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DETROIT — The Detroit Tigers were at their best in the middle of the summer, earning at least a share of the AL Central division lead for a week and sitting atop the division July 10 with a 48-37 record.
Then, injuries to Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, and Brandon Inge led to Detroit losing 20 of their next 25 games and creating a double-digit deficit in the standings.
Ordonez never made it back — needing season-ending surgery on his right ankle — and the Tigers were never the same. The team ended the season 81-81 Sunday without MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera in the lineup because of yet another injury.
“Anytime you're playing to win a championship and you fall short, you're not completely satisfied,” team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said Monday morning. “I'm not sure where we would've landed if we weren't hit with those injuries after the first half, but we would've been closer. It was a year of a highs and lows, good and bad times.”
The Tigers want to re-sign third baseman Inge, recently offering him a multiyear contract. They aren't bringing back outfielder Johnny Damon or catcher Gerald Laird and won't pick up outfielder Ordonez's $15 million option for next season, though he could be back for less money.
Detroit likely will let free agent Jeremy Bonderman pitch elsewhere next season, potentially freeing up more money for a team that also paid much of the $22 million Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson were due this season after dealing them.
“We expect to be in a position to have some flexibility in free agency and with trades to make additions,” Dombrowski said. “We need an RBI producer for the middle of our lineup in addition to Cabrera. Our club was among league leaders in batting average and on-base percentage, but we [had] trouble driving in runs.”
Slugger Adam Dunn, who led the Washington Nationals with 38 homers and 103 RBIs, might be a player Detroit tries to sign.
“Is there stuff out there that makes sense for us? There's some,” manager Jim Leyland said. “It's not particularly a gorgeous free-agent list, but it doesn't take much for this club. This club has a chance to be real good. I think it's one of those years where you try to pick the right piece at the right price.”
The Tigers have three young pitchers to lead the rotation — Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello — and one star in the lineup.
Cabrera, who ended the year out with a sprained right ankle, led the league with 126 RBIs and was among the leaders with a .359 batting average, 111 runs, 45 doubles, and 38 homers.
“He's the best player I've seen so far,” Damon said, who has been teammates with Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz in New York and Boston.
Damon, though, won't get to watch Cabrera up close next season.
“I definitely want to keep playing, but it's going to have to be somewhere else because Detroit has a lot of young outfielders who hopefully I helped groom,” Damon said yesterday morning in an interview with the Associated Press. “It seems like every year I'm up to the challenge so I believe whatever team that gets me, I'll be an asset for next year.”
Damon hit .271 with 36 doubles, 51 RBIs, and eight homers and played in at least 140 games for the 15th straight year, becoming the fifth player to do that, joining Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson, Pete Rose, and Willie Mays on an elite list to pull off the feat.
Austin Jackson, an AL rookie of the year candidate, Brennan Boesch, who was on a tear as a rookie before going into a slump, Alex Avila, Will Rhymes, Casper Wells, and Scott Sizemore all got a chance to play this year in the field with mixed results.
If Detroit didn't have so many injuries, though, the youngsters wouldn't have played and perhaps the team would've fared better.
“The fact is, we lost our third, fifth, and seventh hitter in the matter of 24 hours basically,” said Leyland, referring to Ordonez, Guillen, and Inge. “Did that have an affect? Yes. Is that an excuse? No.”
The Tigers have had only one losing season in five years under Leyland after going from 1994 to 2005 without a winning record. But they've drifted away from the glow of their 2006 World Series appearance by failing to make it back to the playoffs.
“We haven't been perfect by any means. I'm sure we disappointed a lot of people,” Leyland said. “Overall, I think it's been a pretty good marriage the last five years.”
If next year doesn't go well, Leyland acknowledged he and the team likely will be headed for a divorce because he and his staff have a one-year contract.
“We know what that means,” Leyland said. “But that doesn't bother me one bit.”