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.

An eight-step guide to watching the 2018 Detroit Tigers

The Detroit Tigers are not going to be very good this year.

This is not news to anyone reading this. They’ve spent the last eight months gutting their roster and trading anything with value that isn’t nailed down. (Sorry, Miguel.) It means that, for the first time in over a decade, the Tigers are embarking on a season in which pretty much everyone involved thinks they have no chance. Sure, there have been years where they’ve floundered or finished well off the pace before – 2008, 2010, 2015 – but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

It has come to my attention that there are a lot of people who are going to find this jarring. If you turn 22 this year, that means you were only 10 years old in 2006, and over half of your life has been lived with the Tigers being relevant. Heck, if you’re currently in college, your memories of non-contending Tigers teams are fuzzy at best and more likely nonexistent. Even if you’re older like me and do have rather vivid memories of those late-90s and early-2000s teams, it’s been a while. We could all use a refresher course.

That is the question. How do you watch – and derive entertainment from – a team that will be mediocre at best and horrendously awful at worst?

Continue reading

What we know — and don’t know — about Al Avila’s trade record

Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila has a very busy two weeks ahead of him.

Despite whatever conjecture there will be via public or private comments, the Tigers are likely to at least sell some assets at the trade deadline. This will be the first time this happens under Avila, though he was heavily involved in Dave Dombrowski’s 2015 selloff.

I have, at times, been a bit surprised by the antipathy some Tigers fans harbor toward Avila. The truth of the matter is that his list of moves, particularly on the trade front, is not that long. There are the ones that he didn’t make, but according to those in the know, was hugely responsible for — Michael Fulmer was his idea, as was J.D. Martinez.

A majority of Avila’s free agent signings have been criticized, but looked sound at the time. Justin Upton looked like a disaster, but is now an All-Star. Jordan Zimmermann hasn’t worked out, but not even the most cynical fan could have predicted a spate of injuries and what happened after. Mark Lowe was iffy, but it was really only the Mike Pelfrey signing that commanded significant resources and was ripe for criticism immediately. Even that, as bad as it was, will have no long-term implications, as Pelfrey’s dollars will come off the books after this season. It was just the wrong choice.

What about Avila’s trades? Let’s go through the significant ones.

November 18, 2015 — Tigers trade infielder Javier Betancourt and catcher Manny Pina to the Milwaukee Brewers for relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez.

Whatever you think of what Rodriguez turned into in 2017, the Tigers did give up nothing of value to get him. Pina is a career backup, while Betancourt is a career .234 hitter at AA.

In 2016, Rodriguez posted a 3.24 ERA and saved 44 games for the Tigers. He did it for $7.5 million dollars. Was he elite? No. Did he blow some bad ones? Yes. Was he good enough overall? Pretty much. The Tigers got a year of decent relief pitching for nothing.

November 20, 2015 — Tigers trade relief pitcher Ian Krol and pitcher Gabe Speier to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for outfielder Cameron Maybin.

Again, Avila gives up little of value here. Speier has some potential, but doesn’t look like he’s about to become an elite reliever or anything like that. Krol is an inconsistent LOOGY. Maybin hit .315 in an injury-plagued season for the Tigers before being dealt again. Good deal, though, one that fans can have no complaints with.

December 9, 2015 — Tigers trade pitchers Chad Green and Luis Cessa to the New York Yankees in exchange for pitcher Justin Wilson.

Outstanding. On one hand, both Green and Cessa have turned into big leaguers, and Green has turned out to be a pretty good reliever. So is Wilson, though — a hard-throwing lefty who should command a significant return on the trade market. The rare trade that works for both sides, but it’s safe to say there are few regrets from the Tigers side of the deal.

November 3, 2016 — Tigers trade outfielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels for pitcher Victor Alcantara.

A salary dump, pretty much. Doesn’t look great on the surface. Alcantara has good stuff if he can ever get command of it.

That’s it. There are some other minor ones — swapping Bryan Holaday for Bobby Wilson, and the Mikie Mahtook deal — but Avila is, near as I can tell, loathed by certain segments of the fanbase on the basis of four trades — three of which were good — and four free agent signings, as well as his retention of Brad Ausmus as manager.

Why? Who knows. The obvious answer is the team hasn’t succeeded despite a high payroll, but a number of the contracts that have led to this situation were handed out by Avila’s predecessor. The same goes for the lack of prospects and roster flexibility — the result of an organization under a mandate from ownership to stretch the window out as long as possible, even when it probably shouldn’t have been. Was Avila second in command during that time? Yes. We don’t know how much or how little input he had on all these moves.

The reality is, as much as some Tigers fans would like to write Avila’s epitaph now, his record as general manager of the team is very much a blank slate. What happens in the next two weeks will go a long way toward defining it.

Game 77: Daniel Norris drives me insane

Notes from the baseball wilderness, Vol. 77:

Daniel Norris is a mere 24 years old. It is far, far too soon to write him off and anyone who does so should be roundly ignored and ostracized and targeted with all sorts of truly offensive name-calling like “ninny” and “loser” and “silly doo-doo head” and things of that nature. But at some point, the young left-hander needs to take a step forward.

For pitching prospects who fail, it is rarely a failure of stuff. It’s not talent — every big leaguer has talent, yes, even you, Francisco Rodriguez — but rather learning how to use it. Guys who have gone through their entire minor league career tossing 99 MPH past guys get to the Majors and quickly discover that, yes, these hitters can square up a 99 MPH fastball if it doesn’t move enough or is poorly located. The challenge for a gifted young pitcher isn’t their stuff — it’s harnessing it and learning how to consistently get hitters out with it.

That is where Norris is. He made 13 starts last year, struck out over a batter an inning, kept his walks down, and looked like he’d figured something out. On Wednesday night, he made his 15th start of the season. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up, and he’s worse across the board.

Why? Who knows. You can clearly see the talent when he pitches, he’ll go through good stretches, and then you have outings like this one, where every time he got behind in a count, he seemed to resort to a meaty fastball that was hit halfway to Windsor.

Like for the Tigers, the 2017 season looks like it might be a lost cause for Norris. That may actually work out better in the long-term — with no pressure to lift the team out of their current malaise, he can work on learning to pitch at this level and finding the consistency he will need to become the reliable starter he still can be.

Tigers score 19 runs, still manage to make you hate them

The Detroit Tigers beat the Seattle Mariners 19-9 on Tuesday night at Comerica Park, with their bullpen trying to see just how big a lead they could blow in the process. Some thoughts:

  • Remember when we were a little worried by the offense’s slow start? Obviously, a lineup prominently featuring Jim Adduci, Andrew Romine, and Tyler Collins probably isn’t going to be banging out 24 hits on a regular basis in games started by Felix Hernandez, but don’t question it now. Justin Upton hit a particularly impressive bomb, and James McCann actually managed to take Hernandez deep (though it’s safe to say the pitcher was not himself and lasted just two innings thanks to a “dead arm.”
  • Jordan Zimmermann wasn’t terribly impressive, and he couldn’t blame the weather this time.  He gave up 11 hits in six innings, good for five earned runs. He didn’t walk anyone, which was the good news, but his one strikeout was evidence of the fact that the guy didn’t miss many bats. You’d have liked to see at least seven out of him after being staked to such a huge lead.
  • That bullpen. I’m not sure what else to say other than it’s utterly unforgivable that so many guys had to be trotted out there to get outs with a double-digit lead. Shane Greene walked two and gave up two hits while only getting two outs. Kyle Ryan walked two and gave up a hit in an inning. Joe Jimenez walked two in two thirds of an inning, and Blaine Hardy walked one and gave up two hits in just a third of an inning. In total, the Tigers’ bullpen pitched three innings, all of them with an enormous lead, and allowed five hits and seven walks in those three innings. It was atrocious and the only one who pitched tonight who shouldn’t be ashamed of himself is Alex Wilson, who came in to get one out and did so in characteristically controlled fashion. He and Justin Wilson are the only two trustworthy relievers right now.
  • It wasn’t Brad Ausmus’s fault, for what it’s worth. The fault lies with the pitchers themselves, who had no excuse for failing that badly in zero-pressure situations, and the folks who put together a bullpen with zero depth to speak of. Some of these guys don’t belong on a big league roster, but there just isn’t anybody better in the system lying around, so here they are.
  • Ultimately, the good outweighed the bad by about ten runs — but it’s amazing that this team can put up 19 runs and 24 hits and still manage to leave a sour taste in your mouth.

The series continues Wednesday in a battle of hard-throwing lefties: James Paxton vs. Daniel Norris.

The Tigers won a series in Cleveland!

This is not a political blog, so I offer this not as commentary, but as a frame of reference: the Tigers clinched their last series win at Cleveland’s Progressive Field with a 7-3 win on June 23, 2015. A week prior to that, Donald Trump announced that he was running for President of the United States. It has, indeed, been a while.

  • I’m going to keep sitting here and saying Matthew Boyd is basically a fifth starter, and he was pitching in a ton of traffic Sunday that could have easily gone the wrong way had he not been as sharp. Luckily, he was. The contact was by and large not stinging, and despite the traffic, he didn’t ever give up the big hit. Kudos to him.
  • Alex Avila? Really? Well, he always did have good starts to the season, perhaps because he hadn’t yet taken 355,419 foul tips off his facemask. Perhaps more limited duty will make him more effective later into the season.
  • Wilson-Wilson-Rodriguez actually works really well as a bullpen. Just need to get it there and all that.
  • I understand the appeal of the World Baseball Classic, I really do, but it’s awful hard for me to say anything nice about it when Miguel Cabrera returns from it with a bad back that is still a problem. Hopefully it’s not serious, and Brad Ausmus should handle the Tropicana Field nonsense with great caution.
  • The Indians are 5-7 and really not hitting, especially with RISP. That will turn, but enjoy it while it lasts.

Game 2017-12: Tigers (7-4) at Indians (5-6)

DETROIT

SP: Matt Boyd

1. Ian Kinsler (2B)
2. Nick Castellanos (3B)
3. Miguel Cabrera (1B)
4. Victor Martinez (DH)
5. Justin Upton (LF)
6. Tyler Collins (RF)
7. Alex Avila (C)
8. Andrew Romine (CF)
9. Jose Iglesias (SS)

CLEVELAND

SP: Carlos Carrasco

1. Carlos Santana (1B)
2. Francisco Lindor (SS)
3. Michael Brantley (LF)
4. Edwin Encarnacion (DH)
5. Jose Ramirez (2B)
6. Brandon Guyer (RF)
7. Yandy Diaz (3B)
8. Austin Jackson (CF)
9. Yan Gomes (C)

RANDOM STUFF: Carlos Carrasco’s ERA against Detroit in 2017 was 0.51 in 17.2 innings. The year prior, it was an even 5. The Tigers still have yet to lose a series in 2017, but will need to beat Cleveland to keep that mark alive. This is Matthew Boyd’s first career start against Cleveland. He faced them once in 2016, tossing 4.2 scoreless innings of relief in a 6-3 loss last April.