Though the Detroit Tigers Opening day was canceled, Hunter Chamberlain and Mark Wolford decided to make the best of not going to the game.
Detroit Free Press
We’re still weeks – if not months – away from a possible MLB return. But possible plans for regular-season games in a pandemic-struck environment are starting to leak out – Everybody in Arizona! Half the teams in Florida, half in Arizona! All games on a specially designed floating platform in international waters! (OK, that one we made up. We think.)
The latest plan would feature a 108-game schedule played mostly at teams’ spring training facilities, with some radical realignment that would put the Detroit Tigers in the same division as the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays. (And sorry, “pitchers-should-have-to-hit” truthers, the DH would be in full effect regardless of the home team.)
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While we know it’s a long shot, and far from a perfect plan – so much for that outdoors Oberon and bratwurst we were looking forward to in June – we thought we’d take a look at what the plan could mean for the Tigers:
Lonely at the top
The Tigers weren’t likely to contend in the AL Central in 2020, even with the free-agent additions of C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Austin Romine and Cameron Maybin. The Twins kept their non-Cron/Schoop core intact, the Indians still have some of the division’s best pitching, and the White Sox have spent big and have prospects on the way. (The Royals? Um … they have good barbecue?)
But the Grapefruit League North, which would make up 48 of the 108 games, is a little more open. Oh, the Yankees are still the Yankees – they went 103-59 last season despite a plethora of injuries, then signed 2019 strikeout king Gerrit Cole to a $324 million contract. The Phillies, meanwhile, were a disappointing 81-81 in their first season with Bryce Harper under contract, a finish that got manager (and ex-Tiger) Gabe Kapler canned. But the Tigers, who lost 114 games in 2019, could expect to be joined at the bottom of the division by the Bucs and Jays, who each lost 90-plus last season (95 and 93, respectively).
A .500 overall record is still probably too much to ask, especially with six games each against the rest of Florida – that’s the Red Sox, Twins, Braves, Rays, Orioles, Nationals, Astros, Mets, Cardinals and Marlins – but just breaking even against the other cellar-dwellers in the division would go a long way toward boosting the Tigers’ rebuild. And playing the division’s top teams would provide plenty of …
Even if the Tigers didn’t improve on the field, Tigers fans might have some more entertaining opponents to watch – sorry, we’ve seen enough of Nelson Cruz by now – on the broadcasts. A sampling of baseball’s best and brightest within the proposed division:
Yankees: Cole heads the rotation, and former MVPs Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton — assuming this layoff has given the oft-injured duo time to heal – top the lineup. The Yanks also feature former Birmingham Brother Rice standout DJ LeMahieu and perpetual Miguel Cabrera nemesis Gary Sanchez.
Blue Jays: Toronto was active in free agency, too, roping in NL Cy Young runner-up Hyun-Jin Ryu to lead the rotation and former 30-homer hitter Travis Shaw on offense. The Jays might have the most fun group of young players, too, with Home Run Derby star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. headlines a crop of second-generation MLB’ers that includes Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. (All three spent time in Lansing before making the bigs).
Phillies: Harper’s disappointing season in Philly, the first under a $25.4 million-per-year contract, saw him hit 35 home runs with 36 doubles, 15 steals and 114 RBIs. We suspect the Tigers would take that production from Cabrera, making $30 million, in a heartbeat. The Phillies also dropped $118 million in free agency (over five seasons) on front-line starter Zack Wheeler; the jury’s still out on that move.
Pirates: The Bucs are a couple years behind the Tigers in their rebuild, which means watching 12 games between the two clubs might be too much to ask of even the biggest baseball diehards. But 26-year-old slugger Josh Bell is coming off a 37-homer season, and when he hits them, they go a long ways. Get Jim Leyland on the mic to talk about his two former franchises and we can bask in a bit turn-of-the-decade nostalgia. Speaking of …
The Tigers have spent 22 seasons in the AL Central after they were shuffled out of the East (their home from 1969-97) to make room for the Devil Rays. If we’re going to shuffle divisions again, it’s nice, historically speaking, to be reunited with New York and Toronto. The Yankees, of course, were the tormentors for the generation of Tigers fans that grew up with Al Kaline in right field. The 1961 Tigers rode the bats of Kaline, Norm Cash and Rocky Colavito to 101 wins, setting a then-franchise record; they still finished eight games behind the Mantle/Maris Yankees in a time when only one team from each league made the postseason.
For four seasons in the mid-1980s, the Blue Jays were worthy challengers to the Tigers’ would-be dynasty. In 1984, the Jays got within 7 ½ games of the Tigers – who, again, started the season 35-5 — around Labor Day before Detroit finished with a 15-game cushion in the East. In 1985, the Jays shook off the Tigers’ 6-0 start and won the division themselves by 15 games. In 1987, the Tigers recovered from a 7 ½-game June deficit, including making up 2 ½ games in a legendary final week of the season, for their final AL East division title.
A Fall non-Classic
Would the tail end of a 108-game season, played in mid-Fall in front of empty seats in central Florida, live up to the recollections of those memorable division chases?
But it’s still the only way we’re likely to see the Tigers play in October for at least a few more years.