I’ll Start Caring About the Tigers When Chris Ilitch Does

For those of you who have made the unfortunate decision to follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I don’t think Al Avila is all that bad a General Manager. He’s no Dave Dombrowski (which, to be fair, nobody is Dave Dombrowski, the greatest general manager of his generation), but the guy was tossed into a bad situation and has mostly done what he’s needed to do. The farm system has gone from terrible to very good, with most services having it ranked in the top five. The Tigers have bolstered their analytics department, have hired a new-school manager in AJ Hinch, have moved in on big names in the international market (Cristian Santana being the most recent), and have fully embraced pitching analytics with the hiring of Chris Fetter.

On the other hand, the major league club has been downright awful since 2017. Back to back seasons of 98 losses followed by a 114 loss team driven by a historically awful offense is downright embarrassing. Some of that was the product of years of spending on big names. The 2017 Tigers were weighted down with large contracts from Justin Verlander (traded before the deadline), Justin Upton (traded before the waiver deadline), Ian Kinsler (traded after the season), Victor Martinez (ugh), and Jordan Zimmermann (I think the less said about him the better).

Miguel had a rough year and so did we (photo by Alexandra Simon)

Only Upton and Verlander really lived up to those contracts, and the lack of young players after years of trades meant a weak supporting cast. The 2018 club had that awful Martinez contract paired with Jordan Zimmermann and Miguel Cabrera eating up a good chunk of payroll alongside $14 million in dead money for Verlander and Prince Fielder, but at least the team was around league average.

So 2017 and 2018 are the price of admission for Mike Ilitch’s willingness to sign big-name free agents. Fair trade, at least in my mind. But payroll commitments were significantly reduced in 2019 and 2020, with only the Cabrera and the Zimmermann contracts still on the book, paired with dead money for Verlander (in 2019) and Fielder (2019 and 2020). A $70 million anchor in 2019 is a lot, as is a $65 million anchor in 2020, so of course the Tigers didn’t go out and spend a ton. In fact, they spent $15 million on free agents in both offseasons. The only issue is that it wasn’t enough.

In 2019, the Tigers had a roster with holes at catcher, first base, second base, and shortstop, with three healthy starting pitchers in Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, and Jordan Zimmermann (lol). So, realistically, the Tigers needed six new bodies. They signed four: Jordy Mercer ($5.25 million), Tyson Ross ($5.75 million), Matt Moore ($2.5 million), and Josh Harrison ($2 million). Health woes sidelined Ross and Moore early, cut Mercer out of the lineup for most of the season, and Harrison was just bad. But, in the wake of the badness, Tigers fans sort of gave the team a pass for looking at six holes and filling four. The other two starters became Grayson Greiner, barely a prospect, who was worth -0.9 fWAR in 2019, and John Hicks, who filled in for Miguel Cabrera after the team went without an insurance policy at first, who was worth -1.2 fWAR. Now, if you’re plugging leaks on the 2018 Tigers, skipping on a catcher to take a flier on Greiner, who was a KATOH deep sleeper, might be worth it. That’s especially true when you have John Hicks on the same list- maybe you get lucky and the position isn’t a total dumpster fire. Likewise, when you have $15 million to spend, maybe you cross your fingers and hope Miguel Cabrera’s $30 million knees hold up so you don’t have to start Ronny Rodriguez at second base and hope for the best.

In 2020, meanwhile, the Tigers had even more holes. Christin Stewart turned out to be a bust, and Avila traded away the team’s best hitter, Nicholas Castellanos, at the deadline. Catcher didn’t pan out, Miguel Cabrera’s knees gave out, Jeimer Candelario looked like he was a half-season fluke, and your biggest bright spots were JaCoby Jones, who could play defense even if he couldn’t hit, and breakout players Niko Goodrum, Matthew Boyd, and Spencer Turnbull. Assuming that the prospects were going to get at-bats, the Tigers needed a first baseman for real this time, a second baseman, a catcher, two outfielders (or one starting right fielder), and one starting pitcher to eat innings before the elite pitching prospects are ready. So Al Avila took $20 million (a 25% increase!) and went out and got CJ Cron ($6.1 million), Jonathan Schoop ($6.1 million), Austin Romine ($4.5 million), Cameron Maybin ($1.5 million), and Ivan Nova ($1.5 million). Those deals sort of worked out better, though Nova and Cron both hit the IL early, with Romine underperforming. Still, Schoop was an average-ish MLB second baseman, and Cron became a fan favorite early by adding some power to the lineup. But the Tigers were still short that second outfielder, with Maybin acting more as a depth piece than a starter.

It’s easy to look at those two years of free agent deals and get angry. It’s also easy to bemoan the lack of creative moves made by the Tigers front office to fill those holes. But even with the benefit of hindsight it’s hard to produce a series of moves that makes the Tigers that much better in either year.

Sure, in 2019 you can sign Wade Miley (Astros) or Martin Perez (Twins) for less than Tyson Ross. Jordan Lyles (Pirates) would have been better than Matt Moore for around the same price. Neil Walker (Miami) would have been better than Josh Harrison at the same price. And either Freddy Galvis (Toronto) or Jose Iglesias (Baltimore) would have been better than Jordy Mercer, largely because they didn’t get hurt. Likewise, in 2020, maybe Al should have begged Alex Avila (Twins) to come home to Detroit. And maybe you check the couch cushions so you can afford Tajuan Walker instead of Ivan Nova.

Still, at the price point the Tigers have played in during the last offseason, you don’t get much of note. The Tigers missed some guys, but they also didn’t sign Marco Estrada or Clay Buchholz. Hell, most of these were considered misses because they got snakebit on injury: all four of the 2019 free agents went on the IL for extended periods of time, as did Nova and Cron in 2020. And even if Al Avila had the benefit of hindsight like we do, you need to convince those guys to come to Detroit. Some of those 1ish WAR starters will look at a rebuilding team and decide to try their luck with the Astros or Twins or another contender. Who could blame them?

There’s a bigger issue at play here. It’s that even if you replace Moore and Ross and Romine and Harrison and whomever with better players at the same price point, you’re still running out a sub-replacement level catcher in 2019 alongside praying that a guy in his mid-30s with knees that belong in an old-age home can still play first base in the major leagues. You’re still looking at a 2020 roster that desperately needs a capable starting outfielder to go alongside a questionable hitter in center so that your historically bad ballclub looks at least somewhat respectable. And you’re very lucky that your minor league player development team has given you something to work with for 2021, because it’s not much better.

The 2021 Tigers are rife with potential thanks to some nice little breakout performances by Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, and Victor Reyes. JaCoby Jones might have fixed his swing! You still need at least one starting outfielder, a corner infielder, a middle infielder, a starting catcher, and at least two starting pitchers to ensure your prized young arms don’t get injured. You know how this story ends. $15 million. Four guys: Jose Urena ($3.25 million), Robbie Grossman (2 years, $10 million, $5 million AAV), Wilson Ramos ($3 million), Jonathan Schoop ($4.5 million), Nomar Mazara ($1.75 million). About $17 million. Maybe you get that last starter or a corner infielder to put you back up to $18 million. It’s like clockwork.

It’s like clockwork despite the team not having a bloated payroll since 2017. It’s like clockwork despite having five or six holes every season. It’s like clockwork despite running out an offensively bad major league project every single year since Barack Obama left office. It’s like clockwork despite being one of the losingest teams in Major League Baseball. And it’s not on Al Avila.

And so now we come to the heart of the matter, which is that no matter how hard you try, you cannot, even with the aid of a crystal ball, fill six leaks with five plugs. You can try and get creative, but those numbers are there regardless. You have six leaks. You have the resources for five plugs. What do you do? Well, you sink, as the Tigers have done for half a decade. But instead of blaming the guy who had the job of plugging the leaks, I humbly suggest we blame the guy who provided five corks.

I’ve taken 1400 words to say what I normally do in 280 characters on Twitter, but, honestly, it needs spelling out. It’s on Chris Ilitch. Al Avila doesn’t set the payroll for this team. If he did, he’d probably set it a lot higher so he could actually find qualified, capable major league players. Instead, he gets $15-$20 million every offseason to find six capable major league starters. Even for a rebuilding team, that’s ridiculously low. And none of his excuses hold any water anymore. And oh boy, are there excuses.

The first is, of course, that the Tigers can’t spend money because of the bloated contracts of Miguel Cabrera, Jordan Zimmermann, and whomever else they need to move off the books. Of course, that doesn’t really hold water when we look at 2019, when the Tigers were 23rd in overall CBT salary commitments. It doesn’t really hold water in 2020, when the Tigers were 21st overall. And it certainly doesn’t make sense now, when the Tigers have one big contract on the books in Miguel Cabrera.

Next, of course, comes the cry that the Tigers will spend once the prospects are here. Lynn Henning, venerable Tigers beat writer, recently argued that the Tigers are going to spend in Fall 2022. That means sacrificing critical years of team control for top prospects. The clock’s already started on Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Issac Paredes, all of whom will be free agents by 2027. It also means you’re willing to accept two years of Spencer Turnbull and one year of Jeimer Candelario on a competitive team. Most importantly, announcing you’re going to wave a white flag in 2021 and 2022 means that there’s no point in anything that happens then. What happens if Mize and Skubal do what Justin Verlander did in 2006 next year? Or if Issac Paredes pulls a Curtis Granderson and absolutely blows up the league? Or maybe all these kids just put up solid starting seasons and weak competition in the AL Central or expanded playoffs is all you really need to squeeze in a Wild Card. This is the 2006 roadmap.

That’s also to say nothing of a need to build in advance. The Tigers signed Pudge Rodriguez in 2004, for instance. Sure, teams like the Cubs have often been one piece away, but this isn’t that team. There is little help coming for the outfield outside of Riley Greene. Dillion Dingler is the only catching prospect in the system worth note. Issac Paredes is the only potential impact middle infielder. Signing Trevor Story in 2021, or Marcell Ozuna this year would fill a long-term hole in this roster. It also means you can strike when the iron is hot, or baseball’s market is so broken that you can trade a flurry of mediocre prospects for Nolan Arenado. Tigers fans complain about Al Avila’s seeming inflexibility, but what’s the point of trading for a Wilson Contreras if you can’t extend him?

This argument is particularly pernicious because of how useful it is. Does Spencer Torkelson have to be up and ready before you bring in relief? What about Riley Greene? What about the Tigers’ third overall pick in the draft? How many years of team control are you willing to sacrifice to make sure everything comes together perfectly? If we’re cheap now, what happens in 2027 when Mize, Skubal, and Paredes hit free agency? By 2023, Tigers fans will have endured almost a decade of bad baseball. We’re supposed to just take four years of contention- if we’re lucky? Henning seems to think it’s ridiculous the Tigers are suddenly skinflints, but we’re looking at a half decade of misery and sub-replacement catchers. Why should I buy that we’re totally going to spend any day now?

So we get the next big issue: it’s the pandemic! MLB salaries are down because teams lost so much money last year. Which, OK. I’m not going to get into the nuances of that debate, but bear in mind that a) ownership won’t open their books, b) the average MLB salaries have dropped for three years running, and c) cash-poor teams mean opportunity. Plus, let’s not kid ourselves. The Ilitch family is loaded. Before Steve Cohen bought the Mets, Marian Ilitch was the third richest owner in baseball. There isn’t much public data available on Ilitch Holdings, but Little Caesars stock price is up almost $15 in the past year, and recovered from the pandemic dip.

In order to believe the pandemic is the issue, you’ve got to believe that one of the richest owners in baseball is somehow nearing insolvency. That logic doesn’t even make sense with the Tigers spending their usual $15 million! If they were that cash-poor, why didn’t the (meager) budget get cut (even further)?

That’s the problem laid out. Avila doesn’t have the resources to fill the extant holes on the roster, let alone do anything resembling creativity. He can’t trade for a relief pitcher to get a nice prospect thrown in because he can’t afford to pay the extra salary and still fill the holes in the roster. He can’t grab Nolan Arenado or Wilson Contreras on the cheap because the Tigers won’t pay the rest of the contract. Hell, he can’t even sign both a second starting pitcher AND a first baseman. The most creativity he can exercise is filling holes with fourth-rate prospects who might show a glimmer of promise, or signing first basemen to minor league deals, hoping they can win camp battles.

So where does this leave us as fans? I hate to say it, but even an Ivy-League educated McKinsey-trained wunderkind GM isn’t fixing this problem. Chaim Bloom can’t fix the budget. It’s not an issue for baseball ops or analytics personnel- those guys got you a bunch of top prospects anyway. Maybe smarter guys like Chris Fetter can make something of a guy like Jose Urena using concepts like seam shifted wake. But, ultimately, we come back to the same problem: there are not enough resources to make the product on the field bearable.

So stop wasting time with arguments about the general manager or the draft or whatever random-ass bottom of the barrel free agent we manage to sign this offseason. Stop talking about what new broadcast team is going to call another 95 loss season. Stop caring about Casey Mize or Tarik Skubal or Spencer Torkelson, because their next two seasons don’t matter anyway- the Tigers told you so. Do anything else with your time, because Tigers baseball won’t matter until 2023.

Cancel your season tickets. Turn off your TV. Turn off your radio. Do something else with your time. And come back in fall 2022 with me. After all, I told you in the title.

I’ll start caring about the Detroit Tigers when Chris Ilitch does.

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