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August 17, 2014 at 2:18 pm ET
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What’s Goin’ On?

1408299160_marvin-gaye-whats-going-onAs Sunday dawned, the Tigers sat a half-game back of the Kansas City Royals for first place in the American League Central. How did it come to this? How did a team that has been penciled into the playoffs since the season kicked off, that acquired David Price at the trade deadline, that has Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez and Max Scherzer, fall behind a team whose most fearsome hitter is Alex Gordon?

There are, of course, many answers to those questions. The Royals are a far superior team to the Tigers defensively, in the bullpen, and on the base paths. Their style of play keeps them in nearly every game, leaving them a chance to win in the later innings if need be.

Then there are the Tigers’ struggles. Miggy has been very good but not great. The bullpen has been disastrous. We all know about Justin Verlander. Still, though, it doesn’t seem like this is how the season should be playing out, with a still-loaded Detroit team struggling to grab a wild-card spot, simply hoping to overcome the resurgent Royals for the division lead.

A suddenly strained relationship
Anyone who has ever read my work here on Bugs & Cranks is likely aware of my metaphorical love affair with Dave Dombrowski. Growing up as a Tigers fan in the 1990s and early 2000s, I and my Detroit brethren were subject to some of the worst baseball that’s ever been played in the major leagues. We saw teams that were “led” by Tony Clark and Bobby Higginson and Bill Gullickson.

Then Dombrowski came to town. Within a few short years, the Tigers became a team to be reckoned with. It was like being stranded on a desert island for years before getting saved by a cruise ship full of bikini-clad women and all-you-can-eat buffets. It made the years of suffering worthwhile.

I allowed my affinity for Dombrowski to color my thinking about several questionable moves he’s made in the past two years. But now, with the Tigers struggling, it might be time to take a look at those more closely.

The path to near-mediocrity
I have no idea what the Tigers’ payroll limitations are, if there are even really any in place. Mike Illitch desperately wants to win a championship, as does everybody else in Detroit. And that’s one of the reasons that, looking back on some of the trades the team has made and contracts its handed out or taken on, the past couple of years seem somewhat perplexing.

First, there was the Verlander extension. Signed when the hurler had two years left on his original deal, and when he was still an elite pitcher, the $144 million left on his deal after this year now looks like it is likely to be a significant overpay. I don’t fault extending Verlander. I only wonder whether waiting one more year than they did might have led to a slightly lower deal and less of a sunken cost.

Then there’s Miggy’s contract. Again signed two years before his original deal was to expire, and also signed while the player in question was a truly elite player (and still is), it is easy to imagine the middle-to-back end of this deal becoming problematic as well. Again, why not wait one more year before inking him?

The series of moves that sticks out even more than those extensions, though, is the Fister trade and the subsequent signing of Joe Nathan. The Fister trade was billed as a payroll-clearing move, primarily to free up money to sign Nathan. But with David Price now on the books, it doesn’t look like that money needed to be cleared after all.

It’s then easy to wonder whether re-signing Joaquin Benoit, instead of signing Nathan, or along with signing Nathan, should have been feasible all along. It’s always been said that Benoit doesn’t like closing, but that’s what he’s doing now in San Diego, and I can’t imagine that, for $10 million a year, he would have said ‘no’ to the ninth inning.

The Fister trade and bullpen maneuvers are the most troubling of all the moves that have been made over the past two years. If Fister had remained, Smyly could have stayed in the bullpen and taken over when Scherzer leaves after this season, and there wouldn’t have been a need to acquire Price. Benoit would have been a far better ninth inning option than Nathan, or he would have mitigated the need to trade for Joakim Soria.

All told, the Tigers are still in solid position to win a championship this year. Not a great position, but they’re in the mix. And the same might be true next year as well. But, after that? I’m not so sure. The White Sox and Indians are in good position to contend for the next few years. The Royals probably are, too. And the Twins, with Terry Ryan back at the helm, will probably be a factor in another year or two.

The Tigers? I’m not so sure. We very well might be witnessing the decline of a team that has been a force in the American League for nearly a decade.

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