Start of something good
The Tigers' start has historic significance considering how baseball's 20 worst teams began their following seasons.
Tuesday night I did something I hadn't done in nearly 20 years: I rooted for the Detroit Tigers to win a baseball game. The last time was in the fall of 1984, when I wanted them to beat the Padres in the World Series. I didn't have anything against the Padres, but the Tigers had just swept my favorite team in the AL playoffs, and I thought it would reflect positively on the Royals if the Tigers beat the Padres, too (hey, I was young and didn't know any better).
Theoretically, sportswriters aren't supposed to have favorite teams, though if you pay any attention at all you'll notice that nearly all of us do have our favorites. Some of us are embarrassed by that and some of us are not, but if a baseball writer tells you he doesn't have a favorite team, he's probably lying. That said, generally the baseball writer doesn't root for a particular team. Instead, he's cheering for something far more important (to us): the story.
Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I was thrilled when the Tigers got off to a 5-1 lead against the Blue Jays on Tuesday night, and why I was less than thrilled when 1) Toronto's bullpen shut down the Tigers from innings three through nine, and 2) Toronto's hitters finished with four runs in the last three innings to beat the Tigers, 7-5. The Tigers' great start this season is a wonderful story, but 5-2 is slightly less wonderful than 6-1, and it would have been 6-1 if they'd held that lead.
How big a story would 6-1 be? Before I answer that question, I have to mention Joe Sheehan, who last week asked a similar question over at Baseball Prospectus. The Tigers won their first four games, and Joe decided to look at the 50 worst teams in major league history and see how they fared in their first four games of the next season.
Joe was shocked to discover (and I was shocked to read) that the Tigers were the only team in the group that started the next season 4-0. The only one.
But of course four games doesn't mean anything, right? So I decided to update Joe's study, but looking at the 20 worst teams and how they fared in the first seven games of the next season. There are eight possible "cells," from 0-7 through 7-0.
0-7 1 1-6 1 2-5 11 3-4 6 4-3 0 5-2 1 6-1 0 7-0 0
Surprised? I was. Among the 20 worst teams -- ranging in winning percentage from .235 (1916 A's) to .265 (2003 Tigers) to .299 (1937 St. Louis Browns) -- the '04 Tigers are the first and only team to fashion a winning record through seven games. And while almost nothing that happens in the span of seven games means anything (injuries notwithstanding), I'm nearly convinced that the Tigers' first seven games do mean something. Or rather, those seven games come close to proving what we already knew: that the 2004 Tigers are a lot better than the '03 version.
How far can the Tigers go?
Last season the Tigers essentially featured two or three legitimate everyday players in the lineup: Dmitri Young, Carlos Pena, and (after April) Eric Munson. This season they've got six, and they'll have seven when Young comes off the DL. Aside from adding a legitimate star in Ivan Rodriguez, the biggest change comes in the middle of the infield. Here's what the Tigers' second basemen and shortstops did last season, and what the new guys (Fernando Vina and Carlos Guillen) did:
2B SS OBP Slug OBP Slug Old .307 .350 .283 .282 New .309 .382 .359 .394
OK, so Vina's really not very good. But he's better than what the Tigers had last year (though seriously overpaid at $6 million over the next two seasons). The outfield's still a problem, though, with holdovers Bobby Higginson and Alex Sanchez, and injury-prone Rondell White. And the pitching staff's still a disaster, probably. Yes, they added Jason Johnson and Jeremy Bonderman is likely to take another positive step. But Mike Maroth and Nate Cornejo are International League-quality ... and we haven't even mentioned the Tigers' fifth starter.
So how far can they go? I've got the Tigers penciled in for 67 wins this season. And considering they won only 43 last season, 67 wins would be a hell of a story.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
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