Detroit Tigers: Mr. Ilitch, the meek shall inherit the basement.

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 07: Austin Romine #7 of the Detroit Tigers hits a RBI single during the fifth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on August 7, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 07: Austin Romine #7 of the Detroit Tigers hits a RBI single during the fifth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on August 7, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /

At some point, the Detroit Tigers’ idea of more or less intentionally inhabiting MLB’s basement has to stop being the goal before it becomes a rent-to-own arrangement.

Recent comments by Tigers’ GM Al Avila called into question the Detroit Tigers’ view on loosening the purse strings to augment the young players it’s trying to develop with premium veteran talent via free agency.

It is very early. The Tigers might decide to spend in the end. There is still nearly a month of playoff baseball before the off-season kicks in and the rubber meets the road in free agency and trade season. It’s doubtful anyone suspected Avila would issue a grand pronouncement that a talent accumulation spending orgy was about to commence in Detroit. His careful noncommittal GM-speak was predictable in some respects.

However, the Tigers find themselves at the proverbial crossroads all rebuilding teams eventually come upon. Do they plan to cast off the shackles and look to compete once again or do they remain committed to the building of their farm system as the foremost goal of the organization for at least another season?

Put another way, can the Tigers rely on their ever-improving farm system to help them catch and eventually pass the Chicago White Sox and their deep young lineup, the Minnesota Twins with an equally solid-looking core group, and even the Cleveland Indians with their continual ability to develop top pitching. Or will the Tigers need to look outside to invest in more talent to truly make headway in the AL Central?

The sports landscape is indeed in flux. It won’t be difficult for Tigers’ ownership to claim the COVID-19 situation has been a revenue drag of epic proportions and with nothing definitive insight as to what the coming season(s) will look like, prudence says to pass on large future commitments. Chris Ilitch and Avila might just use that thought as a shield to justify inaction this off-season.

The lost opportunities of that course of action seem like a mistake if the goal is to field a contending team. It does sound as though plenty of teams are considering the idea of a conservative approach to the offseason and the free-agent market. If the Tigers meekly follow the crowd it is hard to see how they’ll put a winning team on the field in 2021 if re-signing Austin Romine is a highlight move.

Being followers and acting practically in concert with the rest of MLB means the Tigers can only hope to make small incremental gains each season on its AL Central competitors. They can’t do much more than slow gains on the draft and development path and only then if they get a few breaks and do an excellent job in talent development.

In order to have an opportunity to truly change the dynamic of the coming seasons, it would seem the Tigers have this chance right now to utilize the deep Ilitch coffers and go against the prevailing grain in MLB.

If much of the league is going to conservatively lay back this off-season, it would seem like an ideal time to seize the day and get some of the players needed to jolt the franchise alive like a defibrillator scene in a hospital drama… “Charge to 300….CLEAR!!!”.

There is, of course, no guarantee that a free agent spending spree will work. The road to MLB success is littered with disappointing free-agent contracts (somewhere Jordan Zimmermann is fighting a subliminal urge to raise his hand). It’s also debatable what a “spree” looks like. If the Tigers put the money up for JT Realmuto and George Springer and bring back Jonathan Schoop, is that a free-wheeling spree or is it a targeted surgical strike to immediately add juice to a woeful big-league everyday lineup?

We can be fairly sure however the Tigers don’t have a ready path forward with the offensive talent at the higher levels of their organization. Their best hitter in 2020 was Willi Castro but it was only a 36 game trial. Similar questions about being “proven” can be said about Jeimer Candelario and his solid finish in ‘20. Miguel Cabrera had more troubling signs this season than his late-season offensive uptick can put lipstick on. Top draft picks Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene have never even taken an at-bat in Double-A yet.

In order to tangibly alter the club’s trajectory in the short term, if that is Ilitch’s and Avila’s goal in ‘21 when they’ll be hiring a new manager, they must look to buck the possible trend in MLB and spend some of the Ilitch fortune in free agency or via trades bringing back some useful players with contracts looking to be shed by risk-averse clubs.

Certainly, it takes two to tango. Top free agents might have little interest in the rebuilding Tigers. However, usually, money talks and Detroit has few excuses on that front. They can make competitive offers to anyone given the Ilitch fortune and the very low returning payroll in place.

So the question is asked again…does Chris Ilitch want to be an MLB power player or a pretender? Is he a quiet follower or an adventurer looking to forge his own path? We do not really know.

The coming off-season, barring any further COVID upheaval beyond what we’ve seen, will give us a major clue if Ilitch truly intends to follow up on his pre-COVID assurance stating Avila would be given all necessary resources to put a contending team on the field.

Will the Tigers look to break the lease on 5th place and Top 5 draft position they’ve inhabited for a few years. Or is the plan to inhabit the shabby basement apartment with a few cosmetic moves to spruce it up. The difference is likely similar to the difference in signing “Realmuto/Springer” or signing “CJ Cron/Ivan Nova”. We shall see.