Detroit Tigers: It is like father, like son?

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 20: A general view of Comerica Park from centerfield during the game between the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on September 20, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. The Indians defeated the Tigers 7-4. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 20: A general view of Comerica Park from centerfield during the game between the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on September 20, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. The Indians defeated the Tigers 7-4. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

On social media, two types of Detroit Tigers fans currently exist. There are the fans who want the team to spend money to improve the ballclub and the fans who want the kids to play and remind everyone that spending big got the Tigers in their current state.

Both fanbases want to see the Detroit Tigers be competitive again. But the frustration of a quiet off-season, which led MCB contributor Michael Sicilia to pen a “letter” to owner Chris Ilitch on this platform, reflected what one portion of the fanbase was upset about. They wanted the Tigers to spend money to be competitive, but instead, the team shed payroll.

Don’t worry, this is not a piece bashing ownership, or Al Avila’s recent moves, or his drafts. Instead, we are going to go back in time, Huey Lewis and the News style, to 1992 and look at how the Tigers spent money in Mike Ilitch’s first seven seasons as owner, before the Tigers moved to Comerica Park in 2000.

Mike Ilitch 1992-1999

When the story of Mike Ilitch purchasing the Tigers went to print on July 29, 1992, Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was the number one song in America, and “A League of Their Own,” “Boomerang,” and “Batman Returns” were among the top-grossing movies at the box office.

The Tigers were in the middle of a six-game losing streak, which would end on July 31 when a reliever by the name of John Kiely got the win after Detroit rallied for three runs in the 7th off Eric Plunk in the 9-6 victory.  Mike Ilitch’s first official win as the team’s new owner would come on August 28,  a 4-2 victory over the Royals.

So, let’s begin in the winter of 1992 into 1993 when Ilitch started to spend to upgrade the pitching staff. As I wrote in an article about his first GM Jerry Walker, Ilitch did not put a limit on spending for Detroit, but he was reserved on how much to spend.

"“I want to win,” Ilitch said to the media in 1993. “But Gene Autry (former Angels owner) has proven you can go out and get talent and still not win. “You’ve got to have management and all the rest. It’s not always a matter of spending money.”"

December 1992-January 1993:

  • Mike Moore: $10 million
  • Bill Krueger: $2.4 million
  • Re-signed Bill Gullickson: two years, $4.6 million
  • Re-signed Cecil Fielder: five years, $36 million dollars (made him the second-highest paid player in baseball)

November 1998:

  • Dean Palmer: five years, $36 million dollars

Palmer signed in November of 1998, so fairly quickly after the season ended. It helped that Cecil Fielder’s contract had just come off the books. Palmer’s contract was backloaded and included a $10 million bonus that didn’t kick in until the Tigers moved to Comerica Park. Originally, the offer was three years, $21 million, and that same offer was made to third baseman Ken Caminiti.

The payroll was going to push over the $30 million mark for the first time after a period between 1993 and 1996 that saw the players’ salary increases slowly due to the 1994-1995 strike and declining national television revenues. That strike resulted in a loss of about $1 billion of revenue between the players and owners, according to the 1997 paper titled “Baseball’s Changing Salary Structure” written by Paul D. Staudohar.

After 1993, Mike Ilitch did not spend big again until 1998. Even Tim Belcher, who the Tigers signed to a one-year deal worth $3.4 million dollars in 1994, had a quote that sounds strangely familiar to baseball fans now.

"“The times are changing for free agents. I was offered a two-year contract by a couple of teams. But the big, long-term deals just don’t seem to be out there this year.”"

Former GM Randy Smith traded as much as he did because the Tigers did not want to spend until their new stadium was built. Little by little, as players were due for a raise or close to free agency, they were traded for prospects.

  • David Wells: July 1995 traded to Cincinnati. Free-agent 1996
  • Mike Henneman: July 1995 traded to Houston. Free-agent 1995
  • Tony Phillips: April 1995 to California.
  • In 1996, Mark Lewis, who won his arbitration case against the Tigers in which Detroit was going to pay him $450,000 dollars and instead, got paid $670,000.  He took over for Lou Whitaker in 1996 and he hit .270/.326/.396 then was traded to San Francisco after the season was over. Lewis was one of the players that came over in the Wells deal.

Now, we flash forward to the present day. Here is what Chris Ilitch said to last February.

"“At the end of the day, for us to be competitive on a longer term basis, we are building this team the right way,” he said. “I have absolute confidence that we are building a Tigers team that Tiger fans will be proud of, a team that will live up to the tradition of our storied franchise.”“Al and I talk a lot,” Ilitch said. “We talk short-term plan, long-term plan, and when Al and I feel the time is right, Al is going to have the resources to go out and sign the free agents that he needs to add around our homegrown base and core of talent. That day will come and we’ll be ready for it and he’ll have the resources to do that.”"

As Chris Brown pointed out in his article back in December, there are a lot of assumptions being made about Chris Ilitch’s finances. But what seems to be clear as we hit year four of his reign as the owner, is that Chris and his father have shared eerily similar early ownership experiences.

For one, the owners and players are at odds on salaries now, just as they were in the mid-90s, and the specter of a strike looms. Two, the luxury tax is increasingly being used as an artificial salary cap to keep salaries lower. And three, the Detroit Tigers are waiting for a specific trigger to begin spending again.

When Dave Dombrowski came in 2003, Ilitch knew at that point after trying to build the team with Randy Smith, he had to spend to be competitive. Mike liked the stars and as a former minor league player, baseball was his passion. Perhaps like his father, he will wait for the correct time.

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