters to win the debate again over Angels wunderkind Mike Trout, this time by a larger amount than 2012.

3. Prince's reign in Detroit ends quickly.

Prince Fielder went into 2013 with Detroit officials speculating he could be the next Tiger in line for an MVP season, having made the adjustment to AL pitching. Nobody in Spring Training could have imagined he'd have the season that punched his ticket out of town, just two years into the nine-year deal he signed to return where his father starred.

By most standards, it wasn't a terrible season. By his numbers, it was clearly a down one. Fielder's 34-point drop in batting average might have been due, but coupled with a career-low .457 slugging percentage, his .819 OPS was his lowest of any full season. He still drove in 100 runs for the sixth time in seven years, fueled in part by his knack for big hits after opponents would opt to intentionally walk Cabrera.

Fielder's season's low point came in the playoffs, where he went 9-for-40 without an RBI. An ALCS double accounted for his lone extra-base hit. His postgame comments came off as nonchalant, which irritated the fan base more. Exactly a month after the Tigers were eliminated, Fielder was gone, dealt to Texas for Ian Kinsler in a deal that traded contracts as much as players.

2. Tigers fall to Red Sox grand slams in dramatic fashion in ALCS.

Statistically, the difference between Detroit and Boston was miniscule. One run separated their totals for the series, and Tigers pitching actually delivered a lower ERA. Eight of the 19 Red Sox runs for the series, however, came on two swings of the bat. One of them, a David Ortiz game-tying grand slam in Game 2, essentially changed the course of the series.

The Tigers were five outs away from heading home with a 2-0 series lead, having watched Scherzer pick up where Anibal Sanchez left off a night earlier and deliver seven innings of one-run ball. Scherzer handed a 5-1 lead to Detroit's bullpen for the eighth, but four relievers couldn't stop the Red Sox's rally. Three different baserunners off three different relievers loaded the bases for Ortiz, who greeted Joaquin Benoit with a drive just out of Torii Hunter's reach as he went tumbling into the Red Sox's bullpen.

From then on, nothing could really stop the Red Sox from taking over the series. Two Boston wins in three games at Comerica Park left the Tigers needing to win two at Fenway Park, but another Scherzer lead -- this one 2-1 in the seventh inning of Game 6 -- vanished on a Shane Victorino drive over the Green Monster off Jose Veras.

1. The Jim Leyland era ends.

Leyland had told friends and reporters early in the season that he intended to keep managing for a while. By late in the season, however, he had told his wife and close friends that he was thinking about making this his final year on the job. Come September, he told team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski about his plan, with a chance to slide into an advisory role in the organization. Minutes after the Tigers were eliminated in the ALCS, Leyland made it official with his players before announcing it to the public 36 hours later.

Leyland said he sensed the energy waning at age 68, and didn't feel it would be fair to stay on the job if the fire wasn't there. They were similar sentiments to what led him to step back from managing after the 1999 season in Colorado.

"I don't feel it would be fair for the organization, Mr. Ilitch, the front office, the players and the coaches for me to go on," Leyland said. "The fire has gone low."

Leyland's 1,769 wins rank 15th all-time among Major League managers. Only Hall of Famers Sparky Anderson and Hughie Jennings recorded more victories with the Tigers. His eight playoff appearances tie him for seventh on the all-time list.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.