Henning: Tigers face fork in the road
During conversation at a Birmingham eatery Thursday evening, a friend and Tigers season-ticket patron, Steve Olinek, mentioned he wasn't sure about renewing his seats in 2015.
He wasn't displeased with Detroit's baseball team. He simply wasn't sure he wanted to re-up. Tickets are expensive. The team is good but not so magnetic he needs to commit several thousand dollars to a specific number of Comerica Park visits.
Even ahead of Thursday's chat, it looked as if the Tigers could face a challenge evident in one man's late-autumn thoughts about baseball in Detroit.
Fans are weary. They had a tough time with the 2014 team. They were whipsawed by winning streaks and by losing skids. They were frayed by bullpen breakdowns and by a three-game disappearance in the playoffs after winning their fourth consecutive American League Central Division flag.
It sets up a sticky offseason for owner Mike Ilitch and front-office chief Dave Dombrowski. The Tigers need to get better. They want to re-invigorate fans jaded by 90-victory seasons and by no World Series trophy. And that won't be easy when the team's heavy payroll makes crowd-stirring moves difficult for Ilitch and for Dombrowski.
Walking a thin line
Friday's roster tweaks spoke of the tightrope the Tigers are walking.
They made qualifying offers ($15.3 million for one year) to free agents Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, which at least guarantees the Tigers an early draft pick in 2015 when or if either player signs with another team.
Scherzer is assumed to be headed elsewhere, while Martinez is probably a 50-50 bet to be re-inked by the Tigers. But signing Martinez, should Detroit retain its best hitter from 2014, will almost certainly push the Tigers far past their hefty 2014 payroll of $163 million. And that's without signing or trading for players they need in the outfield, bullpen, and starting rotation, which is why some fans are worrying about 2015 and wondering now about the worth of season seats.
Ilitch is generous but has his limits. Boundaries can tighten if he and his business office foresee lower attendance and revenue in 2015. And minus the kind of Hot Stove shuffles that make fans hungry for a new season, demand can soften. It's a Catch-22 when adding billboard names that thrill season-ticket buyers costs money the Tigers are trying to, if not conserve, appropriate wisely.
The Tigers made two other moves Friday, one of which was a mild surprise.
They said goodbye to outfielder Andy Dirks. And by advertising him on the waiver wire, where he was grabbed by the Blue Jays, Dombrowski was implicitly saying the Tigers can and will find a healthier and better player in 2015.
How the Tigers will replace Dirks and his left-handed bat hints at Dombrowski's overall outfield strategy. He figures a bat will either arrive in rookie right-fielder Steven Moya, or in the hands of a new center fielder, which could be free agent Colby Rasmus.
The Tigers liked Dirks. But they knew he was too regularly hurt and probably was best cast as a platoon option in left field. They want someone more secure, someone who can work more as a left-handed regular, and that choice figures to become clearer as Moya matures and as Dombrowski settles on a new center fielder.
They decided also on absorbing Joakim Soria and his 2015 contract that could have been declined for $500,000 but now will cost the team $7 million. It makes sense to keep Soria. He is only 30 and he pitched brilliantly for the Rangers in 2014, working 35 games for them ahead of July's trade to Detroit at which point he crash-landed.
For reasons that are probably physical – Soria missed more than a month with a strained oblique after he joined the Tigers – he became a different pitcher in Detroit: 4.91 ERA versus 2.70 with the Rangers; 1.36 WHIP compared with .087 in Texas.
The Tigers could have written off Soria as one of those inexplicable disasters that sometimes happens in baseball. But they are better off looking at a relatively young pitcher's past record and believing Soria will rebound.
They spent lavishly in trading for Soria (pitching prospects Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel would have been major players in Detroit's 2015 plans) and as much want a dividend from that deal as they need Soria to become a dependable back-end bullpen option in '15.
Other moves needed
How they satisfy other needs is anything but clear. Finding a reliable, innings-chewing starter who can step in for Scherzer won't be easy and doesn't figure to immediately involve any of the Tigers' young starting prospects.
It's never easy finding a center fielder, and Dombrowski has particularly ticklish work ahead. He needs also to replace Torii Hunter in right field, unless the Tigers re-sign him, which of course will require a few million bucks the Tigers would enjoy applying elsewhere.
Dombrowski typically gets Ilitch's blessing to do what he must to make his team a contender. For an owner resolved to winning, it has been an easy call, investing in championship-grade players who double as good box-office business.
The quest continues this autumn and probably into winter. Stocking a roster. Animating the fan base. And figuring out at what level your payroll can support the Tigers' dual missions.