Tigers' disappointing '15 prompts big changes

Detroit's new front office restocks farm system at Trade Deadline

Tigers' disappointing '15 prompts big changes

DETROIT -- All good runs come to an end. They usually don't end quite like this. For that, the Tigers are eager to put 2015 behind them. In other ways, they're hoping last season sets up their next run.

In some ways, 2015 was the fallback season some saw coming for the Tigers. But few could've predicted some twists.

Raise your hand if you figured:

• Dave Dombrowski would get David Price's signature on a long-term contract … in Boston. In so doing, Dombrowski would have more former Tigers players than front-office officials.

Justin Verlander would become JUSTIN VERLANDER again … for a last-place team.

• The Tigers would begin the year losing their former star pitcher, Max Scherzer, to Washington, then end it by signing their next front-line starter, Jordan Zimmermann, from the same place.

Daniel Norris, who began the year best known for living in a van during Spring Training, would end the season finding a home in the Tigers' rotation.

Cameron Maybin, the Tigers' center fielder of the future a decade ago, would get back in line to become their center fielder of the present.

• Lloyd McClendon would return to the Tigers family as a manager … at Triple-A Toledo.

"We had a disappointing season," executive vice president of baseball operations and general manager Al Avila said in October, "not the kind of season we planned out last winter."

He wasn't alone in that assessment.

"This is definitely a season that will teach a lesson to a lot of people," slugger Victor Martinez said near season's end, "starting with this clubhouse, a lot of players and a lot of people in the front office. And, believe it or not, it will teach a lesson to the fans, too.

"I say this season will be a lesson to a lot of people. You know, sometimes it's a good thing. You need to take a step back to go forward."

As the Tigers put 2015 behind them, it's that last part that team officials hope holds true. The year of disappointment was also the year of change, maybe moreso than at any point since Miguel Cabrera arrived after the 2007 season.

Here's a brief review of the events that led to the year of change in Detroit.

5. Injuries abound
They began before Spring Training, when a bad step from Martinez while playing catch in front of his house led to a torn meniscus and surgery in February. He was ready in time for Opening Day, but never found his form, eventually spending a month on the disabled list. Nobody expected him to match his 2014 numbers, but he ended up with some of the lowest numbers of his career.

The list went on from there. Verlander missed two months with a triceps strain and didn't get in form until after the All-Star break. Reliever Bruce Rondon missed two months with a biceps tendinitis condition that was expected to cost him just two weeks. By season's end, he was sent home early for non-injury reasons. First baseman Cabrera recovered from ankle surgery to begin the season, but missed six crucial weeks in midseason with a left-calf strain. Catcher Alex Avila missed nearly two months with loose bodies in his left knee.

4. Verlander struggles, then recovers
The Spring Training radar gun in Dunedin, Fla., had Verlander throwing 97 mph in his final Grapefruit League tuneup at the end of March. More important, Verlander saw reminders of his old form. Then a triceps strain in that game halted his bounceback effort. He returned in June, but looked more often like his hittable form of 2014 than his comeback form of the spring. Verlander said June was more like his Spring Training. By the end of July, he was on his way to proving it.

Lost in the Trade Deadline turmoil was a pair of eight-inning gems, including a 10-strikeout performance at Tampa Bay that won a pitching duel. That began a 14-start stretch run in which he went 5-5 with a 2.07 ERA, a .207 batting average allowed and an average of seven innings per start. It was too late for the Tigers' chances in 2015, but just in time for Detroit to plan out its future rotation with him at the top.

"I'm not sure a lot of other people believed that I could regain form," Verlander said at season's end, "but I never felt that. I did what I expected to do."

Verlander loses no-hitter in 9th

3. Heavy is the head that wears the (batting) crown
Cabrera returned from major ankle and foot surgery in time for Opening Day, then swung the bat in the first half like nothing had happened. A bad step in July and a midseason calf strain stopped his rally at the worst time, just as the Tigers were trying to climb back into the division race.

Cabrera returned from the DL in mid-August, but his ankle was hurting -- something he didn't mention until season's end -- and so was his pride over a Tigers season gone awry. He took speculation about Brad Ausmus' future as manager personally, as if the players had put Ausmus in that position. He hit just .264 over the final month after batting .393 in August, but still became just the ninth player in Major League history to win four batting titles in five years.

"I played with a lot of pain," Cabrera said later, "but it doesn't matter. I can play with that. Hopefully next season there'll be no issues, pain-free, trying to play 100 percent every day."

Miggy wins Silver Slugger

2. Tigers rebuild at Deadline
Detroit fans weren't the only ones looking for the Tigers to make a midseason push back into the division race. So was management. As the Royals stretched their lead in the American League Central, followed more closely by the resurgent Twins, reports grew rampant about the Tigers being on the fence about whether to buy or sell at the July 31 Trade Deadline.

Players, notably Ian Kinsler, came out of the All-Star break talking about needing a winning streak to convince management they were capable of a late-season run. Instead, they lost eight of 12 out of the break and fell to fourth place, and Dombrowski came to the decision it was time to trade pending free agents Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria, in the process restocking a farm system that had grown nearly bare from previous playoff runs. The season was lost, but with a half-dozen new prospects, Detroit's future looked a lot less forboding than previously feared.

1. Dombrowski dismissed, Avila gets to work
While the Tigers' Deadline sale was foreseen, nobody saw what followed once the team returned home. With one early-August phone call, Dombrowski's 14-year tenure in Detroit was done, and Avila's long-awaited chance to be a general manager had arrived in the least expected place, replacing his longtime boss and close friend.

"If you're not winning, you've got to change," owner Mike Ilitch said later. "So I made up my mind: I've got to change."

Tigers GM Avila on 2015 season

Dombrowski wasn't out of work for long, hired two weeks later to be the Red Sox's president of baseball operations. Avila, too, moved quickly, signing up the support staff Dombrowski had assembled over the years in Detroit to stick around with him. Avila then made his imprint on the organization, building out an analytics department, adding scouts and investing in the farm system.

While Dombrowski signed Price, Avila essentially replaced him with Zimmermann, then assembled a bullpen with closer Francisco Rodriguez, setup man Mark Lowe and lefty Justin Wilson. He did so while holding onto nearly all the prospects Dombrowski had brought in with his Deadline deals.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.