There’s something fascinating about the construction of a successful baseball team. Look at the gradual transformation of the Tigers, starting with the Worst American League Season Ever in 2003. It started with picking up key free agents and surrounding them with decent home-grown talent. Eventually the free agents get better, the trades get bigger, and the draft picks work out more to change the culture of a team. Now, the Tigers are considered AL Central favorites and have a shot at the World Series. They boast a huge payroll and huge talent. Winning is now expected by Detroit fans. Yet, what happens to this team when/if they do win a World Series?
It’s been a thought rattling around in my head during the past holiday season. Would the results be something like the Florida Marlins, where a carefully and artfully constructed team achieves its goal and is systematically dismantled? Or would it be like the New York Yankees, where a good, solid team is suddenly beefed up even more to sustain a championship-caliber run?
Personally, I like to look back to the Detroit Red Wings’ Stanley Cup runs of ’97 and ’98 when considering the post-championship future. Mike Illitch desperately wanted to end the 54-year drought the Red Wings had, and he spared no expense in acquiring top-notch talent to compliment the impressive home-grown talent. The neat thing was, even though the Wings won back-to-back Cups, Illitch still had GM Ken Holland keep trading for and signing big-name players, and still have scouts scouring for any available talent overseas. It was only because of a league imposed salary cap that the Red Wings stopped importing expensive, big-name veterans, but they’ve maintained a winning culture for almost twenty years now. This is what Illitch most likely will do with the Tigers.
It’s common knowledge that Mike Illitch adores baseball, and covets a World Series as one of his life goals. If/when the Tigers do attain that championship, my guess is that Illitch will keep the team as a championship contending team for as long as he owns it. By that I mean he will still be in the running for top free agents every year, still have the team looking for big trades, and still shell out whatever is necessary to land the best draft picks. The team cultures of both the Wings and Tigers clearly show that when those teams smell blood in the water, they will strike as often as they are able to.
But what if there is a post-championship restructuring? The lure of teams like the Rays and Athletics, who contend with crafty GM’s and low payrolls and defy expectations, are quite strong, so could the Tigers venture down that path? If so, it would require a lot of veteran-purging, but that could lead to some monumental trades that could see Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, or Justin Verlander shipped out. It may also require a shift in leadership, seeing both Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski hitting the road to make way for more “out of the box” thinkers. Needless to say, it’s quite a doozy of a prospect, to have everything changed so much and so greatly that it borders on being a video game franchise.
The fact of the matter is this, though: This team belongs to Mike Illitch, and he wants to win. It’s his money and his desires that propel this team, and if a championship is secured he can do whatever he darn well pleases with the team.