The Tigers’ All-Time “What-If” Team

For different reasons, Dick Wakefield, Mark Fidrych, and Cameron Maybin failed to reach their potential with the Tigers.

For different reasons, Dick Wakefield, Mark Fidrych and Cameron Maybin failed to reach their potential with the Tigers.

As any good stockbroker will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The same reasoning could be applied to baseball players.

Throughout their long and storied history, the Detroit Tigers have had their share of players whose careers didn’t turn out the way everyone had hoped they would. Sometimes it was a result of injuries, sometimes it was misfortune, and sometimes it was simply because the player was unable to perform at the level that had been predicted for him. Whatever the case, here are the players who make up the Tigers’ All-Time “What-If” team:

Catcher: Matt Nokes

Following the loss of Lance Parrish to free agency following the 1986 season, Detroit was suddenly in need of a catcher. Twenty-three year-old Nokes stepped into the breach, making the All-Star team while hitting .289 with 32 home runs and 87 RBIs for the American League East Division champion Tigers. His sweet left-handed swing, tailor-made for Tiger Stadium, helped fans forget about Parrish. The honeymoon didn’t last long. He struggled the next two seasons, and in June of 1990 he was traded to the Yankees. Nokes had a couple decent seasons in the Bronx before returning to the minors. He finished his playing career in 2002 at age 38 with the Joliet Jackhammers of the independent Northern League Central.

First Base: Dale Alexander

Twenty-six year-old Alexander’s monster rookie year with the Tigers in 1929 ranks as one of the best ever. Among his American League-leading 215 hits were 43 doubles, 15 triples, and 25 home runs. He also scored 110 and knocked in 137. The next year was almost as good (20, 135, .326). He hit .325 in 1931 with a career-high 47 doubles, but suddenly lost his home run stroke, hitting only three. In 1932 he was batting a lowly .250 when the Tigers traded him to the Red Sox. “Moose” hit .372 for Boston the rest of the season, winning the batting title at .367. By the end of 1933, however, his big league career was over, a result of a serious leg injury. A poor fielder, Alexander still was able to put up big numbers in the minor leagues for the next decade before retiring.

Second Base: Jake Wood

Wood was the first African-American player developed in the Tigers’ system who was able to crack the big club as a regular. He never hit under .300 in four years in the minors. A slick fielder with good speed, he hit .258 in his rookie season of 1961, scoring 96 runs and leading the majors with 14 triples (but he also struck out an A.L. high 141 times). He topped the Bengals in stolen bases his first three seasons, but a finger injury in 1963 cut his season short, and he was never again an everyday player.

Shortstop: Topper Rigney

In his first three seasons (1922-24), young Rigney hit a combined .301. He also drew a ton of walks, possessed good speed, and had quickly built a reputation as one of the best fielding shortstops in the league. But a mysterious hip ailment plagued him beginning in 1925, when he played in only 62 games and hit .247. He was sold to the Red Sox following that season, and was gone from the major leagues within two years.

Third Base: Chris Pittaro

The Tigers had just won the World Series in 1984. They had baseball’s premier double-play combination in Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell. So what did Sparky Anderson do in spring training of 1985? He switched Whitaker to third and inserted rookie Chris Pittaro at second. The move lasted only a few days. Whitaker was shuffled back to second and Pittaro was given the everyday job at third. The 23 year-old kid out of the University of North Carolina got three hits, including the game-tying single, on opening day at Tiger Stadium in a 5-4 win over Cleveland. “He’s the best new kid I’ve ever seen,” Sparky gushed. “He showed that this old man isn’t crazy, although I may act that way sometimes. You don’t need to watch this kid very long to see he’s a ballplayer. I’ll waltz him around for a full year. I’ll be with him every step of the way.” Sparky waltzed with Pittaro until June 20, when he was sent down to Nashville, the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, after hitting .242 in 28 games. The kid never played another game for the Tigers, instead finishing his career in 1988 in the Twins’ minor-league system.

Left Field: Dick Wakefield

Wakefield was baseball’s original bonus baby. The Tigers gave him $52,000 as an unproven 20-year old in 1941. He had one great season in Detroit. He hit .316 with a league-leading 200 hits and 38 doubles in his rookie year of 1943, while gaining an all-star berth. He was hurt the first half of 1944 and didn’t play, but came back in the second half to hit .355. He played the rest of his career like he just didn’t care, and was constantly booed at Briggs Stadium. He never hit higher than .283 in six more big-league seasons with the Tigers, Yankees, and New York Giants.

Center Field: Cameron Maybin

I cannot remember a more over-hyped Tiger prospect in my lifetime than Cameron Maybin. Wasn’t he supposed to be the best position player to come through the system since Al Kaline? It was all good in 2007 when he homered to center field off Roger Clemens at Yankee Stadium in only his second big-league game. Maybin has now been a prospect for eight years in the majors, for three different teams (Detroit, Florida, and San Diego), and has a .246 lifetime average to show for it.

Right Field: Rick Leach

One of the better athletes ever produced by the state of Michigan, Leach starred for the Wolverines as a quarterback under Bo Schembechler, and also wielded a strong bat as his team went to the College Baseball World Series in 1978. But after being drafted in the first round by the Tigers in 1979, Leach was never able to fulfill his tremendous potential at the professional level. He was released after only three seasons in Detroit. Later, he was mostly a bench player with Toronto, Texas, and San Francisco.

Starting Pitcher: Mark Fidrych

Fidrych is the captain of this team, the poster-boy of unfulfilled potential. The Bird was probably born 15 or 20 years too early. It was only after his career was over that his arm ailments were diagnosed as a rotator cuff tear, an injury that could have been repaired bu surgery. He was the biggest star in baseball for one glorious summer, but it ended all too quickly.

Starting Pitcher: Schoolboy Rowe

The right-hander won 24 games as a 24 year-old in 1934, including 16 consecutive, which is still tied for the American League record. The Tigers went to the World Series that year, losing to the Cardinals. Rowe put together a 19-win season in 1935 and Detroit beat the Cubs to win their first World Series ever. Another 19-win campaign in 1936 was followed by arm ailments and a return to the minor leagues. Rowe bounced from the Tigers to the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Philadelphia Phillies over the next decade. He experienced some success, but was never a dominant pitcher again.

Starting Pitcher: Ted Gray

Gray was a flame-throwing southpaw who drew comparisons to Lefty Grove and Hal Newhouser. His dazzling 10-3 first half for the Tigers in 1950 earned him a spot on the All-Star team; he didn’t win a game the rest of the season. Gray struggled to find consistency with Detroit, and was susceptible to the long ball. His career was cut short by arm injuries.

Starting Pitcher: Les Cain

In the late 1960s, Cain was one of the Tigers top minor league prospects. He put up great numbers in the first half of his rookie year of 1970, winning nine of twelve decisions and nearly making the A.L. All-Star team. The second half was a different story, as shoulder pain curtailed his effectiveness. He was shut down for the final two weeks of the season, and finished with only twelve victories. By 1972, his career was over at age 24.

Relief Pitcher: Joel Zumaya

With a fastball that topped 100 mph, “Zoom-Zoom” electrified crowds whenever he took the mound at Comerica Park. His problem was staying on that mound. Zumaya couldn’t stay healthy, and his career finally came to an end one night in Minnesota after he blew out his elbow throwing a pitch. He never threw another one.

Closer: Matt Anderson

The rail-thin Anderson was a dominant flame-thrower for Rice University, where he set school records for career wins (30) and saves (14). The Tigers made him the first pick overall in the June 1997 Amateur Draft, and signed him to a $2.5 million bonus. In his rookie year in 1998, at age 21, Anderson got into 42 games with the Tigers, striking out 44 in 44 innings, with a solid 3.27 ERA. But for the next few years he struggled with his control, but he did save 22 games in 2001. In May of 2002, Anderson participated (along with teammate Jeff Weaver) in a team-sponsored octopus-throwing contest. In the bullpen that same day, Anderson tore a muscle in his throwing arm; his fastball was never the same again. After leaving Detroit as a free agent, he toiled in the minor league systems of the Rockies, Giants, White Sox, and Phillies.