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Thursday, November 27, 2008
Updated: December 9, 11:46 AM ET
City of Detroit, Tigers in midst of a 'tough time'

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Thanksgiving always has been a Detroit kind of day. But here's an idea:

Instead of turning our turkey-bulged eyeballs toward Daunte Culpepper and Paris Lenon of the Lions, how about we shift our gaze a few hundred yards to the west?

That's where the local baseball team plays. Not on Thanksgiving, of course. For some reason, the Tigers always seem to be idle on Thanksgiving. But Thanksgiving still is a day for those Detroit Tigers to give thanks, for many reasons:

1. At least they're not the Lions.

2. At least they won 74 baseball games this year. Which might be 74 more games than the football team wins.

3. At least they're guaranteed not to lose on Thanksgiving.

So they definitely can be thankful for all that.

But that, unfortunately, is where the guarantees end for these Tigers.

Two years ago, they still were enveloped in the glow of a special World Series journey. And life was good.

Just a year ago next week, the Tigers stampeded into the winter meetings and pulled off their stunning Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis blockbuster. And life felt even better. They looked like such a powerhouse that "we should have just taken the trophy, engraved it and given it to them right there," one National League executive deadpanned this week.

But as another Thanksgiving dawns over Detroit, life doesn't feel so beautiful anymore -- for the Detroit Tigers or the economically battered city they play in.

"To me, I don't think they're close [to being ready to win again]," said one scout who saw the Tigers play a lot this past season. "Too many things would have to happen. And I don't think they have the ability to put all the pieces back together to make those things happen."

Is it possible the Tigers are really that down and out? After all, they're still a team loaded with immensely talented players: Cabrera, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, Justin Verlander. Just to name a half-dozen.

They're still a team whose payroll is expected to top $130 million -- more than the Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks will spend put together.

And the Tigers are still a team guided by some of the sharpest, most creative front-office minds in the business, led by a general manager, Dave Dombrowski, who has sculpted two World Series teams in the past dozen seasons after inheriting rubble worse than this group.

So clearly, this outfit is far from hopeless. Which is why you won't hear its GM conceding that his team can't bounce back. All the way back.

The 0-7, 0-7 club

Cities whose MLB and NFL teams started 0-7 or worse in the same year in the past 50 years:

Year City Teams
2008 Detroit Tigers 0-7,
Lions 0-11*
1997 Chicago Cubs 0-14,
Bears 0-7
1983 Houston Astros 0-9,
Oilers 0-10
* And counting
What Dombrowski will concede, however, is that 2008 was "my all-time disappointing year." And that's saying something, for a man about to enter his 21st season as a GM and his 31st in assorted front-office jobs with four different teams.

"I've been with a lot of clubs that haven't had good records," Dombrowski said. "But most of those teams were teams that were in rebuilding situations. … They had bad years, but they were anticipated bad years. But this year was one we hadn't anticipated. And that's what made it so disappointing."

Well, if it makes him feel better, it wasn't just the GM who never saw it coming. Eight of us renowned ESPN "experts" had picked the Tigers to reach the World Series this past season. Six of those eight picked the Tigers to win the World Series.

So it's safe to say that nobody figured we'd look up, seven games into the season, and find a team that had forgotten to win one stinking game yet.

That 0-7 start alone didn't assure that the Tigers wouldn't go to the World Series. But at the very least, it set the stage for the lucky city of Detroit to become only the third metropolis in the past half-century to have its baseball and football teams both start out 0-7 or worse. (The others: the 1983 Houston Astros and Oilers, and the 1997 Chicago Cubs and Bears.)

As it turned out, though, the Tigers never did recover from 0-7. They did climb back to within 4½ games of first place at one point, and to three games over .500 at another. But they never were that team, the team that people thought after the winter meetings might score 1,000 runs and obliterate the American League Central.

Instead, stunningly, the Tigers finished last in the AL Central, 14 games behind the first-place White Sox, a half-game behind the next-to-last-place Royals.

There's no point in rehashing everything that went wrong. There were injuries. There were miscalculations. There were unforeseen train wrecks that tripped up their offense, their defense and their pitching staff. But other than that, their season was expected to be a regular dream come true.

And here they are again, trying to glue those fragments back together. It'll be a challenge. They don't have a catcher. They don't have a shortstop. They don't have a closer. And they don't appear to have enough payroll flexibility to sign any of the above in the free-agent auction house.

So in essence, the Tigers have done a full 180 from last year at this time, when "we didn't have one place where we had real question marks," Dombrowski said.

Well, not anymore. A year later, they have more question marks than an episode of "Jeopardy!"

At shortstop, where they let Edgar Renteria become a free agent, they've been connected to all sorts of possible replacements -- from Jack Wilson and Julio Lugo (both on the trading block) to Adam Everett or possibly Orlando Cabrera (both free agents).

They've looked at just about every conceivable closer alternative to replace the retired Todd Jones. Not in the high-rent district where K-Rod and Brian Fuentes are hanging, but everywhere else -- from Trevor Hoffman to Brandon Lyon to the numerous trade options (Huston Street, J.J. Putz, etc.).

Justin Verlander

Starting Pitcher
Detroit Tigers

Profile

2008 Season Stats
GM IP W-L BB K ERA
33 201.0 11-17 87 163 4.84

And clubs that have spoken to them report that the Tigers have knocked on every door in baseball hunting for a catcher to succeed the banished-in-midseason Pudge Rodriguez. So fill in your favorite Matt Treanor or Henry Blanco rumor here.

"Catcher -- that's their top priority," said an official of one team the Tigers have talked to. "And I don't think they know where to turn, or who to turn to, to find that piece."

You couldn't have three more gigantic up-the-middle holes to plug than catcher, shortstop and closer. "And we haven't even gotten into their starting pitching problems yet," one scout said. "So I don't see how they do it. Unless the whole division collapses, I see the Tigers being in the middle or the bottom of the division."

That's the gloomy, half-empty view from the outside. But on the inside, Dombrowski's mug looks fuller than that. Much fuller.

He looks at Verlander, whose 11-17, 4.84 season was a shocker, and at Jeremy Bonderman, who needed rib surgery to correct a circulation problem. And the GM still sees the top of a rotation that any team would be happy to build around.

"How many games did those two guys win last year -- 14?" Dombrowski mused. "Next year, they might win 35. They have the capabilities. That's another 20 wins right there. Now, you can't assume those things will happen. But they could happen."

And when Dombrowski looks at his lineup, he doesn't see the disappointing group the Minnesota Twins outscored. He sees young stars entering their prime (Cabrera and Granderson). And proven run producers with plenty left (Ordonez and Guillen). And all the upside that Polanco, Gary Sheffield and Brandon Inge could supply if they just play the way they can.

And defensively, the GM sees much more stability, from spring training onward, now that his team has established exactly where guys like Cabrera (first base), Inge (third base) and Guillen (left field) will play from day one. During the 2008 season, all three changed positions on the fly -- Inge and Guillen more than once.

But if there was one important lesson Dombrowski said he learned this past year, it was not to be seduced by the allure of assembling so many spectacular names on one roster.

"It was really an All-Star-laden team," he said. "So we learned that, if anything, just because you have star players at every position, it doesn't guarantee you'll win. Sometimes it's that extra guy, that smaller piece, that makes the difference. Sometimes it just comes down to how your club clicks together."

But this team must click more than just on the field. It has to click with its beleaguered city, where times have never felt tougher. Unemployment in Detroit has reached its highest rate since 1992. The automotive industry gasps for survival. And as the Tigers try to assess how these depressing times will ripple through their franchise, they're as short on definitive answers as Alan Greenspan.

Then and now

Tigers' Opening Day lineups -- 2008 vs. expected in 2009:

Position 2008 2009
1B Carlos Guillen Miguel Cabrera
2B Placido Polanco Placido Polanco
SS Edgar Renteria ?
3B Miguel Cabrera Brandon Inge
LF Jacque Jones Carlos Guillen
CF Brandon Inge* Curtis Granderson
RF Magglio Ordonez Magglio Ordonez
C Pudge Rodriguez ?
SP Justin Verlander Justin Verlander
CL Todd Jones ?
* Began the season as the center fielder because of an injury to Curtis Granderson.
"If you could tell me today what will happen to the automobile companies, I'd have a better answer," Dombrowski said. "If they're still in existence in a couple of months, it will still be a tough time, but we'll be able to operate. If they're not, it will be a different story."

And in the midst of that story, the Tigers are trying to explain why they raised the price of many, but not all, tickets for next season. They point out that 60 percent of all tickets haven't gone up at all. That their average ticket price is still only $25. That their skyline seats still cost just $5, and that's a cheaper admission than a movie. But they know not everyone wants to hear those explanations. And it's hard to blame the folks who don't.

"We know it's a tough time, not only here but throughout the entire country," Dombrowski said. "And we're very aware of what's taking place. But we hope we can provide people with entertainment and a release from those times, in a family atmosphere. We've always tried to do that. But now we're more aware of it than ever."

There's no better way to provide that release, of course, than by winning. And the Tigers have never been more aware of that, either.

"We hope we're better," Dombrowski said. "And we think we are better. Now we're just going to have to go out and prove it."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.