It’s Hard To Care When The Tigers’ Decisionmakers Don’t

I genuinely do not remember the last time I was less excited for the start of baseball season.

Oh, I’m going to watch. I’m going to care. I’ve renewed my season tickets, which I fully admit is probably the only thing that matters as far as the organization is concerned, so in that sense they’ve already won. But I’m not counting the days until the opener. I’m not marking my calendar for the first spring training broadcast of the season. I’ll consume it when it comes, but I will do so because it’s been put in front of me, not because I actively sought it out.

Yes, this is likely an odd thing to read, a Tigers writer on a Tigers blog made by Tigers fans opining on how uninterested I am in the 2019 Detroit Tigers. I accept this. But my lack of care comes from a place of care. After all, I’m roughly as interested in the on-field product this season as ownership and the front office is.

Harsh? Perhaps. But would you argue it? This can no longer be properly classified as a rebuild. No one is attempting to build or rebuild anything. It is more akin to a surrender.

Let’s go back a bit, and let’s agree to a fact: this entire offseason has been the hot stove equivalent of a root canal. It’s not just because the Tigers have been completely inactive. It’s because roughly a third of the league is trying. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are still unsigned on February 18, and I didn’t expect them to last past the end of January at the absolute latest. Player after player has chosen to take a safe one-year deal to find a landing spot and a payday, sacrificing the long-term security they undoubtedly sought and would have received five years ago.

The Tigers used to be one of the lucky few teams that had an obsessively motivated owner. It is a bit funny that Mike Ilitch has ended up so revered by Tigers fans considering the first decade of his ownership was marked by a lack of ambition and investment that culminated in the worst baseball team in American League history. It was so embarrassing that he was moved to sign Ivan Rodriguez to a four-year, $40 million deal that looks downright quaint fifteen years later, and what followed was, essentially, a decade of fantasy baseball. Ilitch saw it, he liked it, he wanted it, he got it. He cared. He wanted to win. He was willing to ignore profit margins to do it. That is exceptionally rare in a sports owner, and perhaps we didn’t appreciate how good we had it when he would go out and wave his checkbook around at press conferences, telling everyone watching in no uncertain terms that he was open for business.

Ilitch liked stars. He wanted blockbuster players. He had a general manager in Dave Dombrowski who thought the same way, but was also smart enough to curb his owner’s worst instincts and focus him on more beneficial talent. The Tigers didn’t need Fielder, and the story didn’t end the way anyone wanted it to, but it was undeniably fun and exhilarating to watch Ilitch flex his muscles in a market where most of his peers were more focused on budgets and revenue and sustainability. Sure, it was going to lead to a major burst bubble down the line – the Tigers gave out a lot of big contracts that were not going to age well. But as we sit here in 2019, it’s worth noting that they’ve gotten out from under every one of those contracts aside from Miguel Cabrera’s and Jordan Zimmermann’s. Zimmermann has two years left on his, though, and the Tigers essentially have no committed money beyond this season except for that which is wrapped up in those two deals. Their 2019 payroll current sits around $112 million, 21st in the league and their lowest mark since 2011.

The official explanation is a rebuild. That’s fine. After a dreadful 2017 season when a $200 million Opening Day payroll yielded 64 wins and the worst record in the league, they were really left with no choice but to cut payroll, try to shed some of the dead weight, and start over. GM Al Avila has actually done an admirable job of that, and will essentially be free to start from scratch next offseason.

And that makes this offseason all the more frustrating.

The situation across the league has developed, theoretically, to the Tigers’ advantage. If they wanted to, they could have spent money. Their payroll is below league average. They faced a market that included two generational talents that, at times, struggled to find suitors they liked. They would not have had to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers, three of the sport’s biggest draws, for their attention. They could have signed one of them to a contract long enough to carry them into their next period of contention and then some just as each hit the peak of his physical prime.

It didn’t even have to be Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, really. The free agent market totally and completely crashed for so many players this offseason. Mike Moustakas signed on Sunday. Marwin Gonzalez remains on the market. Adam Ottavino and Craig Kimbrel, both unsigned, would make for a pretty solid 1-2 punch at the back of a bullpen. Some of these guys have or could have been signed on one-year deals. They could, at the very least, have been trade chips in July.

The Tigers did none of these things. Two-thirds of the league has the problem of refusing to be competitive, and instead of taking advantage of that, Detroit chose to be a part of that problem.

I do not know where this begins. Perhaps it’s ownership. Christopher Ilitch has shown little inclination to spend money on the baseball team he inherited from his late father, and to date, he’s been able to hide behind the rebuilding excuse for two years now without extensive scrutiny. He’s been able to send Avila out to be the public face of it, too, with the GM repeatedly claiming that he’s under no mandate from ownership to cut or cap spending. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not and Avila is taking the slings and arrows from the public so Ilitch doesn’t have to. I don’t have sources, I don’t know, and while I have my own personal guesses, they’re irrelevant to the point.

Look around the league. The Red Sox, Astros, and Yankees are indisputably trying. So, too, are the Washington Nationals, judging from the Patrick Corbin addition. A number of other teams are trying to contend with their existing cores without really adding anything to them. Among them are the Cleveland Indians, who went as far as to explore a Corey Kluber trade this offseason and didn’t really make any effort to improve the team. They’ll probably win the division anyway, because the Minnesota Twins made little effort to overhaul them. The Chicago White Sox have been involved in the Manny Machado sweepstakes, but they’re probably more than one player away.

That’s also irrelevant. They are still trying. The White Sox may strike out on Machado, but by all accounts, it won’t be for lack of effort. They have a young core of prospects, and they identified a 26-year-old superstar available who will grow into his prime at the exact same time those prospects are beginning to mature into MLB-quality players. It’s smart. It’s more than defensible. And in this environment where the bulk of teams are openly demonstrating that they have no ambition or willingness to compete, the White Sox should be commended for it.

The Tigers should be condemned for it. It’s hard to imagine a Mike Ilitch-owned team sitting quietly while two of the biggest talents in the sport sit at home waiting for a phone call. Perhaps that is wishful thinking on my part; the Tigers were, after all, transitioning toward their full-scale rebuild in the months before his passing. As late as 2016, however, the Tigers were tossing money at Zimmermann and Justin Upton to try to keep their window open. Perhaps that was a mistake – Ilitch’s thinking could be flawed – but you couldn’t fault the ambition.

You can now. If the Tigers were serious about rebuilding, they would also be serious about bringing in players that would suit their rebuilding timeline. Perhaps in 2021 or 2022 or 2023 they’ll be serious about beginning to contend again. Those would be Harper’s age 28, 29, and 30 seasons. In Miguel Cabrera’s age 28-30 seasons, he won three consecutive batting titles, hit 40 home runs twice, and won two MVP awards. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a top middle-of-the-order bat in the lineup just as the Tigers mature into contenders again?

I think so. The Tigers don’t seem to think it’s worth exploring. Perhaps they know something I don’t. Perhaps money really is that tight, but considering league revenues are at an all-time high and they’ll have a nice new TV contract to negotiate after the 2021 season, I rather doubt that. Perhaps they don’t actually think they can be competitive again within three or four years, in which case the entire front office should probably be swept out of town. Perhaps they think Harper’s inconsistency or Machado’s hustle really would be that toxic on a young team.

Or perhaps the obvious answer is the correct one. They’re willing to spend $13.5 million on Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, and Jordy Mercer because they’re three players who ensure that the team isn’t pushing a ridiculously high amount of losses while still not winning enough to jeopardize draft picks, in the off chance they draft the next Harper or Machado instead of simply signing one of them. They just don’t really want to win that much. They’re not interested in fielding a competitive Major League Baseball team right now, even if it costs them a Harper or Machado who could be the centerpiece of a young contender within a four-year window. Because why be mediocre when you can lose and rack up that revenue sharing cash? After all, this is the same team that took Michael Fulmer to arbitration over a $600,000 difference in valuation.

I try to think the best of this organization, but it’s become increasingly difficult to defend their non-efforts this offseason. The rest of the league is sitting idly by, and one smart organization could take advantage of their unwillingness to move their feet. Someone inevitably will when they sign Harper or Machado. Instead, like everyone else, the Tigers are more interested in keeping salaries low than competing. The team that once gave Prince Fielder $214 million while nursing a higher payroll than the one they have now suddenly won’t justify spending less than $100 million more on a player who is younger, better, and more likely to age gracefully over a period of time when the organization claims it wants to contend again. Try to sort that one out.

I can’t. Sorry, Tigers. The players will play hard; of that I have no doubt. I will root for them and cheer for them when they do well. It’s simply a shame that ownership and the front office will let down those same players, some of whom signed several years ago with the promise of a contending organization, only to see that promise broken once their deals were locked in. They thought, under Mike Ilitch, they were joining an organization that would do whatever it takes to win.

A few short years later, that organization is quite comfortable losing. It is an organization whose definition of rebuilding seems to involve ignoring franchise cornerstones in their mid-20s, letting a pair of foundational building blocks sit untouched while the existing structure rots beyond recognition, all while claiming poverty despite being part of a league that made $10 billion last year. And they bank on us not questioning it. We have to be bad to be good. Just bear with us. We have a plan. You’re not seeing it yet, but you’ll just have to trust us, even if it starts to come into place at the same time several other teams decide to spend money again, too, because that’s the risk you’re running right now.

Hey. They’re playing within the rules. They’re only doing what the system encourages them to do. Fair enough. Maybe they’ll ultimately succeed in spite of themselves — and let’s be clear, it will be in spite of themselves and their reticence to try to move the organization forward and infuse it with new top-line talent. But if the Tigers are going to refuse to consider moves that would benefit them long-term and instead shrug their way through the 2019 season with no effort being made at an organizational level, don’t blame any of their fans for doing the same and then some.