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The Gift of the 2003 Tigers

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Baseball Reference is clearly the greatest website on the Internet. But beware of the rabbit holes. Beware of the pages that occupy you for longer than you expect. One second you're looking at Ted Williams' stats, and the next you're sucked into the page, having a light-cycle race to the death around his stats from the 1957 season. You pop out a few hours later, dizzy and bleeding from the nose. Beware.

The page that always gets me is the 2003 Tigers. So bad. Amazingly bad. They were like a participant in the World Baseball Classic from a country that you didn't think played baseball. "Luxembourg? Well, okay." Astoundingly bad. Once-in-a-generation bad. Here's what Baseball Prospectus wrote about them in their 2004 annual:


Well, they could have. That could have been the whole chapter. Instead what they really wrote was …

They were the worst major-league baseball team without an excuse in 100 years.

The 1962 Mets were an expansion team. That's a pretty good excuse. The Tigers had several years to acquire players as they saw fit. They assembled the 2003 Tigers. That was a team without an excuse.

But the '03 Tigers being so bad is only part of the reason their team page on Baseball Reference is fascinating. The other half of the story is just as important: 36 months after losing their 119th game of the season, the Tigers were in the World Series. You know how the story of the '03 Tigers ends. That makes the prologue -- a team that might be the worst we'll see this century -- that much more fascinating. It's like re-watching Midnight Express, knowing that the unbearable misery just sets up a better payoff. Also, I haven't seen the end of Midnight Express, but I'm assuming he goes home to a warm reception and some cake. Don't ruin it for me.

It's not like the team was bad because they were rushing all sorts of talented prospects who would eventually be good. From that same 2004 Baseball Prospectus:

The Tigers' young talent wasn't just bad; it was, in many cases below replacement level. This not only hurt the Tigers on the field in 2003, it hurts them into the future, because their young players were so bad that few of them ever project to reach mediocrity.

It was a barren, scorched earth. An optimistic projection for a turnaround would have been at least five years down the road, if it happened at all. And yet in 2006, the Tigers won the AL pennant.

The 2003 Tigers, then, are one of baseball's greatest motivational posters. You can look at every team in the majors -- no matter how bad -- and know that it's possible for them to be interesting in two years, and in the World Series in three. Any team. The clear ace of the 2003 Tigers, Nate Cornejo, had a 4.67 ERA, striking out 46 of the 842 batters he faced. Their former top prospect, Eric Munson, was one of the worst defensive third basemen the game has ever seen over a full season. Chris Mears led the team with five saves. They didn't have a particularly good farm system.

They made the World Series within the next three seasons.

The Houston Astros, as currently constructed, are supposed to be miserable. The projections are beyond grim -- they've moved into performance-art territory. I think it's entirely possible, if not likely, that not a single of the players projected to start for them in 2012 will be starting for any team in 2014. The farm system isn't great.

If the 2003 Tigers could turn it around in three seasons, though …

The Baltimore Orioles entered last season excited about their young pitching, which melted into a puddle of pitching goo by the end of the year. They have some interesting young pieces, but they're still the Orioles. They play in the AL East. It's probably not going to happen for them ever again, if you're feeling dark and cynical.

If the 2003 Tigers could turn it around in three seasons, though …

As pitchers and catchers report to camp, it's not wrong to feel hopelessly optimistic about your favorite team, which just might be an awful collection of current players. And eventually, your spirit will be broken, and you'll spend your August following exhibition football, or something equally as odious.

But if the 2003 Tigers could turn it around with a mix of prospects, savvy trades, free-agent acquisitions, and the like, any team can. The 2003 Detroit Tigers lost for your sins. It was the greatest gift they could have given baseball fans looking for a reason for optimism. A historically wretched team can contend a lot sooner than you think.