Indians Watch Tigers’ ‘Dynasty that Almost Was’ Crumble

This summer, Indians fans were treated (if you want to call it that) to “The Dynasty That Almost Was,” an MLB Network documentary about those teams of the 1990s that did everything but win a World Series.

There’s enough material for another one in about 10 years – and the Tribe got a front-row seat to that dismantling last weekend.

The Detroit Tigers officially ran up the white flag, dealing two Justins – Upton and Verlander – at the last minute on August 31. The team had built a formidable dynasty, quite possibly even stronger than the Indians’ in the 1990s, but like those Indians teams, just couldn’t close the deal.

The 1990s and early 2000s were essentially a lost decade for the Tigers, with 12 straight losing seasons from 1994 to 2005, including a 109-loss season in 1996 and an American League record 119 losses in 2003. But by then, the pieces were starting to fall into place.

In 2001, Dave Dombrowski was hired as Tiger team president. Draft picks on his watch included Curtis Granderson in 2002 and Justin Verlander in 2004 (the Tigers also drafted Andrew Miller in 2006, but his main contribution came as trade bait). In 2005, Dombrowski, who engineered the 1997 Marlins team that won the World Series (ugh), reunited with Jim Leyland, hiring him to manage the Tigers.

It all fell into place in 2006. The Tigers had a virtual lock on the American league Central Division, faltering enough at the end that they had to settle for the wild card (the Twins took the division). The Tigers dispatched the heavily-favored Yankees in the Division Series, and then beat the Athletics to advance to the World Series, where they booted the ball all over the field in a five-game loss to the Cardinals.

After the 2007 season, when the Indians won the Central Division and came within one win of their first World Series appearance in a decade, the Tigers went out and made the deal that cemented them as the team to beat in the division. They dealt four players, including Miller (the centerpiece was prospect Cameron Maybin), to the Marlins for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera.

The Tigers were working the playbook the Indians had used a decade earlier, building through the draft and making shrewd trades. But while those Indians teams weren’t big spenders in free agency, the Tigers had no such qualms. Cabrera was re-signed to a $292 million deal in 2014, making him the highest-paid player in baseball at the time. After the Indians traded Victor Martinez to the Red Sox, he signed as a free agent with the Tigers for a four-year, $50 million contract, and re-signed him to another four-year deal, this time for $68 million, after that contract was up.

The team’s Opening Day payroll this year was $168 million, the fourth-highest in the Majors. But the glory days were over. Health problems have kept Martinez out of the lineup. The team at one point had three Cy Young Award winners, but Max Scherzer left for Washington and Rick Porcello went to Boston. Hints of a rebuild in the past two seasons turned into a full tear-down, culminating in the departure of homegrown star Verlander.

Meanwhile, the Indians remain in ascent. A four-game sweep – hard to believe, the first four-game sweep ever by the Indians of the Tigers in Detroit – ran the Tribe’s winning streak up to 11. The Jose Ramirez contract looks better every day and the team has a nucleus of talent that appears poised for contention for years to come.

It became annoying in the 2000s to hear Indians management talk about windows of contention, but it’s evident now that one opened for the Tribe last year – and opened further this year as the Tigers’ own window appears to have slammed shut.

Photo: AP Photo/Chris Carlson

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