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Wojo: Detroit teams’ woes testing fan faith

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Nick Castellanos, left, is staying with the Tigers but Ian Kinsler will play with former Tiger Justin Upton next season after his trade to the Angels on Wednesday.

Winter is here, in case you haven’t noticed, and it could be a long, dark, cold one. And no, it’s not just the weather.

It’s the grim, frigid state of Detroit’s pro sports teams, the dismantling of the Tigers and the disarray of the Red Wings and Pistons. This says it all: Somehow the 7-6 Lions, for all their flaws and foibles, represent the best short-term hope for success.

Ian Kinsler was the latest quality player to leave, shipped to the Angels for low-level prospects. It was neither a surprise nor a mistake. The Tigers are all-in on their rebuild, which includes lowering payroll and expectations. They’re about as low as they can go, and you know what the truly unsettling part is? The Tigers are likely to lose upwards of 110 games next season, yet they’re the team at least committed to an actual direction.

The Tigers don’t have many tradeable commodities left, with almost all their remaining veterans either extremely expensive or coming off horrible seasons — Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann. That’s why general manager Al Avila is forced to listen to offers for young ace Michael Fulmer, although that’s an ugly notion. Fulmer is coming off elbow surgery so his value is depressed, and when healthy, he’s precisely the type of 24-year-old star you never, ever trade.

But these are desperate times and teams, with new owners who don’t say much and don’t seem inclined to demand more. The uncertainty is the scary part for Detroit fans. Mike Ilitch and Bill Davidson are gone, and while Chris Ilitch and Tom Gores are brilliant businessmen committed to the city, we have no idea if they can remotely match the competitive sports spirit of their predecessors.

Since taking over for her late husband, Martha Ford has shown the most vigor, quickly firing the previous front office. But now the Lions face another critical crossroad, on the fringe of playoff contention as they prepare to meet the Bears Saturday.

Jim Caldwell’s job presumably remains in jeopardy, considering his contract extension reportedly guarantees only one year. Any determination about his future by GM Bob Quinn must address this frightful question: How do the Lions avoid wasting Matthew Stafford’s career, just as Barry Sanders’ and Calvin Johnson’s were largely squandered?

Jim Caldwell’s job security is on shaky ground after if was reported his contract extension is only a one-year deal, with 2018 guaranteed.

Bleak times

Fans generally accept a rebuild if they believe it’s done for the right reasons, and if they trust the people in charge. Of the four general managers — Avila, Quinn, Stan Van Gundy, Ken Holland — Quinn gained trust by default, coming from the Patriots and drafting decently his first season, but it’s not a bottomless trust.

Holland and Van Gundy are rightly under fire, as the Wings and Pistons struggle to define where they’re headed. In a sense, both are hampered by past success, as the Pistons made the playoffs two years ago and thought they had a core in Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to sustain it. After an uplifting 14-6 start this season, they’d lost seven in a row heading into Thursday night, including an embarrassment at home against the Nuggets. The trade deadline could get very interesting.

It’s the same with the Wings, who were reluctant to commit to a full tear-down in the midst of their 25-year playoff streak. It’s coming now though, barring an unforeseen turnaround. They’ve lost 10 of 11 (five of the losses in OT) heading into Friday’s game against the Maple Leafs. Jeff Blashill isn’t a proven NHL coach but this is primarily on Holland, in the final year of his contract. In an attempt to stay competitive — at Mike Ilitch’s strong urging — Holland made some poor deals, and now is stuck with an unbalanced roster.

Captain Henrik Zetterberg, 37, goalie Jimmy Howard, 33, and defenseman Niklas Kronwall, 36, sit at one extreme, with Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou at the other. There’s legitimate promise in the young group, and there should be some patience. But it’s a perfect dreary storm here right now, with all four teams in similar shape, so none can distract fans from the others.

It’s the bleakest it’s been in nearly a decade, since the Red Wings won the last championship in 2008. Detroit fans had it good back then, from the 2004 championship Pistons to the Tigers’ World Series appearances in 2006 and 2012, which spotlights how rough they have it now. The only notable celebration of late was an ode to the past, when Alan Trammell and Jack Morris finally, rightly made the Baseball Hall of Fame.

We wonder why shimmering new Little Caesars Arena has so many empty red seats, and debate whether the busy concourse, cool restaurants and fancy clubs draw fans away. But sorry, nothing repels like middlin’ teams with no superstars and wildly inconsistent effort. Since Nov. 19, the Pistons and Wings are a combined 5-18.

No quick fixes

Chris Ilitch says the family is keeping the Tigers and Wings and not paring back, but that’s partly semantics. The Tigers’ strategy is to scale down, then build up, but it could take years. A comparable strategy is under way for the Wings, but they haven’t had nearly as many tradeable pieces on affordable contracts.

In that sense, someone like Athanasiou slightly mirrors Fulmer — a growing talent who could tempt a team to make an enticing offer. Holland and Avila can only make those deals if they get tremendous value in return, and it has to be with a plan in mind, not desperation in the air.

Of all the executives here, Avila has both the nastiest and easiest task. There’s no ambiguity in the mandate, and by trading away virtually every recognizable player, there’s no expectation. The return of prospects in some cases, particularly the Justin Verlander deal, is encouraging. The return for guys like Kinsler and J.D. Martinez was underwhelming, as other teams took advantage of a sell-off, just as the Tigers did for a decade.

There’s no quick fix and no need for happy-happy fake promises.

Ron Gardenhire will say positive things, as every manager does, but he knows the deal. Blashill knows the deal. Van Gundy is still trying to figure out the deal with his team. And Caldwell is where he often is, competent enough to keep it interesting, not strong enough to stir rampant hope.

It’s the stale state of Detroit sports, stuck in flux, searching for fresh new stars. Fans haven’t given up, and there will be another big crowd at Ford Field Saturday, hoping Stafford can wing them to victory. But their faith is being severely tested, and should not be taken for granted by owners, GMs, coaches and players. Something or someone has to emerge, or more pain and more change are inevitable.