The Detroit Tigers must chose a lane to stick in and in a hurry.
Detroit Tigers principal owner Chris Ilitch is ultimately the guy who decides where the team vehicle is going. Al Avila and AJ Hinch will be doing the daily driving…but Ilitch picks the lane they drive in. Some are concerned the trip hasn’t started yet with no moves by Detroit at the MLB Winter Meetings. Let’s not panic.
As for Ilitch making the call, sometimes you wonder if being a multi-billionaire means letting those billions stretch their legs a bit as he acts like a billionaire to get his club’s way.
In due course Ilitch is going to have to make that call. Are the Tigers going to sit safely in the slow lane waving speedier drivers around them or are they going to be the folks with a blow up doll in the passenger seat so they can fly unimpeded in the HOV lane? So far in this off-season, with apologies to Akil Baddoo, the Tigers still have the car in the garage.
That’s okay. It’s not anywhere near a crisis situation to see these virtual MLB Winter Meetings come and go with no movement by Detroit. It’s almost to be expected. The COVID era is upon us and that is bringing about uncertainties on so many fronts you can see why baseball will move with caution.
We don’t know if baseball will start on time in February. We don’t the number of games played. The rules they’ll be playing under and the playoff format they’ll be competing for aren’t set in stone. Will fans be in the stands? If so, what percentage will show up? This is just the short list of concerns.
The Tigers have time. That’s not the primary issue. Potential high quality targets for them to acquire are still sitting on the shelf. There aren’t really any signs a major run on talent is going to start around the sport imminently.
The Tigers division rivals have made some noise already. But it’s probably not a big deal once the Tigers decide to gather the players they want. The White Sox have traded for Lance Lynn and signed Adam Eaton. The Royals inked Carlos Santana, Mike Minor and Michael Taylor. All fine acquisitions but none alter the landscape Detroit faces with the possible exception of Lynn.
What the Winter Meetings didn’t give us however was even a small clue at the Detroit Tigers inclinations. Some want to attach some meaning to drafting Baddoo as a resignation to the club not trying to compete. Let’s be a little more optimistic than that. The young outfielder Baddoo —whose name makes me think of the Cajun Swing Band “Big Bad VooDoo Daddy”...there has to be a fun nickname in there someplace— had a legitimate good year in 2018 at the age of 19 with 44 extra base hits and 24 steals. He was injured in ‘19. He has skills, the Tigers want a cheap look at him in camp. Nothing more, nothing less.
The clock is ticking though. Ilitch must direct Avila to load the team bus with some players for Hinch to direct if any move up in the standing is happening in 2021. Ilitch’s then has to decide if the trip is economically in the slow lane or are they going to burn gas in profligate fashion in the fast lane?
For instance it was very interesting to read Eno Sarris’ piece for The Athletic ($$) where he took a shot at estimating where the top free agents will ultimately land this winter and what the deal will look like. Looking at the two best position players on the market…both of whom would fill gaping holes in the Tigers woeful lineup…and the picture looks like an area where Ilitch’s vast wealth could be weaponized if he chooses to. Sarris had George Springer signing for 5-yr/$110M (very close to where this space pegged him in October) and JT Realmuto at a relative bargain of 4-yr/$85M (much less than we discussed in November).
The Tigers are currently at the lowest payroll level they’ve sported in nearly 15-years. It’s just a tick under $54M in commitments currently. This for a team that carried three times that salary often during the Mike Ilitch era. Detroit could make winning offers for both of these players and a couple of mid-tier players and still be be under $120M.
The cover against spending provided by COVID will only last so long. At some point the full show shall return. The Ilitch war chest should actually be the buffer to make them competitive during this time if uncertainty when other teams are shying away.
Chris Ilitch, with much pre-COVID bravado, proclaimed last winter he had a fire burning in his gut to compete. Great. Prove it’s still aflame. Prove to the other owners that the tummy fire wasn’t the aftermath of some bad sushi but an actual desire to win again and sooner than later. Prove you have the guts to seize the day and dominate the fast lane while others wait out the pandemic for smoother roads.
The opportunity is there to fulfill Hinch’s quotes about having a different looking roster at the start of camp than what they have now. Ilitch doesn’t have to choose the CJ Cron/Ivan Nova cheapskate route again. If Realmuto and Springer won’t sign in Motown move down the list to solid veteran depth for your lineup like Marcel Ozuna, Joc Pederson, Tommy LaStella, or Marcus Semien. None of these players are beyond the Tigers reach unless Detroit chooses to pass. It’s not about an inability to make any move. It will be about self-imposed reluctance to be bold.
Pick a lane, Mr. Ilitch. You have time this winter left to make this choice. The market will move slowly enough for you to make good decisions.
But pick a lane you must. Are you driving Miss Daisy or are you going fast and furious?