Niyo: Rebuilding era leaves Detroit sports fans with unfamiliar faces

Detroit News

Professional sports are a transient business these days. Franchises relocate, leaving entire cities in the lurch. Players bolt, too, taking advantage of free agency when they can. Trade deadlines encourage the movement — incentivize it, even — and the business of tanking means veteran players often get shown the door before anybody’s ready for them to go.

Particularly the fans. Because those familiar names and faces you cheer for, they become part of your identity, in a way. And in the midst of this unprecedented rebuilding era in Detroit, that’s part of the problem: It’s like you don’t even know them anymore.

Certainly not as well as you once did, back when the Red Wings and Pistons were perennial playoff teams, the Tigers were chasing pennants and even the Lions occasionally roared.

A full decade has passed without any of Detroit’s four major pro teams winning a playoff round. But as they’ve cycled through various stages of losing since then, those franchises also have run through a dozen general managers, 15 head coaches and enough short-term free agent contracts, waiver claims and minor-league call-ups to give equipment staffs nightmares. To wit: The Tigers used 53 different players to get through 162 games last season, while the Lions had 85 suit up for games in 2021. (The Pistons, meanwhile, don’t have a player on their roster whose time here predates the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The end result, though, is that only three current players have been in uniform for more than five years running here in Detroit. And one of them, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, is set to retire in October, leaving Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin, who turns 27 later this month, as the longest-tenured player in town. Next on the list is Lions left tackle Taylor Decker, who is entering his eighth NFL season and is one of the few athletes that have been around this block long enough to fully understand the fans’ frustration.

“Obviously, this is special to them,” Decker said recently. “And this place is special to me. So maybe we have that common ground.”

That used to be a common feeling. There was a bond built over time with those Red Wings championship teams in the 1990s and 2000s, and with the Bad Boys-era Pistons before that. Same goes for that last playoff winner in Detroit, the 2013 Tigers. And surely that feeling will return again in a few years, when the young faces of these franchise rebuilds finally come of age.

But for now, here’s a list of the longest-tenured athletes in Detroit based on a player’s on-field debut:

Miguel Cabrera, DH, Tigers

▶ Acquired: December 2007

▶ Tigers debut: March 31, 2008

Unless the Tigers rally to win the AL Central, Miggy’s 16-year run in Detroit, which included two MVPs, a Triple Crown and a World Series trip, will end with a final home game at Comerica Park on Oct. 1.

Dylan Larkin, C, Red Wings

▶ Acquired: June 2014

▶ Red Wings debut: Oct. 9, 2015

Homegrown captain got a taste of the playoffs as a rookie, and Steve Yzerman’s plan is to have the Wings back as a Stanley Cup contender again while Larkin’s still in his prime.

Taylor Decker, LT, Lions

▶ Acquired: April 2016

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 11, 2016

Decker was Bob Quinn’s first draft pick as GM in 2016, and the mainstay at left tackle is the lone holdover from the Lions’ last playoff team, though Graham Glasgow and Marvin Jones have both returned in free agency.

Frank Ragnow, C, Lions

▶ Acquired: April 2018

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 10, 2018

Pro Bowl center anchors the strength of the current Lions team on the offensive line, and the contract extension he signed in 2021 made him the highest-paid center in the NFL at the time.

Tracy Walker, S, Lions

▶ Acquired: April 2018

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 10, 2018

Walker missed almost all of 2022 with a torn Achilles, but the safety’s decision to re-sign with the Lions earlier that spring was a big boost for the new regime of Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell.

Spencer Turnbull, SP, Tigers

▶ Acquired: June 2014

▶ Tigers debut: Sept. 14, 2018

Turnbull slots even higher on this list when you consider he was the Tigers’ second-round draft pick in 2014. But the veteran right-hander will hit free agency after next season and could be traded before then.

Romeo Okwara, DE, Lions

▶ Acquired: September 2018

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 16, 2018

Claiming Okwara off waivers to start the 2018 season proved to be one of Quinn’s shrewdest moves as Lions GM, but an Achilles injury cost him most of the last two seasons and he’ll be a free agent this winter.

Michael Rasmussen, C/LW, Red Wings

▶ Acquired: June 2017

▶ Red Wings debut: Oct. 4, 2018

One of the last first-round picks of Ken Holland’s tenure as GM, Rasmussen finally emerged as a difference-maker last season. Now he’ll enter a contract year with plenty at stake.

Jose Cisnero, RP, Tigers

▶ Acquired: June 2019

▶ Tigers debut: June 23, 2019

The 34-year-old relief pitcher found a second career with the Tigers in recent years, but Cisnero could be a trade-deadline rental later this month on an expiring contract.

Tyler Alexander, RP, Tigers

▶ Acquired: June 2015

▶ Tigers debut: July 3, 2019

Arguably the best pick from Dave Dombrowski’s last draft as president/GM in Detroit, Alexander just suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. But he’s still under team control through 2025.

Jake Rogers, C, Tigers

▶ Acquired: August 2017

▶ Tigers debut: July 30, 2019

Rogers is the last piece remaining from the Justin Verlander trade in 2017. But after missing last season following Tommy John surgery, he’s finally settling in as the Tigers’ starting catcher.

Will Harris, DB, Lions

▶ Acquired: April 2019

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 8, 2019

A versatile role player in Lions’ secondary, Harris re-upped with a one-year deal in March after playing out his rookie deal in Detroit.

Tom Kennedy, WR, Lions

▶ Acquired: May 2019

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 29, 2019

Kennedy has been up and down from the practice squad ever since the former lacrosse star impressed coaches as undrafted free agent in 2019.

Robby Fabbri, LW, Red Wings

▶ Acquired: November 2019

▶ Red Wings debut: Nov. 8, 2019

Acquired from St. Louis via trade, Fabbri has been a top-six winger when healthy in Detroit, but knee injuries have cut short two of his last three seasons here.

Jason Cabinda, FB, Lions

▶ Acquired: September 2019

▶ Lions debut: Dec. 8, 2019

Another of the holdovers from the Matt Patricia teams, Cabinda remains one of the team leaders as a fullback and core special teams veteran.

Anthony Pittman, LB, Lions

▶ Acquired: May 2019

▶ Lions debut: Dec. 29, 2019

Pittman didn’t make the Lions’ initial 53-man roster as a linebacker last September, but the special teams ace ended up playing in all 17 games anyway.

Gustav Lindstrom, D, Red Wings

▶ Acquired: June 2017

▶ Red Wings debut: Feb. 6, 2020

Lindstrom re-signed with the Red Wings on a one-year deal earlier this month, but he’ll likely be the odd man out of the lineup on defense.

Tarik Skubal, SP, Tigers

▶ Acquired: June 2018

▶ Tigers debut: Aug. 18, 2020

The hard-throwing lefty is back from a yearlong injury absence and once again looks like a cornerstone piece of the Tigers’ rebuild at the front end of the starting rotation.

Casey Mize, SP, Tigers

▶ Acquired: June 2018

▶ Tigers debut: Aug. 19, 2020

Mize hasn’t lived up to his No. 1 overall pick billing yet, but he’s still an arm the Tigers are counting on when he returns later this season or next spring from Tommy John surgery.

Julian Okwara, LB, Lions

▶ Acquired: April 2020

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 13, 2020

A pending unrestricted free agent after the season, Romeo’s younger brother will have a training camp fight on his hands to keep a roster spot among a crowded position.

Jonah Jackson, G, Lions

▶ Acquired: April 2020

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 13, 2020

Locking up Jackson on a long-term extension might be next on Lions GM Holmes’ to-do list as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.

Jack Fox, P, Lions

▶ Acquired: December 2019

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 13, 2020

Fox, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, isn’t going anywhere soon. The Lions made him the highest-paid punter in the league last October.

Matt Nelson, T, Lions

▶ Acquired: May 2019

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 13, 2020

Nelson has played fewer than 1,000 snaps in his three NFL seasons, but he re-signed with the Lions in March for another tour of duty as a backup lineman.

Eric Haase, C, Tigers

▶ Acquired: January 2020

▶ Tigers debut: Sept. 16, 2020

A minor trade with Cleveland brought the Westland native back home, and he still has his arbitration years ahead. But Haase is having a rough go of it in 2023.

Logan Stenberg, G, Lions

▶ Acquired: April 2020

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 20, 2020

Stenberg was thrust into a starting role early last season, but he’ll have a hard time sticking on this roster after some offseason moves at guard.

Halapoulivaati Vaitai, G, Lions

▶ Acquired: March 2020

▶ Lions debut: Sept. 27, 2020

Vaitai missed all of 2022 with a back injury, but he restructured his contract to try to rejoin what could be a dominant offensive line in ‘23.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @john.niyo

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