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.

We Didn’t Start the Fiers

Because he got traded to the Oakland Athletics after all!

Mike Fiers was one of many Major Leaguers put on trade waivers this week and, unsurprisingly, the Oakland Athletics claimed him on Friday. The teams then had 72-hours to work out a trade, or the Tigers could pull Fiers back or let Oakland claim him. The deadline was at 1:30pm today. At 1:28pm according to Lynn Henning), the two teams hammered out a deal.

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Deadline Day Primer: DON’T TRADE MICHAEL FULMER

By Friend of the Blog, Andrew Welch
(Find Andrew’s other guest post here)
As we approach tomorrow’s deadline Tigers fandom is itching for Avila to get off his lazy ass and make a trade. Trade Fiers, trade Liriano, trade Iglesias, trade Greene, trade Martin but the result of any inaction or action will be met with the same response of last year’s JD Martinez trade: “THE TIGERS DIDN’T GET ENOUGH!” “THEY TRADED HIM TOO EARLY/TOO LATE!” “AL AVILA SUCKS!”
The one polarizing figure we’re all waiting with bated breath for is Tigers ace Michael Fulmer: should he stay, should he go? Is he good or is he bad? Is he an 8-story tall crustacean from the protozoic era or is he a pitcher that goes out and throws every five days?
More after the jump!

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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?

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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.

Explaining the Art of the Mini-Sell

As if you haven’t figured out by now, things aren’t going well for the Tigers at the present time. It was a very strange 8-game losing streak in that every game except one seems to have hinged on a single moment (the one exception being the finale against the Rays), but it is a losing streak nonetheless (and that’s a story for another post). It’s only natural that the word “sell” starts to creep into writers’ minds. Al Avila has gone on record saying that they are “open for discussions,” which is about as vague a comment as you can get. Seriously, is there any point in time (other than possibly October) when a team is NOT open for discussion? Still, it raises an important question: What do they mean when they say “sell?” If you’ve been reading much of the local sports media, they’ll have you believe it’s nothing short of full rebuild. I can’t say for sure what’s in the front office’s mind, but I find this approach to be ill-advised and unnecessary (and I’ll get into some of the reasons shortly). Rather, if they don’t get things turned around, I think a much better approach would be to do something akin to what they did in 2015, which was to trade away impending free agents, and I’ll even include guys whose contracts are up at the end of next season. I call this the mini-sell, and I have very specific criteria for how to go about doing it. Now, I have not thrown in the towel yet on this season. I am much too obstinate and stubborn to give up with this much time left until the trade deadline, so for now, think of this as a contingency plan if things continue to go south. And without further ado, I bring you my rules for the mini-sell:

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Tigers Release K-Rod into the Wild, Recall Rondón

A day after another forgettable outing in a long string of forgettable outings, the Tigers decided they had finally seen enough of their erstwhile closer, Francisco Rodriguez. K-Rod, if you missed it, was called upon to keep the Tigers close in a 5-3 game, but quickly loaded and unloaded the bases, giving up a grand slam to Robinson Canó. Afterwards, he declined to speak to the media. One suspected it might not be long until the other shoe dropped.

And indeed it did.

Today, the Tigers finally severed ties with K-Rod, ending a (recently) fraught relationship full of role shuffling, blown saves, homerun balls, and accusations of miscommunication:

The Tigers recalled the hard throwing Bruce Rondón to replace K-Rod. Rondón, who’s been something of an enigma during his Tigers tenure, was shuttled to Toledo after several rocky appearances out of the bullpen in April. He’s come up with mixed results in Toledo, which include a robust 11.1 K/9 and an equally robust 6.1 BB/9, but he’s been much better lately.

In his last ten appearances, Rondón has thrown 10 innings, allowed 2 runs, struck out 12, and walked only 3. It’s imperative—for both the Tigers and Rondón—that the right hander has a strong return.

As for K-Rod, the veteran closer departs as the fourth all-time saves leader (h/t Chris McCosky), and may very well be destined for Cooperstown. It’s sad K-Rod’s ending in Detroit couldn’t be more of the storybook variety, but age catches up to us all one way or another.