2004 Tigers: The Next Miracle Team?

As I write this, the Detroit Tigers have started the year with 6 wins and 3 losses, including a sweep of the Jays in Toronto. Pudge Rodriguez isn’t the only new veteran: Rondell White, Jason Johnson and Fernando Vina all figure to play leading roles this year. These Tigers are not the same group that lost 119 games in 2003. So, how good are they? Here’s my list of the seven best players on each team in the AL Central:

Seven best players
Minnesota TwinsJohan Santana, Doug Mientkiwicz, Corey Koskie, Torii Hunter, Brad Radke, Shannon Stewart, Joe Mauer
Chicago White SoxMagglio Ordonez, Esteban Loaiza, Mark Buehrle, Frank Thomas, Jose Valentin, Damaso Marte, Joe Crede
Kansas City RoyalsCarlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney, Angel Berroa, Jeremy Affeldt, Juan Gonzalez, Darrell May, Benito Santiago
Detroit TigersIvan Rodriguez, Dmitri Young, Carlos Guillen, Carlos Pena, Jason Johnson, Jeremy Bonderman, Fernando Vina
Cleveland IndiansC.C. Sabathia, Jody Gerut, Omar Vizquel, Jason Davis, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner

The core talent in Detroit is of comparable quality to that in Kansas City in my estimation, not all that far behind Minnesota and Chicago. Can the Tigers post a winning record this year? They’d have to improve by about 40 games to do that — has this ever been done?

Most improved teams, 1946-present
Franchise Year Wins Losses Previous
Wins
Previous
Losses
Change
Diamondbacks 1999 100 62 65 97 +35.0
Red Sox 1946 104 50 71 83 +33.0
Orioles 1989 87 75 54 107 +32.5
Giants 1993 103 59 72 90 +31.0
Phillies 1962 81 80 47 107 +30.5
Braves 1991 94 68 65 97 +29.0
Athletics 1980 83 79 54 108 +29.0
Athletics 1947 78 76 49 105 +29.0
Cubs 1967 87 74 59 103 +28.5
Rangers 1974 84 76 57 105 +28.0

The answer is a no, unless you go back to wild times of 19th century baseball. The Tigers not only have a shot at making this list, but could lead it after the year is over. They only need to win 71 games this season to match the 1974 Rangers for a 28-game improvement, and they can take top spot by winning 79 games in 2004. Let’s take a closer look at these ten most improved teams:

1999 Diamondbacks – A shiny ballpark, lots of dough and an impatient owner added up to the greatest leap forward for a franchise since 1899. Arizona added Randy Johnson, Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley for 1999 to join holdover vets Matt Williams, Jay Bell and Andy Benes. The Diamondbacks became the first expansion team to make a playoff appearance in only their second year. They lost to the Mets in the first round, but returned two years later to take the grand prize.

1993 Giants – The Giants under Roger Craig had stagnated. 1991 and 1992 saw losing seasons, despite the presence of All-Stars Will Clark, Matt Williams and Rod Beck, and solid players such as Robby Thompson, John Burkett, and Bud Black. Dusty Baker was named manager and Barry Bonds fulfilled his dream by signing with the Giants before 1993. A late season charge by the Braves cut the Giants out of the playoffs. 103 wins proved to be a bit of a fluke: The Giants had to wait until 1997 to make the playoffs.

1991 Braves – The Braves had been so bad for so long that their explosion in 1991 was compared to the 1969 Miracle Mets. Bobby Cox took over the team in the middle of 1990 and guided them to a last place finish. Same old, same old. But the next year, youngsters David Justice, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery proved they were ready. Terry Pendleton, let go after three subpar years in Saint Louis, had an MVP-type season. Otis Nixon brought his base stealing talent to Atlanta and reached base at a .371 clip. Charlie Leibrandt and the three younsters comprised the best starting rotation in the National League. The Braves fell at the final hurdle, in one of the tensest Game Sevens ever played. The money was there to keep the talent together and augment it, and the farm system produced some quality if not quantity over the next decade.

1989 Orioles – Despite the presence of future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray, the ’88 Orioles had a horrible offense. Billy Ripken, Ken Gerhart, Rene Gonzalez and Jim Traber were offensive sinkholes, and the pitching consisted of Mike Boddicker, a bunch of unripened youngsters and assorted veteran cast offs. Cal Ripken Senior was fired after a disastrous start, and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson took over. During the off-season, the defense was vastly improved by the acquisitions of Mike Devereaux and Phil Bradley and the emergence of rookie third sacker Craig Worthington. That defense helped soft-tossers Bob Milacki and Jeff Ballard on their way to career seasons. A young fireballer with an unhittable curveball by the name of Gregg Olsen was installed as closer. The Orioles gave the Blue Jays all they could handle right up to the final showdown series in Toronto.

1980 Athletics – Charles O. Finley dismantled his championship club at the conclusion of the 1976 season and for three seasons thereafter, the A’s battled the expansion Mariners for 6th place in the AL West. New manager Billy Martin saw the game-breaking potential of Rickey Henderson and let him run wild. Martin embarked on an experiment: minimize the use of bullpens. Rick Langford was the ace – he threw 290 innings and completed 28 of 33 starts. Mike Norris worked 284.3 innings and completed 22 of 33 starts. Finally, Matt Keough pitched 250 innings and completed 20 of 32 starts. There’s no doubt that by concentrating so many innings in his best pitchers, Billy Martin reduced the number of team runs allowed substantially. Billy Ball worked for two seasons, but the workhorses of the pitching staff fell apart in 1982 and the team collapsed to 68 wins and 94 losses. Martin was let go and returned to the Yankees, while Lankford, Keough and Norris never pitched more than 100 innings in a season after 1982.

1974 Rangers – The ’73 Rangers were Whitey Herzog’s virgin big league managerial assignment and it didn’t go well. Herzog was replaced late in the season by Billy Martin. As before in Detroit, Martin proved adept at sorting out the talent and motivating his players. The acquisition of Fergie Jenkins from the Cubs for two prospects helped enormously, as it gave the Rangers a true workhorse. However, the Martin magic would wear off and he left in 1975 to manage the Yankees. The Rangers enjoyed a brief rebirth in 1977 before regressing again.

1967 Cubs – Leo Durocher took over a moribund Cubs franchise in 1966. He would suffer the only last-place finish of his managerial career. But not all was doom and gloom: Ron Santo and Billy Williams were in their primes, and young pitchers Ken Holtzman and Fergie Jenkins were nearly ready to break out. With the exception of 35-year-old Ernie Banks, the club was young and ready to take a big step forward. In 1967, they finished third in a divisionless National League. Jenkins emerged as a true ace, leading a rotation of kids (25-year old Ray Culp being the oldest). Young Randy Hundley caught nearly everyday and was solid with the bat. Santo was among the best players in baseball and Banks proved he wasn’t quite finished yet. The Durocher Cubs continued to play well right up until his departure in 1972, but never won a pennant.

1962 Phillies – Second-year manager Gene Mauch had a poor club with boatloads of young players in 1961. Robin Roberts, the last of the whiz kids of 1950, was in his final year with the Phillies. Double play combo Tony Taylor and Ruben Amaro were getting their feet wet, and exciting young outfielders Johnny Callison and Tony Gonzalez provided cause for optimism. The next year, Don Demeter was moved from the outfield to third base and had a career year. The young outfielders were even better, although the middle infielders failed to develop. Young ace Art Mahaffey tossed 274 innings, but he was never the same again. In the following years, young phenom Richie Allen and veteran hurler Jim Bunning pushed the Phightin’ Phils towards the pennant, but a second place finish in 1964 was the closest they got.

1947 Athletics – In the twilight of Connie Mack’s reign, the Athletics suddenly became respectable. Rookie Ferris Fain led the offense and the holdovers stepped it up a notch. Among the ten clubs thisted the ’47 Athletics underwent the fewest substantial changes in achieving their great leap forward. Two more years of respectability followed and then a relapse, before the club moved to Kansas City to further refine their wretchedness.

1946 Red Sox – This club doesn’t really belong on this list because the 1945 wartime version of the club is only tenuously comparable to the offensive juggernaught of ’46 led by Ted Williams.

Which teams do the current Tigers most closely resemble? Like the 1974 Rangers, the Tigers have brought in a great player in an attempt to return to respectability. The 1993 Giants also brought in a great player, but they were a pretty good team to begin with. The 1989 Orioles had a second-year manager who had had a great playing career, just like the 2004 Tigers. The ’46 Athletics and ’61 Phillies rivaled the ’03 Tigers in futility, but most of their improvement was based on in-house development.

The Tigers will of course go their own way and write their own history. 85 wins and a divisional title? Who knows – it’s a young season and anything is possible.

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