Detroit Tigers: The Day The Rebuild Ends

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 29: Shortstop Francisco Lindor #12 of the Cleveland Indians tags out Victor Reyes #22 of the Detroit Tigers trying to steal second base during the sixth inning at Comerica Park on August 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 29: Shortstop Francisco Lindor #12 of the Cleveland Indians tags out Victor Reyes #22 of the Detroit Tigers trying to steal second base during the sixth inning at Comerica Park on August 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Tigers have been in the baseball abyss for a few seasons now as they’ve looked to rebuild their traditionally weak farm system with young premium talent. The question has grown louder and it’s a fair one: “When does it end?”

It’s starting to become clear to see the Detroit Tigers have built a core group of prospects to envision building a contender around. However, it’s hard to build a complete contender from within. Soon the day will come where Tigers owner, Chris Ilitch, will need to live up to his quote on February 28th of 2020:

"—“When I feel the time is right, Al (Avila) is going to have the resources to go out and sign the free agents he needs to add around our home-grown base and core of talent,” says Ilitch. “That day will come and we’ll be ready for it. He will have the resources to do that.”—"

Ilitch has also proclaimed that he has a fire burning inside and it’s not from a late-night Lafayette Coney run gone bad. It’s a fire to win championships to hear him tell it.

The Difference Maker

Luckily for Ilitch, the right circumstances are evolving. There is one free agent target coming available in about 16-months and the Tigers know him well. A concerted and successful effort to land him will show Ilitch is a true MLB power player. The target without question is Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor. The day he’s a Tiger, the rebuild can be declared over and the pursuit of a title is back on.

Certainly, it’s very easy to just say “Sign Lindor” as though it’s like waving a wand and he’s getting fitted for a Tigers uniform. Let’s dispense with that. It won’t be easy. No one is saying it will be. Lindor might also have some grudge with the Tigers and for all, we know a big check can’t solve it.

Signing Lindor will take commitment. It will take some luck. It will take comfort with adding risk. It will take resources. All the things Mike Ilitch had no problems with at most points during his ownership days. Is Chris Ilitch ready to live up to it?

Hitting the Market

Cleveland still hopes to contend for a title during this shortened season. Judging by the makeup of their roster it’s hard to see them not believing they have a shot, with Lindor, in ‘21 as well. Cleveland’s track record makes it highly unlikely they’ll be retaining Lindor beyond ‘21. This would put him on the market. It’s a trade to a team willing to pay Lindor that could muck up the plan of a Lindor pursuit. Will Cleveland try to take the two complete runs with their star shortstop or will they look to move him with an eye on the future?

Lindor has a chance to beat the contract recently signed by Mookie Betts with the Dodgers. Betts had yet to reach the market. Lindor seems as though he wants to test the market. It should drive his price up. If Lindor has a healthy and productive 2021 season, in Cleveland most likely, there is every chance a 12-yr contract pushing $400M (probably with various opt-outs for Lindor) could be on the table for a premium switch-hitting shortstop who will only be 28 when the deal takes effect.

For the Tigers the deal carries risk but it’s not one they haven’t taken in the past with different degrees of success. Lindor would solidify the middle infield in Detroit for at least the first half of the contract before age might force a position switch in his mid-30’s. He’d be the superstar to build around as the Tigers young core of potential stars like Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Riley Greene, and Spencer Torkelson hopefully take root in Comerica Park.

Can the Tigers afford the deal? In a normal world, the answer is “yes”. Detroit has done it before. In a COVID-19 marred sports landscape, we can concede matters get a bit murkier. However, if COVID makes taking on the risk, certainly in one town it probably makes him less certain in a few others. The bet, for now, is business as usual by the time Lindor hits the market. The Tigers carried substantial payroll obligations in the previous decade and didn’t go bankrupt. They can go back in that direction and still stay fiscally sane.

Miguel Cabrera’s long expensive contract is winding itself down. It would only overlap with the Lindor mega-deal for two seasons before Cabrera bids adieu and we see him in Cooperstown around 2030. The Tigers have no other massive financial commitments on the line for ‘22 and for a few years thereafter. The bright young prospects will still be in affordable phases of their careers before their second and third years of arbitration are driving up costs. Also, we’re not talking about every youngster cashing in large arb-payments. Be realistic. A couple will flourish and get somewhat expensive, a few others might languish and not score huge money. It’s really hard to see why the Tigers payroll would be untenable in the middle part of the 2020s even with a mega-contract like Lindor’s.

”Won’t the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs be among teams looking to sign Lindor?” There will be suitors. No question. Some may desire a position switch by somebody, but suitors nonetheless. However the Dodgers have just committed to Betts, will have a Cody Bellinger extension looming, and have the #2 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline at Lindor’s position, Gavin Lux. The Yankees have Gleyber Torres at shortstop and a bevy of large contracts already on board in Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole to start with. An Aaron Judge mega-deal might also evolve soon enough.

The Cubs, Rangers, Nats, and Mariners could all be wildcards. All are teams in good markets who have splurged in the past on free agents. The Mets might also be under new ownership who is willing to spend by then.

Why Make the Move?

Detroit has done a good job of putting the minor league pieces in place. They even had a couple of major league players start to flash they could be part of the next contending team like JaCoby Jones.

Obviously, though, they aren’t close to done. They’re going to need a few more surprises to develop from the last two draft classes, score on another high pick in ‘21. They’ll need to keep building more depth at the next two trade deadlines. All of that is great.

They need the centerpiece. They have to be willing to recognize there is only one 28-year old two-way premium position superstar that’ll be on the market over the next two years. A presence like his match with the up and coming talent could morph into a runaway train steaming down the AL Central for a period of 3 to 5 seasons where World Series contention is once again on the Tigers’ minds.

Are the odds good? It depends on Ilitch. It’s not impossible. It doesn’t have to be “unlikely”. The Detroit Tigers have the resources…most teams do, to be honest…however it’s going to take the courage and a relentless pursuit to secure him.

If Chris Ilitch directs Al Avila to get it done it will go a long way for Ilitch to truly inherit his father’s baseball legacy and be a major step in surpassing his dad by bringing home a World Series title.