In 1977, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Steve Kemp and Dave Rozema debuted for the Detroit Tigers. Trammell, Whitaker and Parrish were September call-ups; Morris debuted in late July and made six starts; Rozema won 15 games as a 20-year-old rookie, completing 16 of his 28 starts; Kemp was the oldest of the group, turning 23 in August that year, and he hit .257 with 18 home runs, 71 walks and 88 RBIs.
It was an amazing collection of talent. Here, compare their career WAR figures from Baseball-Reference to the fabled 1995 Yankees' group of debut players:
What's more, the team also had 23-year-old All-Star first baseman Jason Thompson, who hit .270 with 31 home runs; center fielder Ron LeFlore, who hit .325 and scored 100 runs; outfielder Ben Oglivie, who hit 21 home runs and slugged .464; and in 1979, Dan Petry and Kirk Gibson reached the majors.
From there, it only took the Tigers until 1984 to win the division. With all the talk of Jack Morris this week, I was thinking about those Tigers teams and wondering, with all that talent, why it took them so long to finally gel into a playoff team. Their seasonal records:
1979: 85-76 (Sparky Anderson hired midseason)
For five years seasons, the Tigers remained stagnant. Why, despite all that young talent, didn't the Tigers improve? A few reasons:
1. Thompson was an All-Star again in '78 but had a poor 1979, and after a slow start in 1980, was traded for outfielder Al Cowens, who hit six home runs in two years with Detroit.
2. Oglivie was traded in 1978 to the Brewers for Jim Slaton, who pitched one year for the Tigers and then signed as a free agent with ... the Brewers. Oglivie became a three-time All-Star with the Brewers, including a 41-homer season in 1980.
3. LeFlore was traded after the 1979 season to the Expos for Dan Schatzeder. Deal didn't work out for either team.
4. It took some of the guys some time to get going. While Whitaker was the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year, he didn't really become a big star until 1982, when his power blossomed. Gibson had a strong 1981 strike season, but was injured in 1982 and had a poor 1983.
5. Sparky did weird things like fooling around with Tom Brookens at third base for the better part of a decade, long after he had shown he couldn't hit. The team played Enos Cabell two years at first base and he hit seven home runs.
6. The Tigers had problems filling the back of rotation after Morris, Petry and Milt Wilcox. Rozema kept missing time (yes, a guy who threw 16 complete games as a 20-year-old developed arm problems) and they'd rush guys to the bigs too often. GM Jim Campbell (he was the club's GM from 1963 through 1983) just couldn't find enough arms and Sparky failed to show the same proclivity for building a bullpen that he had shown in Cincinnati.
Anyway, the team acquired Chet Lemon for Kemp in 1982, improved in 1983 as Trammell and Whitaker had terrific seasons, Morris pitched 293 innings and Juan Berenguer blossomed as a swingman. Still, the '83 team finished six games behind the Orioles, a team that featured Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Ken Singleton, six platoons and one pitcher who made 30 starts. It's amazing Sparky still kept his job.
It all came together in 1984, of course. What's amazing about that team is nobody really had a career season, with one notable exception: Willie Hernandez was acquired from the Phillies for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss and he finally gave Sparky a dominant reliever, winning Cy Young and MVP honors after going 9-3 with a 1.92 ERA and 32 saves in 140 innings. In fact, he and Aurelio Lopez combined to go 19-4 out of the pen. Bench guys like Dave Bergman, Ruppert Jones and Johnny Grubb were also outstanding.
Even though Whitaker, Trammell, Parrish, Lemon, Gibson, Howard Johnson, Morris, Petry, Hernandez and Berenguer were still all younger than 30, that group could only scrape together one more division title, in 1987. True, the AL East was much stronger than the AL West in those days, so the Tigers faced some stiff competition. But they fell to 84 wins in 1985, won 87 in 1986, 98 in 1987 and 88 in 1988 before the bottom fell out in '89.
Two final thoughts: I wonder if Morris and Trammell would be Hall of Famers if that squad had done a little more -- another playoff appearance or two would have added another stamp to their legacies. Finally, is there a team similar to the Tigers now? That team that couldn't get over the hump ... until it finally did. The Blue Jays are probably the closest analogy, as since 2005 they've won 80, 87, 83, 86, 75, 85 and 81 games.
Maybe the Jays are where the Tigers were in 1982. They take a leap forward in 2012 and then another big leap in 2013 ...