How the Tigers championship contenders were built: shrewd trades and free agency

Omar Infante and Miguel Cabrera were acquired in separate trades with the Marlins.

Omar Infante and Miguel Cabrera were acquired in separate trades with the Marlins.

If the Tigers win the World Series this year, as Vegas thinks they might, it will end the franchise’s longest drought between championships since its original one (1901-34). Comparing this team to the last two Tiger champions illustrates how the franchise has changed along with baseball at large.

The 1968 team was built from within. Its core consisted of a dozen players originally signed by the Tigers: Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, Dick McAuliffe, Jim Northrup, John Hiller, Joe Sparma, Ray Oyler, Don Wert, Gates Brown, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, and Mickey Stanley. Only three key players — Denny McLain, Earl Wilson, and Norm Cash — had been acquired from other teams.

The ’68 team was a reflection of the successful businessman who owned the franchise, John Fetzer, who built a radio and TV network far flung across the state. The club had an efficient, traditional nationwide scouting system hunting for prospects.

The 1984 team was largely produced from players nurtured though the Tigers’ farm clubs. Owner Tom Monaghan had arrived just in time to capitalize on the maturation of this excellent crop of prospects: Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Dave Rozema, Howard Johnson, and Tom Brookens. In fact, the Tigers string of players who came out of their farm system in the 1970s is one of the most successful stretches for any franchise at any time in baseball history. Six other key players were acquired by trades: Larry Herndon, Chet Lemon, Willie Hernandez, Milt Wilcox, Dave Bergman, and Aurelio Lopez. The new owner put a finishing touch on the masterpiece by signing the club’s first big-time free agent — Darrell Evans.

On this year’s club, among the team’s front-line stars, only Justin Verlander and Alex Avila were signed and groomed by the Tigers. (The roster also includes Rick Porcello, Andy Dirks, Drew Smyly, and Bruce Rondon from the farm system.) The rest of the team was acquired through Dave Dombrowski’s trades and the free agent signings made possible by Mike Ilitch’s treasure chest. The team reflects the new realities of baseball, where money can buy you the love of fans.

The roster includes no less than eight free agents — Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Jose Valverde, Joacquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and Al Alburquerque. These represent major investments by Ilitch, the wealthiest Tiger owner ever. Shrewd trades netted seven other key pieces: Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, and Phil Coke.

It’s easy to say that this team, unlike the previous two world champions, was bought rather than home-grown. But that glosses over two important facts. Yes, Dombrowki pulled off some great heists, but to acquire those players he gave up farm system products: MLB regulars Curtis Granderson and Matt Joyce; one-time prospects Cameron Maybin, Jacob Turner, and Rob Brantly (each of whom could still become a star), and a host of fringe players, has-beens, never-wases, and still-maybes like Brian Flynn, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Charlie Furbush, Casper Wells, and Francisco Martinez. A strong farm system did play a big role in assembling this team; Dombrowski parlayed its crop into something that is certainly now (and probably in the long term) better.

As for the eight free agents, Ilitch has been in a position to empty his pocketbook at a key point in time to maximize his chances of getting a world championship before he dies. His pizza wealth, the Red Wings, the Fox Theater, and his entertainment empire downtown have all made that possible, and in no small part he’s also been enriched by the new stadium (and its accompanying control of the ancillary revenues from parking and concessions) that the taxpayers of Detroit and Michigan paid millions to help him build. So, in a different way from ’68 or ‘84, the current club has also been built from within: by citizens who deserve a payoff for their investment just as much as Mike Ilitch does.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.