In 2003, the Detroit Tigers won 43 games and lost 119, the second-worst record in the expansion era. They nearly broke the record, the famous 40-120 of the 1962 Mets, but won five of their last six to avoid history.
Three years later, the Tigers, having improved by 52 wins -- yes, that's right, a 52-win improvement by 2006, to 95-67, were in the World Series, sent there by the Magglio Ordonez three-run homer that you see depicted at the top of this post.
The Tigers have been contenders in most of the seasons since then; they've returned to the postseason once (2011), missed it via a controversial tiebreaker loss once (2009), and despite a losing record at the moment (28-32) are expected to contend again this year.
With the Tigers coming to town, David Haugh of the Tribune spoke to Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski about how he was able to build this contending team. Here's his column, which contains a number of quotes from Dombrowski about believing in himself, not questioning the plan, etc.
All of that is fine and dandy, but Haugh doesn't detail the player acquisitions that led to this improvement. So after the jump, I'll do Haugh's work for him.
This year's Cubs are likely headed for a club record in losses; they could approach 110 defeats, which has been accomplished just twice since 1970: by those 2003 Tigers, and the 2004 Diamondbacks (who also made it back to the postseason three years later).
What you have to understand about the Tigers as they were in 2003 is that they were far worse off than the Cubs are now. The Cubs, at least, had three postseason appearances in the last decade and two other seasons with winning records.
In 2003, the Tigers hadn't made the postseason since 1987 and hadn't even had a winning year in a decade. From 1994-2002 they lost 90 or more games five times (and probably would have made it six if not for the 1994 strike), and had also been horrific the year before the 2003 debacle -- a 106-loss season.
So the team was in utter disarray. They finished last in the AL in runs scored (by a lot -- 108) and second-to-last in runs allowed (928).
The only position players of any significance who played on both the 2003 and 2006 Tigers teams were Brandon Inge and Dmitri Young, and Young was injured much of the year. Their "best" starting pitcher was Nate Cornejo, who had a 4.67 ERA. That ranked 33rd of 40 qualified AL starters. Their 27 saves ranked last in the AL, and no one had more than five.
In the offseason after 2003, Dombrowski began to make subtle but significant changes; though the starting rotation was still pretty bad, Dombrowski's signing of Ugueth Urbina to close meant that if the Tigers did get a lead, they could better count on keeping it. Urbina posted 21 saves. More significantly, Dombrowski acquired Carlos Guillen by trade (essentially for nothing) and signed Ivan Rodriguez to catch. Those acquisitions, plus the improvement of Carlos Pena, were largely responsible for a huge jump in runs scored, from 591 to 827.
And the name Curtis Granderson appeared on a Tigers roster for the first time, in a nine-game September callup.
Detroit improved by 29 wins -- one of the largest single-season jumps in history -- but since they were coming from so far back, that was still a 90-loss season.
In 2005, there was regression from Carlos Pena (which actually got him released by Detroit after he struggled in 2006 spring training), but Chris Shelton came out of nowhere to have a fine year in '05. Urbina was traded to the Phillies for Placido Polanco, who was productive, and the Tigers tried Troy Percival at closer. That didn't work; Fernando Rodney, after pitching poorly in 2002 and 2003, returned from a 2004 injury to become a solid setup man/closer.
But the key move in 2005 was the chance the Tigers took on Magglio Ordonez, Ordonez had suffered a knee injury the previous year and it was thought to be a possible career-ender. He had experimental treatment in Europe and the Tigers signed him to a deal that protected them financially if Maggs didn't come back. He played half a season and hit .302/.359/.436, productive enough, and a precursor to his fine 2006 season.
2005 was also the year the name Justin Verlander first appeared on a Detroit roster; again, in a brief, two-start September callup. He then burst onto the scene in 2006, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award and finishing seventh in Cy Young voting and 15th in MVP ballotin.
Dombrowski must have felt, even with a 91-loss season in 2005, that the Tigers were on the cusp of winning, because he added two key free agents that offseason: starting pitcher Kenny Rogers, still effective at age 41, and closer Todd Jones, who posted 37 saves.
Tigers payrolls had been in the lower third of MLB, but began to jump three years after Dombrowski took over:
2002: $55,048,000 (rank: 20th)
2003: $49,168,000 (rank: 24th)
2004: $46,353,554 (rank: 23rd)
2005: $68,998,183 (rank: 15th)
2006: $82,612,866 (rank: 14th)
Since 2007 the Tigers have been in the top 10 in payroll every year.
So what does this tell us about the Cubs?
First, if the Cubs do have a historically bad season in 2012, don't expect them to sign a top-rank free agent, at least not for a couple of years. You could say the Tigers did, with I-Rod, but they were starting with a much lower payroll level than the Cubs have -- and even with that signing, their payroll went down from 2002 to 2003. While it's possible, even probable, that Theo and Jed will acquire a free agent or two this upcoming winter, I don't see it being a top-tier guy like Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke. By 2015? Sure, but not for 2013.
Detroit took a chance on a FA that no one else wanted in 2005 (and I wish the Cubs had signed Ordonez with the same kind of deal). Dombrowski acquired Marcus Thames from the Yankee farm system; he became a key role player in 2006.
In addition to Granderson and Verlander, Joel Zumaya came out of the Detroit system and contributed to the 2006 team. All three of those players were among Dombrowski's earliest draft picks -- and Granderson and Verlander wound up fast-tracked to the major leagues.
Dombrowski had a resume much like Theo Epstein's when he went to Detroit; he was the architect of the Marlins' 1997 World Series team. Theo and Jed are looking at a major league squad right now that's about as barren as Detroit's 2003 team. They'll have to be both smart and lucky to do it in three years.
But it can be done. The seeds are already being planted, in the acquisition of someone like Anthony Rizzo, the draft of Albert Almora and the signing of Jorge Soler. Maybe those guys will be the Cubs' Granderson, Verlander and Zumaya.