Tigers claw back in '16, fall short of playoffs

Fulmer's AL ROY Award, Verlander's resurgence among highlights

Tigers claw back in '16, fall short of playoffs

DETROIT -- For the Tigers, 2016 was a season of rebound and renewal, starting with their offseason dealings for proven talent and ending with the success of young prospects. In the end, however, it was a season just shy of a return to the postseason. And a franchise that has made a World Series title its urgent goal for more than a decade was left to debate how far away that goal sits from the club and how best to chase it, starting with general manager Al Avila.

"I'm very happy and proud of the way that our team competed," Avila said at season's end. "They worked hard and they battled all year long, all through adversity as far as the injuries and the situations that we incurred. I'm very proud how they all handled it. There was a 12-game improvement. We were there till the very end, and it was really in our hands at the end."

Considering Detroit ended 2015 with a last-place finish, an ace trying to rebound, a former MVP trying to get healthy and a team seemingly in transition, the situation looks better a year later. Not only did Justin Verlander rebound, but Michael Fulmer emerged to join him as a formidable front-line duo in the rotation, the latter heralding the emergence of a badly-needed youth movement.

Here's a handful of the biggest storylines from 2016:

5. Ending the offseason with a splash

Avila headed into the holidays in 2015 suggesting the Tigers' major moves were all done, highlighted by the Jordan Zimmermann signing. Then came a conversation with owner Mike Ilitch, who suggested his team could use one more big bat in left field. The resulting deal for Justin Upton in late January brought back memories of Ilitch's late-winter signings of old.

Upton's 2016 highlights

On the field, Upton bulked up Detroit's lineup, filling the void left by the Yoenis Cespedes trade in July 2015. Off the field, Upton's contract -- six years for $132.75 million with an opt-out clause after two seasons -- put the Tigers over the luxury tax threshold for the first time since 2008. The pressure seemingly weighed on Upton, who struck out 38 times in 99 plate appearances in April and was batting under .230 as late as Aug 20. A two-homer game against the Red Sox on Aug. 21 set up a frantic late-season charge; Upton hit .303 (40-for-132) with 18 homers and 41 RBIs over his final 37 games. He finished with 31 homers and 87 RBIs, but still just a .246 average.

4. Fulmer up

Other than free-agent signings Upton and Zimmermann, no new Tiger went into Spring Training with as much anticipation as Fulmer, the prized prospect from the Cespedes trade. The burly, bearded right-hander didn't make the team out of camp, but a late-April blister injury to Shane Greene prompted the call for Fulmer from Triple-A Toledo.

Fulmer never made the trip back. After pitching five innings or fewer in each of his first four outings, he made his breakout performance with seven innings of one-run ball and 11 strikeouts against the Rays on May 21. He began a 33-inning scoreless streak, and posted nine consecutive starts with one or zero earned runs, before a four-hit shutout at Texas Aug. 14 made his case as one of baseball's best pitchers of any experience level in 2016.

Fulmer completes shutout

Fulmer barely missed what would've been the first ERA title for a rookie since former Tigers great Mark Fidrych 40 years earlier. He still won American League Rookie of the Year honors.

3. Verlander's vindication

While Fulmer's greatness reminded some of Verlander's rookie season 10 years ago, Verlander's 2016 campaign reminded some of his best days in 2011-12. After a four-homer debacle against Cleveland on June 26, Verlander posted three masterful months, compiling a 9-3 record with a 1.98 ERA over his final 18 starts.

The fastball velocity that had waned for two years picked up. The curveball that had started to loop regained its old break. More surprising, Verlander went beyond his old form and found new bite in a slider that had been his third or fourth pitch for most of his career.

Verlander's seven strong innings

Verlander tossed seven-plus scoreless innings against the Indians twice in late September, then kept the Tigers close in their regular-season finale with seven innings of one-run ball. He couldn't pitch his team into the postseason, and he fell just shy of a second Cy Young Award, losing out to former teammate Rick Porcello. But he made his point that he was an ace again.

2. Missed it by that much

Considering the Tigers stood six games under .500 and 8 1/2 games out of first place in the AL Central in mid-May, having lost 11 of 12, a playoff race seemed out of the question. When Detroit stood 7 1/2 games back in the division and 4 1/2 out of the AL Wild Card on July 20, the hopes of meaningful October baseball in Motown looked long. All the while, though, the Tigers believed their best baseball was ahead.

Tigers on loss, elimination

Less than a month later, the division deficit was down to two games, and the Tigers were giving the Indians a scare. Cleveland held on by beating Detroit head-to-head, but the Tigers took their AL Wild Card hopes to the season's final weekend, eventually controlling their own fate. But five losses in Detroit's final eight games, including back-to-back low-scoring defeats at the Braves, slipped the AL Wild Card through the Tigers' grasp.

1. Youth shall be served

Though Avila ended the suspense surrounding manager Brad Ausmus' fate by picking up the option year in his contract a few days after the season ended, Avila hinted at the time that a change of direction was coming with the roster. Once Cameron Maybin and his $9 million option were traded to the Angels for a prospect as the offseason began, the direction was clearer.

Al Avila joins Hot Stove

"We definitely would like to get younger as we move forward," Avila said. "That's really going to be the main emphasis here."

By the Winter Meetings, trade rumors enveloped everyone from J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler to franchise icons Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. No big deal materialized, but Avila emphasized they were embarking on a long-term process to lower payroll, get the roster younger and rebuild the farm system.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. 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.