Detroit Tigers: MLB Power Players or Pretenders? Decision 2021

For some, the jury returned a negative verdict a while ago on Detroit Tigers management, specifically owner Chris Ilitch and General Manager Al Avila. For many others, they’re still awaiting a moment of “His Judgement Cometh and That Right Soon” (“Shawshank” reference…worth 2 points)  on whether the duo is ready to be MLB power players or pretenders on the MLB landscape.

Do the Detroit Tigers indeed want to once again be among the organizations that make the news in MLB? Or is Ilitch happy to just be a member of the owners club with his name on a placard at the Winter Meetings and looking good in a $10K bespoke Savile Row suit? These questions are on the verge of needing an answer heading into this off-season.

Hour Glass for Judgment Running Low

Why should they be granted more time in making this final call? If the suit is empty admit it and move on with other pursuits. But if you believe there has been some kind of general plan in place and they’re only on Step M of an A-to-Z scheme then more time on a final determination might be warranted.

The Detroit Tigers are nearly two-thirds done with their MLB short season sprint in 2020 and it’s hard to argue they haven’t improved in several respects from the sad-sack crew they’ve sent on the field for much of the last three seasons. It’s a competitive team most nights and they’re at least roaming around the margins of the expanded playoff chase.

Improving a team that was a woeful 47-114 isn’t exactly something to hang your hat on, however. Signing a few competent veterans to short deals, promoting some interesting players like Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, and Willi Castro from an improving farm system, and just a little good fortune was going to be enough to show modest improvement.

Easy work has been done. They’ve hopefully bottomed out after the teardown started in 2017. The real work begins now of assimilating the young talent they’ve gathered and then augmenting them with talent via all other avenues to build a contender.

Forays into free agency need to be timed well. In Detroit’s case the rise of its minor league system is starting bear fruit. They can’t, however, rely in sole fashion on growing its kiddie corps into a full-fledged contender. Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Matt Manning, and others are on the way soon. But Ilitch and Avila must now open the coffers and have talented veterans ready to greet them instead of Rony Garcia and Niko Goodrum.

Shifting Gears

Can Ilitch and Avila shift gears from tear down to build up starting this off-season? Is Ilitch ready to take the gloves off and put a team on the field to once again compete for championships?

Ilitch has kept his powder pretty dry since taking over from his deceased father, Mike Ilitch. The younger Ilitch inherited a team on the extreme downside of an era where the Tigers consistently contended for about a ten-year stretch. Much of the success was often bankrolled by the senior Ilitch being unafraid to write a big check when he smelled the opportunity to augment his club. Eventually, it was a team of fading veterans, and bloated deals with a weak farm system.

It must always be noted that while then-GM Dave Dombrowski made many magical trades to build a winner in his time it was often Mike Ilitch making an impulse buy at the checkout counter or a phone call to Dombrowski in regard to a certain player via trade that got stuff done.

Meanwhile in the days since Chris has taken over, General Manager Al Avila has not had the chance to sign a single player to a multi-year free-agent contract or bestow an extension upon any Tigers player. Indeed the longest contract was given out since 2017, and this might depress some folks,  was the three-year caretaker contract given to manager Ron Gardenhire. This has to change very soon.

While the lack of aggressive action on the front of ownership and the front office would seem anathema to the elder Ilitch there has been some sense to it. The Tigers are riding out some bad contracts given to Miguel Cabrera and Jordan Zimmerman which have not produced anything close to their monetary commitments. The Tigers have really not had many players on hand through these last few seasons worthy of an extension. Spending on expensive free agents early in the minor league talent accumulation phase would have probably been ineffective as well.

Moving Forward

Ilitch has been quoted in the recent past that Avila will be given the resources to compete when the time comes. The time has arrived. The Tigers sort of said so themselves when Avila elected to mostly sit out the trade deadline last week from a seller’s standpoint. Avila said he liked his team.

If you aren’t going to sell, this seems to indicate the time to buy has arrived. For Ilitch, this means the checkbook must open this off-season. It won’t be easy. The Tigers have been woeful for a while and inducing free agents will take a lot of cajoling and checks being written fearlessly for significant sums.

Ilitch and Avila must know that power in the MLB marketplace won’t be given to them…they must seize it. Are they willing?

Whether it be free agency or the trade market the Tigers must leverage either Ilitch’s money or some of the young prospect talents via trade to start the process of winning once again. The excuses against spending have dried up on the roster. (COVID excuses another topic for another day)

The Tigers have only the sizable $30M/year Cabrera contract left starting in 2021. While it’s large, it can be finessed now with the lack of other large deals in place. The Tigers can spend.

As for the upcoming free-agent market, there will be options. If they want to compete for an everyday catcher like  JT Realmuto in this market, they can muscle their way in. It’s about commitment now. If George Springer or Joc Pederson interest them more than Travis Demeritte or Christin Stewart then those are targets that are attainable.

In 2021 the rebuild can come to a screeching halt with a bloodthirsty pursuit of Francisco Lindor should he make it to the free-agent market. Mike Ilitch would have tossed his hat in the ring…will his heir do the same?

Building a winning baseball team is not an easy achievement. It’s fun to write about signing this player and making advantageous trades. But it takes brave stewardship from the top. A relentless pursuit of that extra advantage of not fearing the large stage of premium free agency to the small moves of finding Jose Cisnero on the scrap heap.

The Tigers must seize the initiative starting this year. They have the young highly rated farm system in place with a few players already in the majors. They’ve sold off everything they once had of the past save Cabrera. They’ve shown some competitiveness this season. The arrow is pointed up.

Make the Moves

However, that arrow won’t stay pointed up unless Ilitch unleashes his pent up fury, the fire in the gut he claims to have, and puts his stamp financially on the market turning himself into the MLB power player his father was for the final decade of his life. The true judgment phase of the Chris Ilitch Era is truly about to get underway.