Detroit — All four are stuck in the same difficult spot, not sure which way to go, just as they’re about to be clustered together. When Little Caesars Arena opens, Detroit will be the lone American city with four pro franchises in a downtown core, in an area rapidly being rebuilt at precisely the time the teams are struggling with their own construction plans.
Al Avila gave it another go with essentially the same group of Tigers and it doesn’t appear to be working. A major sell-off looms, with the primary debate centered on J.D. Martinez.
Ken Holland gave it another go with essentially the same group of Red Wings and it didn’t work, and a major rebuild looms. Stan Van Gundy gave it another go with essentially the same group of Pistons and it didn’t work, and a major dilemma awaits.
Bob Quinn is giving it a go with the same key Lions components — coach, coordinators, quarterback — and a verdict is yet to be rendered, although it’ll be here soon. By the end of the upcoming season, we’ll know much more about the futures of Jim Caldwell and Matthew Stafford.
Detroit’s sports teams are owned by wealthy, entrenched owners — Chris Ilitch, Tom Gores, Martha Ford — who generally sign the checks and stay out of the spotlight. That puts the onus on the general managers, and all four face similar, significant challenges, while fans face a sobering possibility — Detroit could go an entire year without a playoff appearance for the first time since 1981.
Avila has the toughest job in the group, and has made a couple of high-profile mistakes. Quinn has the most leeway as a first-time GM. Holland has the most experience and most success, by far, but must reinvent himself. Van Gundy, who holds the power but has a GM in Jeff Bower, showed early promise, then stalled.
No titles on horizon
Based on the age of their players, the contracts and the competition, it’ll be difficult for the Tigers, Red Wings, Lions or Pistons to win a championship anytime soon. You know it’s especially daunting when the Lions might have the best chance, and I’m not even kidding.
Look at the four major sports. Well-built, star-driven teams are winning it all these days — Warriors, Patriots, Cubs, Penguins — with few interlopers. You have to go back to the 2004 Pistons to find a local interloper, the unique champions crafted by Joe Dumars. The last title team here, the 2008 Wings, were the definition of elite.
Championships are won with smart front offices and well-executed plans, and the GMs here have something to prove. Avila, in his second full season in charge, has the most talented team, and also the most complex problems. He has an underwhelming manager, Brad Ausmus, in the final year of his contract. He has big-name players making superstar money and delivering below value — Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann. He has an inconsistent mix of older stars and potential stars not in their primes.
The tricky part for Avila is, one of his most popular players is the one he might be forced to trade. J.D. Martinez is a terrific Detroit story of reclamation, dumped by the Astros in 2014 and since slugging at a prodigious rate, when healthy. He has 10 home runs in 27 games, and has hit .299 in less than four seasons with the Tigers, while proving to be humble and clutch.
He’s also a pending free-agent likely to top $20 million in annual salary, and the Tigers already sit above the luxury-tax threshold with a $200-million payroll, third-highest in baseball. Under Mike Ilitch, spending wasn’t cost-effective, but it kept the Tigers in contention past a reasonable time.
Circumstance is about to test the competitive and business balance of Chris Ilitch, who surely would love to keep J.D. Martinez. But if the Tigers are more than a few games out of the playoffs in mid-July, a sell-off makes sense. Every time you think this team might be good enough to avoid the yard sale, it gives games away. Sorry, but you’ll have to deal with the up-and-down agony for another month or so.
The Tigers are in this spot because they gave large contracts to superstars more for past performance than future feats. And also because Avila made poor use of free-agent money, signing busts Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe, and investing way too much in Zimmermann.
My advice to Avila: Ride it out as long as this team can, lean on your analytics people to make astute trades, and hope you earned the trust of Chris Ilitch not to dump too much payroll. And yes, if the Tigers are essentially out of it before July 31, you’ll have to trade J.D. Martinez.
The Lions’ issues aren’t as vexing or immediate, but they’re huge. Tackle Taylor Decker’s shoulder injury is a blow that will test their depth, but it’s not a referendum on the franchise’s progress. The Lions’ future will depend on which way Stafford turns, and whether his upward trend can become major growth. Quinn must decide soon whether to hand Stafford an enormous contract, which might determine whether he extends Caldwell beyond this season.
My advice to Quinn: Don’t haphazardly alter the course. Sign Stafford and stick to the plan of building from the interior out.
A chunk of the Wings’ future will be charted in the next two weeks, when Holland must prove a higher draft pick reaps higher rewards. After 25 years in the playoffs, it’s time for a bolder approach regarding trades, even if it means dealing a young guy like Andreas Athanasiou. The problem for the Wings is, their most-valuable assets aren’t tradeable — passionate fan base, strong ownership, fantastic new arena.
My advice to Holland: Act like this is the first year of a new job and challenge long-held beliefs. It could start with a big trade or two.
Van Gundy is in a similar spot, having ridden it out with an unchanged cast led by Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Unlike Holland, Van Gundy hasn’t been risk-averse, and simply signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a long-term deal isn’t enough. The core needs to be shuffled.
My advice to Van Gundy (and by extension, to Avila, Quinn and Holland): Don’t be afraid to shake things up, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a popular or unpopular move, just that it fits a larger plan. District Detroit has been built against all odds, with old money, renewed passion and fresh ideas. The teams are welcome to replicate the strategy.