The Rockies have been bad long enough that what fans remain get the picture. I don't get a lot of questions about why they didn't sign this guy or keep that guy. Colorado fans understand that there's no shortcuts involved in building a contending baseball team. Unless you're the Marlins.
The Tigers don't get it. Boy, do they not get it. If there was a statistical category for not getting it, they would lead the majors. It's one thing to overextend yourself signing veterans to risky long-term deals when you have a core in place that won't be around forever. When the Giants started turning to this strategy, they had enough pieces that it made sense. They've been good more often than not for about a decade, and they went to the seventh game of the World Series this one time. I mean, they're no Yankees or Marlins, but as a Rockies fan I'd take it. The Tigers are operating their franchise as if one good offseason will slingshot them to a championship. They couldn't be more wrong. Detroit is trying so hard not to lose 119 games again that they may not even win 81 for years.
The trouble is, there's a big difference in going from 40 wins to 70 and in going from 70 to 90. It's not that hard to win 70 games. Simple regression to the mean will usually work the trick if you're willing to wait long enough. The Royals won 83 games in 2003 basically by accident. I don't think anyone really thinks that the Nationals were a .500-quality team last season, but if you look there in the 2005 standings, sure enough it says "Washington 81-81." The list of past-their-prime players with whom the Tigers have agreed to multi-year commitments over the past two years boggles the mind. Ivan Rodriguez. Todd Jones. Kenny Rogers. Magglio Ordoñez. Troy Percival. It's one thing to sign an old guy to a long-term deal if you think you've got a genuine shot at making a Serious Run in the first year or two before complete decrepitude sinks in. If Curt Schilling never tosses another postseason inning for the Red Sox, do you think Boston fans will really begrudge him the $26 million he will make in '06 and '07? Not bloody (sock) likely.
But Kenny Rogers is not going to lead the Tigers to the promised land in 2006. They are not one veteran starter away from being a championship club. They're a complete rotation, an entire outfield, a third baseman, a catcher, some bench depth, and four quality bullpen arms away. And that's giving Chris Shelton the benefit of the doubt at first. I realize as a Rockies fan I'm in no position of strength to criticize the quality of other fans' teams. But at least the Rockies, as an organization, realize that they have a long way to go. The Tigers are in deep denial. Colorado gave a minor league deal to Josh Fogg to be a stopgap fifth starter. Detroit gave Kenny Rogers $16 million guaranteed to Push Them Over the Top. Who's kidding whom?
Detroit's biggest problem is that their two theoretical cornerstone superstars, Ordoñez and Rodriguez, have aged really fast. Smarter teams knew this would happen, which is why these guys are now the Tigers' problem. The second big issue is that attempting to will their collection of B-grade rotation prospects into actual major leaguers has not worked out any better for Detroit than it has for Kansas City. Nate Robertson, Mike Maroth, and Jeremy Bonderman were all rushed into big league service, which means it's not too late for any of them to figure some things out. It's also quite possible that Dave Dombrowski and Alan Trammell's mismanagement has ruined all three of their careers. Now Dombrowski and new manager Jim Leyland are dead set on doing the exact same thing to 23-year-old Justin Verlander. When Rogers gets hurt or one of the other four wipes out, they'll move on to top prospect Joel Zumaya. Stop the insanity.
The Tigers refuse to admit to themselves they're rebuilding, and the overreliance on old free agents is feeding back into stupid decisions about prospect development. Lost in the shuffle is the handful of good midcareer players Detroit has. Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, and Dmitri Young are all nice players. All three of them should be traded for prospects as soon as it can possibly be managed. After Shelton, Detroit has zero offensive help on the way from its farm system. Throwing away draft picks left and right in order to sign creaky veteran free agents can have that effect. You'd think after getting nothing from Magglio and Percival last season Dombrowski might have learned his lesson, but you'd think wrong. The Jones and Rogers signings are even dumber.
It's almost besides the point to try and predict a record or finish for the Tigers in 2006, because for teams with no chance of contending records are looked to for signs of progress. If the Rockies win 75 games this year, that'll be a nice little accomplishment and pats on the back will be due all 'round. If Detroit wins 75 games in '06, or 84, or 64, who cares, because it'll be the exact same story in 2007. And the year after that...and the year after that.... They're duking it out with Baltimore for the coveted title of Worst Organization in MLB (Kansas City is disqualified as they haven't been actively trying to field a major league team for some time now). I kind of wish they were in our division.
By the way, Detroit is putting a lot of stock in the idea that Jim Leyland's steady hand will restore the franchise's dignity and tradition. Yes, the same Jim Leyland who utterly mailed it in for two-thirds of 1999 as the Rockies' manager. They really don't get it.