With the 2014 Tigers expecting to win their fourth straight American League Central Division title, baseball fans around Detroit often forget about the struggles that haunted the franchise less than a decade ago.
In 2008 general manager Dave Dombrowski made two major trades, acquiring shortstop Edgar Renteria from the Braves and first baseman Miguel Cabrera and starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins. The Tigers weren't only expected to win the AL Central after those moves, many thought Dombrowski's newly-constructed offense would rank among the best in baseball history.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the hype surrounding the 2008 season quickly crashed and burned. The team won just 74 games, finishing in last place in the division. Some minor changes during the following offseason earned Detroit a one-game playoff against the Minnesota Twins for the AL Central crown, but the Tigers lost the game in 12 innings.
The Tigers' inability to return to the postseason after a miracle run to the World Series in 2006 prompted Dombrowski to initiate a blockbuster trade, redirecting the future of three MLB teams. He traded away fan-favorite Curtis Granderson to the New York Yankees in return for four players that most Detroiters had probably never heard of.
Shipping Granderson to the Yankees was an unpopular move at the time, but with five seasons in the books, winners and losers have clearly emerged from this deal. Dombrowski is considered one of the top GMs in professional sports, but was trading Granderson worth it?
Curtis Granderson (since trade):.243 batting average, 123 home runs, 337 RBI, 305 runs, 60 stolen bases
Granderson's style of play drastically changed after he put on the Yankee pinstripes. With the Tigers, Granderson was beloved for his electric combination of power and speed, hitting 75 home runs and stealing 58 bases in his final three seasons in Detroit. But in New York the outfielder stole over 12 bases just once while belting over 40 home runs in both 2011 and 2012.
The Yankees milked three good years out of Granderson before an injury in 2013 sidelined him for 101 games.
Though his power numbers made incredible strides in Yankee Stadium, strikeouts decreased Granderson's value as a legitimate threat on the base paths. He rapidly transformed into a prototypical left-handed power hitter and dropped the speed dimension from his arsenal.
After four seasons with the Yankees, Granderson signed with the New York Mets during the offseason and has hit eight home runs while batting .224 through 64 games.
Edwin Jackson: 44-56 record, 4.34 ERA, 705 strikeouts
Jackson only pitched for Detroit during the 2009 season, but became an integral part of the rotation. He posted a career best 3.62 ERA for the Tigers and finished with 13 wins in 214 innings pitched.
The Tigers sent Jackson to the Arizona Diamondbacks in this three-team trade, sparking the righty's career as a journeyman over the next five seasons. Jackson played for five teams after leaving Detroit and is currently with the Chicago Cubs.
The Tigers no longer needed Jackson with youngster Rick Porcello emerging in 2009 and Armando Galarraga joining the rotation. Arizona traded Jackson after just 21 starts, as he began his Diamondbacks career 6-10 with a 5.16 ERA.
Daniel Schlereth: 4-2, 3.98 ERA, 69 SO
Though he was the smallest piece exchanged in the deal, Schlereth pitched well in Detroit for two seasons. In 2010, immediately following the trade, Schlereth was the best left-handed reliever for the Jim Leyland, posting a 2.89 ERA over 18 appearances.
Schlereth played his biggest role in 2011, owning a 3.49 ERA in 49 games. In 2012 the 25-year-old allowed eight earned runs in April and hasn't returned to the MLB since.
Phil Coke:12-23, 4.44 ERA, 206 SO
When the Tigers acquired Coke during this trade, they weren't sure what type of role he would play in Detroit. 2010 was his best season for the Tigers, as he struck out 53 batters in 64 2/3 innings and posted a 3.76 ERA in a middle relief role.
In 2011 the Tigers moved Coke into the starting rotation, where he struggled en route to a 1-8 record in 14 starts. After Leyland moved him back into the bullpen, Coke rebounded with a 3.41 ERA in the final three months.
Coke's finest moments came in the 2012 postseason, when he saved a crumbling Tigers bullpen by recording two saves and two holds in the first two rounds. The lefty threw 10 1/3 scoreless innings during that postseason before allowing the run that eliminated Detroit from the World Series.
Coke has struggled ever since allowing that run to the Giants, posting a 5.52 ERA in 69 games.
Austin Jackson: .276, 45 HR, 219 RBI, 422 R, 76 SB
Dombrowski took a chance on the young Yankees prospect when he asked the 23-year-old Jackson to step into Comerica Park's vast center field and fill Granderson's shoes.
Jackson has been inconsistent on a game-by-game basis for the Tigers, but his overall performance has been solid nearly every season.
As the leadoff hitter in the ever-potent Tiger lineup, Jackson averaged almost 99 runs per season from 2010-2013. Though Granderson certainly demonstrated more power with the Yankees, Jackson gave Dombrowski what he needed at the top of an otherwise largely unathletic offense.
Jackson is much more talented in center field than Granderson, despite the scarcity of highlight catches. His elite ability to read fly balls and react helps Jackson reach flies in the spacious Comerica Park that few other outfielders can. He rarely leaves his feet to make a catch, not because he lacks big-play potential, but because he can cover ground more quickly.
Max Scherzer: 72-32, 3.56 ERA, 935 SO
Scherzer has clearly been the prized piece of this seven-player trade, improving his win total in Detroit each season until ultimately winning the Cy Young Award in 2013.
The Tigers placed Scherzer right next to Justin Verlander in the rotation after the trade and he has made more than 30 starts per season ever since. The 29-year-old caught Dombrowski's keen baseball eye in Arizona and has since morphed into one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Did this trade improve the Tigers?
It was difficult for Detroit to watch Granderson become a 40-homer player in New York after the trade, but his regression in other aspects of the game made the power explosion much easier to swallow.
Though Schlereth is no longer a member of the Tigers' organization, Detroit clearly reaped the greatest long-term benefits from this trade. Granderson moved to the Yankees' cross-town rivals after four seasons, and Edwin Jackson has bounced all around the MLB. Ian Kennedy, who was sent from the Yankees to the Diamondbacks in the trade, was traded to the San Diego Padres last July.
Of the seven players included in this blockbuster trade, only three still play with the team they were traded to, all with the Tigers. Granderson's best days are clearly behind him, while Scherzer and Jackson are at the tops of their game. Without this brilliant move in 2009, the Tigers wouldn't have made three straight American League Championship Series appearances.
GMs around the country should be wary of a phone call from Dombrowski, as his trades almost always work out in favor of the Detroit Tigers.