What If: 2013 Detroit Tigers

Baseball history is filled with all sorts of “What Ifs”?  What if Fred Merkle touches second base?  What if the Red Sox never sell Babe Ruth?  What if Johnny Pesky doesn’t hold the ball?  What if Bill Buckner makes the play?  What if Chuck Knoblauch doesn’t fake out Lonnie Smith?  What if Grady Little pulls Pedro Martinez?

And in 2013, the Detroit Tigers had their very own “What If” alter the course of their season and in fact the future of the franchise, not to mention preventing the occurrence of something that had never happened in Major League history

What if Avi Garcia never fucked Prince Fielder’s wife?

It’s a thinly veiled rumor that has been all but confirmed in the local press without ever being reported, because in the grand scheme of things, such a betrayal by a teammate can’t be reported by the media without hard core proof.  When it’s happened in the past (LeBron James’s mom and Delonte West, the Jimmy Jackson/Jason Kidd/Toni Braxton love triangle, etc.), the stories have been left for sites like Deadspin to pick up, as opposed to being discussed by the local beat writers.  But this one is as confirmed as could possibly be imagined in today’s day and age.

An additional rumor posits that a fight between Miguel Cabrera and Garcia caused the groin/core injury that derailed Cabrera’s run at an unprecedented second consecutive Triple Crown.  I looked at the rosters and where and when Cabrera would’ve been in the same place as Garcia before he was traded away and found it to be impossible, but looking at it from another angle caused me to change my view.

The 2013 Tigers were probably the best team of their recent run, even though they failed to make the World Series.  If there’s any season that a rational Tiger fan could look at and wonder what might have been, it was that one.  So I’ll break down some of the variables and see what could have changed.

Prince Fielder’s Season

Let’s look at Fielder’s history.  In 2011 with Milwaukee and 2012 with the Tigers, he had put up offensive WAR* numbers of 5.5 and 5.3, respectively.  He finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting both years (in both seasons the guy he was protecting in the batting order won the award, meaning that Fielder likely had some votes poached from him).  In 2013, with no known injury issues, that number slipped to 3.1.  What happened?

In August of that year, Torii Hunter made remarks during a radio interview indicating that Fielder was dealing with a personal issue, leading to his struggles at the plate.  Fielder responded to the comments by saying that his personal life would stay personal, but reporters being reporters, this wasn’t going to die.  Two days later, it was reported that Fielder had filed for divorce at the end of May.

It would be easy to suspect that the affair between Fielder’s wife and Garcia had occurred sometime before that date, although it’s not known when.  At that point in the season, Fielder was hitting .273/.397/.487, and he was on pace for 30 HR and 137 RBI.  He raised his average over the course of the season, but his power and OBP numbers slipped somewhat.  Nevertheless, this wasn’t the season people expected out of Fielder, especially with Victor Martinez back in the lineup providing protection.  He was borderline atrocious in the postseason, wracking up only 10 total bases and 3 walks with no RBI in 45 plate appearances, and making some terrible plays on the basepaths that took the Tigers out of badly-needed rallies.

Something happened that caused Fielder’s dropoff, and there’s no injury to explain it.

Miguel Cabrera’s Injury

In 2012, Miguel Cabrera won the first Triple Crown in baseball in 45 years, despite putting up offensive WAR numbers that were lower than both his prior and subsequent seasons.  In 2013 Cabrera had the best offensive season of his career, despite missing 14 games to a nagging groin injury.  The rumored fight between Cabrera and Garcia seems impossible on its surface.  Garcia was sent to the minors in July and was traded to the White Sox at the deadline, and Cabrera’s performance didn’t start to lag until mid-August, so it would seem that the fight was a myth.

But another look suggests that may not be the case.  Garcia was traded to the White Sox on July 30 and shortly thereafter became an everyday outfielder for Chicago.  The White Sox played a 3-game series against the Tigers in Chicago from August 12-14.  At the start of that series, Cabrera was hitting .365/.459/.686 and was on pace for 54 home runs and 166 RBI, numbers that would’ve easily won him the Triple Crown again.  Beginning with that series, his numbers fell to .299/.392/.493 over the remainder of the season, and he only hit 8 more home runs and drove in 27 runs for the rest of the year (on a full-season basis that projects out to 33 HR and 110 RBI).  Cabrera had gone from an historically epic season to a merely good slugger.  What happened?

Sure, you can argue that Cabrera suffered an injury on the field, but considering how prevalent the rumor of this supposed fight is, let’s have some fun and imagine it happened.

Garcia/Iglesias Trade

Garcia was traded as part of a three-way deal that brought shortstop Jose Iglesias from Boston to Detroit and sent Garcia to the White Sox.  While I’m sure that the affair was a consideration in making the deal, it wasn’t the only one.  Jhonny Peralta had recently been suspended for using PED’s and would be a free agent after the season, and with Garcia unable to crack the lineup in the minors, the Tigers probably make the deal, whether or not Garcia could keep it in his pants.

In the list of What Ifs, this one doesn’t compute.  Garcia is still traded for Iglesias.

Impact on 2013 Season

Let’s get Cabrera’s feat out of the way.  The injury probably cost Cabrera a second consecutive Triple Crown, which had never happened before.  As we showed before, Cabrera was hitting .365 going into the White Sox series and was on pace for 54 HR and 166 RBI.  He ultimately led Major League Baseball with a .348 average (not to mention the slash line Triple Crown, going .348/.442/.636, and leading the Majors in OPS at 1.078), but he fell short on HR and RBI, finishing second in both categories.  It’s reasonable to expect his numbers would’ve fallen off, but you could also conclude that he might’ve played a few extra games (he missed 6 after August 12) over the remainder of the season to try to capture another Crown if he hadn’t been hurt.  My conclusion is that without the injury, Cabrera becomes the first player to win back-to-back Triple Crowns.

Looking at the Tigers’ postseason seeding, one could come to the conclusion that an injured Cabrera and depressed Fielder didn’t make a difference.  But look again.  Doing an admittedly rough estimation of Cabrera’s offensive WAR through the beginning of the White Sox series and projecting it to the remainder of the year adds roughly 1.3 offensive wins to his number.  And if Fielder stays as productive as he did the previous two seasons, one could expect an offensive WAR of roughly 5.4 instead of 3.1, an increase of 2.3 wins.  Combine those two numbers and you add an additional 3-4 wins to the Tigers’ 2013 total.  The Tigers finished 4 games behind the Red Sox (and 3 behind the A’s) for the best record in the American League – and thus home field advantage in the playoffs – despite effectively waiving the white flag going into a season-ending series against the Marlins, where they were swept.  If the Tigers get the additional 3-4 wins from Cabrera and Fielder, they don’t take those games off, and likely win the necessary games to capture home field advantage in the playoffs.

And just for good measure, they probably aren’t no-hit in the season finale.

Now we look at the playoffs.  The Tigers defeated the A’s in 5 games in the ALDS.  I won’t examine this series any further and I’ll just assume that the Tigers win it (as they have every postseason series they’ve played against Oakland since Bert Campaneris tried to murder Lerrin LaGrow in 1972).

Moving on to the Red Sox series, it’s hard for me to imagine the Tigers losing the ALCS against Boston with home field advantage and Cabrera and Fielder at full strength, whether mentally or physically.  In the first three games of the series each of the Tigers’ starters took no-hitters into the fifth inning or beyond.  The Red Sox’ pitchers were just as good; the Tigers won Game 1 at Fenway 1-0, the Red Sox won Game 3 at CoPa by the same score.  Detroit’s bullpen had an infamous meltdown in Game 2 that may well have turned the tide of the series.  Cabrera, unable to drive the ball effectively, grounded into a rally-killing double play in Game 5.  Fielder belly flopped his way into a worse rally-killer in Game 6.  An uncharacteristic error by Iglesias followed by a grand slam by Shane Victorino and the Red Sox were off to their third World Series in a decade.

With Cabrera and Fielder playing healthy, there’s a good chance the 1-run games that went in the Red Sox’ favor go the other way.  With the Tigers playing 4 games at home, we don’t see the emotional explosion that came with David Ortiz’s 8th-inning grand slam in Game 2.  Do the Red Sox get a hit before there’s 1 out in the 9th of Game 1?  Possibly, and it’s possible that those hits lead to a run (Anibal Sanchez only pitched 6 innings despite having a no-hitter going), so perhaps Game 1 goes another way.  But in my heart of hearts, I believe that the Tigers win the ALCS with home field advantage.

That brings us to the World Series, which is admittedly harder to break down.  The Tigers didn’t play the Cardinals in 2013, and even if they had, we’ve routinely found that head-to-head matchups don’t mean anything when it comes to the postseason.  As an example, the Tigers went 8-4 against the Minnesota Twins in 1987, outscoring them by 25 runs; the Twins won the ALCS in 5 games.

But despite the fact that the Cardinals won the same number of games as the Red Sox in 2013, I believe the Tigers and Red Sox were the two best teams in the game.  The Tigers would’ve held home field advantage in the Series, and both their rotation and lineups were superior to the Cardinals.

Of course, the same could be said of the Tigers’ World Series teams in 2006 and 2012, and they won a combined total of 1 game in losing both of those series, scoring only 17 runs in those 9 games.  The big difference, however, was the layoff, or lack thereof.  The Tigers had won 7 consecutive games in the 2006 postseason before being forced to take a week off while they waited for the Cardinals to finish off the Mets in 7 games.  In 2012 a 6-day layoff after sweeping the Yankees in the ALCS killed any momentum.  Such a layoff wouldn’t have happened in 2013; regardless of how good the Tigers were, they were not going to sweep the Red Sox; the series likely goes at least 6 games, which would’ve resulted in a 3-day layoff.  That’s enough to get your pitchers lined up, but not so much that it turns your team rusty.

In conclusion, I declare that barring Garcia’s indiscretion, the Tigers would’ve won the 2013 World Series.

Thanks Avi.

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The Aftermath

The story doesn’t end there.  As every Tiger fan knows, Fielder didn’t exactly take the loss in the ALCS as hard as many would’ve liked him to.  When asked if the loss would linger, Fielder responded by saying, “Nah…I got kids, man. You gotta be a man about it. I got kids. If I’m sitting around pouting, how am I going to tell them to keep their chins up if something doesn’t go their way? Definitely, it’s over.”  That interview was played over and over on local radio, and Fielder being dealt out of town was simply a matter of time (and the amount of his contract Mike Ilitch was willing to cover).  A month later, Fielder was traded to Texas for Ian Kinsler.

But Fielder’s responses weren’t particularly ridiculous for a guy who had gone through what he had gone through.  Here was a guy who had to go to work every day and look at a teammate who had slept with his wife.  It’s entirely reasonable for someone to be more concerned about raising their kids properly during their parents’ divorce than work troubles, especially if their income is not at issue.

But without the affair/divorce and with a win in the World Series, those comments aren’t made and Fielder doesn’t lose face with the fans and the front office, and there’s no particular need to trade him.  His contract is still a massive albatross, but with his expected performance that’s a question for down the road as opposed to the 2013-14 offseason.  The team was concerned about cutting payroll, and the Fielder-Kinsler deal helped that, but with a World Series victory as opposed to an ALCS loss, the Tigers bring in additional money in World Series ticket sales; additional merchandise and memorabilia sales; and a likely increase in ticket sales in 2014 (as opposed to a 5% attendance decrease).  Simply put, Fielder isn’t traded after the 2013 season.

This creates a domino effect for the Tigers’ postseason plans.  Without the trade, Fielder stays at first and Cabrera at third, which either delays Nick Castellanos’s ascension to the team, or he stays in the outfield as he had been playing in the minors.  I suspect they keep him in the minors, as the Tigers had signed Rajai Davis to serve as their left fielder.  They could have brought Castellanos up to the Majors and had Davis serve as their 4th outfielder, but Castellanos still likely needed the seasoning, both at the plate and in the outfield.

Without Kinsler being acquired, the Tigers focus on signing a second baseman.  Omar Infante ultimately signed with the Royals for 4 years and just over $30 million.  I suspect without the Fielder issues this would’ve been an easy call to re-sign him.

The big question is what becomes of the Doug Fister trade.  A few short weeks after the Fielder trade, Fister was traded for Robbie Ray, Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi.  A lot of fans – myself included – consider this to be the worst trade of the Dave Dombrowski era, a fact compounded by the fact that he traded Ray (the supposed centerpiece of the Tigers’ haul) just before he realized his promise for human dumpster fire Shane Greene.

The Fister trade was deemed to be a salary cutting move.  This could be true, but Fister was under team control for 2014 and 2015 and was only awarded $7.2 million in arbitration going for the 2014 season.  When you add in the financial impact of the Fielder trade on a yearly basis, trading he and Fister saved the Tigers just over $15 million.  Without the Fielder deal, the Fister trade might seem a bit less likely, especially if the Tigers are going to cite cutting payroll as an excuse.

My feeling is that a couple of trade scenarios occur if Fielder isn’t traded.  One is that, in an effort to cut payroll in one fell swoop, they deal Max Scherzer, who has only one year left with the team, was awarded $15.25 million in arbitration, and would turn down a 6-year, $144 million contract during that offseason (a decision which supposedly doomed any chances of him coming back to the team).  Scherzer may have brought a heavy haul, but his pending free agency likely caused any deal to be difficult.

The second is to trade some combination of Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, Austin Jackson and Nick Castellanos.  Porcello would ultimately be dealt for Yoenis Cespedes with one year left on his contract (to be fair, this was a need-for-need trade, as Cespedes also only had one year left on his deal).  Smyly and Jackson (along with a prospect) ultimately brought the Tigers David Price at the 2014 trade deadline, so they had value.  Smyly was a converted starter who excelled as a reliever in 2013 because there was no room for him in the rotation.  Fister was likely traded because it was believed that it was his turn to slide into the rotation.  If true, I find it to be a mistake on the part of the Tigers, as Detroit had Smyly under team control for 5 years, he was excellent in the bullpen and the team was likely to lose one of their starters when Scherzer departed after the 2014 season, opening a spot for Smyly with plenty of time to make a name for himself as a starter before he entered his prime earning years.

The third option is to stand pat.  The Tigers paid $173 million in salary in 2014, ranking them 4th in the Majors, and keeping Fielder and Fister would’ve brought that payroll up to almost $190 million, so there would’ve been problems doing so.  But keeping a World Series champion team in tact knowing that the staff ace was likely to leave after the 2014 season isn’t a ridiculous notion, no matter the payroll impact.

Which of these things happen?  I honestly don’t know.  Nobody does, quite frankly, and choosing a given route leads one down an even greater What If investigation.  And it doesn’t consider even more issues, like what do the Tigers do when they lose Iglesias, Fielder and Bruce Rondon to season-ending injuries in 2014.  But we do know that one bad decision can create irreparable harm to a championship caliber team.

I don’t know that the ultimate outcome of the drama with the 2013 Tigers was the worst outcome of the countless circumstances where a player slept with one of his teammates’ wives/girlfriends.  But it does make you wonder why, when there are innumerable jersey chasers out there, a guy would choose to create such clubhouse drama by choosing his teammate’s wife.

Thanks Avi.

*All WAR numbers courtesy of baseball-reference.com.

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