Henning: Chris Ilitch soothes nervous Tigers fan base
Lakeland, Fla. — Notes, thoughts, items as the Tigers wrap up Week Two of their preseason choreography at Tigertown:
Chris Ilitch says all the best things.
Knowing he is being sized up, maybe even suspiciously, by a Tigers community fearful he will shred budgets and take a razor to baseball line-items, Chris Ilitch had a vital news briefing Friday in the hours before his dad, Mike Ilitch, was honored in a lovely farewell at Marchant Stadium (Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, to keep the sponsors and officious folk happy).
Chris said he loved baseball, that he coached his kids’ teams as a measure of that passion, and that the Tigers weren’t going to worry about payroll even with luxury-tax penalties mounting. He knows assorted fat contracts will be shed at the end of 2017 and that a payroll his dad took into the stratosphere will in short time subside.
He repeated, several times, the team would spend what it must on “drafting and development” — the way in which any winning roster fundamentally is built.
How will that change from ways under his dad?
The Tigers are estimated by general manager Al Avila to be in the “top 10” of big-league clubs in terms of their scouting and development staff and budgets. Relative to market size, they might be tops.
Two changes have been taking shape in the 18 months since Avila became GM.
The senior development staff has doubled, and the analytics department has also grown in personnel and in technology.
Dave Littlefield is vice president of development — a new post — with Dave Owen working as director of development.
There are full coaching staffs at each minor-league level and a cast of roving instructors. There is a new blueprint for teaching in a consistent and comprehensive fashion.
The analytics department got a heavy makeover when Jay Sartori arrived from the Blue Jays (and from Apple) to work with Sam Menzin. They have since been joined by former Yankees metrics-cruncher Jim Logue.
The Silicon Valley-stamped “Caesar” technology system is up and running and now a match for the best software anywhere in baseball, or so the Tigers insist.
Scouting staffs are well-stocked and at a level Avila finds comfortable.
What must change, of course, is the Tigers’ fate on draft day.
They’ll get a boost in the most basic way by this year having all their draft picks. Last year, they lost second- and third-round turns (Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton compensation) that you can tack onto a string of first-rounders shed (2010-12) as ransom for signing Jose Valverde, Victor Martinez, and Prince Fielder.
A new players-owners contract has generally reduced penalties there, but it doesn’t matter. The Tigers can’t continue with the free-agent spending sprees, which are bad for payroll and poison for injecting young, affordable, long-term talent onto a team’s roster. Chris Ilitch knows it and so does the Tigers front office.
The Tigers will also need to draft better. That simple. They have had particular issues adding position talent, although Nick Castellanos and James McCann are nice examples of how they’ve scored. It’s tough to grab bats when you’re picking deep, or when you’ve had picks swiped by teams that lost hotshot free agents to the Tigers’ once-lavish checkbook. You can’t have it both ways in building a roster and too often the Tigers have opted for poaching star players at the expense of drafting and developing their own.
Now the obligation, fair or not, is to find bats with later picks, or by stockpiling pitchers they can ultimately deal for position talent — all while plugging good arms into their system.
That’s a heavy mission for any team when young baseball players are the most difficult of all professional athletes to project in terms of timeline and skills.
What’s important is knowing that a new owner understands the Tigers have no choice. Their domestic draft and their international star-hunts are the only way to contend, long term, while making sure a Comerica Park ticket keeps its cachet.
About those Tigers drafts …
The Detroit News published three weeks ago a lengthy look at Tigers drafts from 2005-2015. It was a detailed view of what went right, what went wrong, and how a team rated given its draft position and draft numbers spanning a decade.
It was a straight analysis. There was only one grievance filed — by Tigers former draft director (now assistant GM) David Chadd. Chadd took issue with ESPN.com’s Keith Law over attributed remarks about Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly and their radar-gun readings prior to the Tigers drafting them when Chadd worked for then-general manager Dave Dombrowski.
The segment that irked Chadd was paraphrased in this manner in the Feb. 5 story:
Law argues the Tigers have been so-so in drafting pitchers. He finds it ironic that two of the best pitchers drafted — Porcello and Smyly — weren’t high-velocity guys Detroit favored under Dombrowski’s organizational watch.
In light of Chadd’s protest, it’s necessary to include Law’s verbatim quotation:
“Their philosophy on pitching has always been to go for velocity, which is why it's a bit ironic that the two best pitchers they've drafted in that time span aren't hard throwers. (Porcello did hit 97 in high school but hasn't really pitched like that since A-ball.) I've always assumed that this was at least partly from Dombrowski, who views most prospects as currency to trade for established big leaguers, often stars like Miguel Cabrera or Chris Sale.
“I don't think it's even debatable that this is generally a smart strategy for a GM; if there's a debate, it's whether they got enough value out of all of those hard-throwing pitchers who never amounted to anything in the majors, because I think other teams as a group have been valuing pure velocity less and looking at performance more, and are now looking at additional variables like spin rate or x/y movement.”
Chadd’s scouting report, obtained by the News, was from Porcello’s games at Seton Hall Prep High when his fastball averaged 95 and reached 98 at the October, 2006, High School Showcase at Jupiter, Fla. Smyly, according to Chadd’s scout sheet, regularly threw as high as 94 during his final year at the University of Arkansas and averaged 91.
This data is offered to clarify how two pitchers were throwing at the time they were drafted and how velocity was considered as the Tigers’ made their draft-day appraisals.
Not easy finding catchers. Tigers have been getting them.
Trying to find a Tigers catcher a decade ago the Tigers had actually drafted and developed tended to be a two-name answer: Bill Freehan and Lance Parrish.
But while the position hunts haven’t always gone Detroit’s way the past 10 years, the Tigers have done a neat job, on balance, grabbing that scarcest of commodities: catchers.
They got Alex Avila in the fifth round in 2007 and five years after he started an All-Star game for the Tigers he’s back in Detroit as McCann’s fill-in.
They picked Bryan Holaday in the sixth round (2010) and got mileage from him as well as a trade chip (Myles Jaye) from the Rangers they still own.
They drafted Rob Brantly in the third round of that same 2010 draft and two years later made him part of the Anibal Sanchez deal.
And, while they aren’t exactly celebrating this swap, in 2006 they sent Chris Robinson (third round, 2005) to the Cubs in a deal that landed the immortal Neifi Perez.
They have another of their drafted apprentices who looks as if he is approaching Comerica Park.
Grayson Greiner had a single in two at-bats Saturday. He is 6-foot-6, a right-handed batter, and swings the bat neatly. He is 24 and three years ago was a third-round pick from the University of South Carolina. He will be setting up shop this spring at either Double A Erie or Triple A Toledo and could easily be one of those gents summoned in September when rosters expand.
He batted .293 last year at three stops (Single A Lakeland, Erie, and Toledo) and will be one to monitor in 2017.