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Henning: Ilitch, Avila confront new times for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers owner Chris Ilitch inherited the costs of his father’s understandable mission to win a World Series.

Time, for a moment, to step away from the Tigers. That is, from their rotation, bullpen, baserunning adventures, and prospects for straightening out and making summer at Comerica Park relevant and entertaining.

It seems time today to think about the years ahead.

It has been nearly four months since Mike Ilitch died. It has been presumed that the Tigers, for now, are staying put, within the family, and that nothing is likely to change in terms of stewardship.

Today that’s true. Left unsaid is that scenarios could change. There is no guarantee after Marian Ilitch's passing that the status quo will prevail. Chris Ilitch, who has assumed ownership duties since his father passed, is maintaining general policies, even as the Tigers work to prune a terribly overweight payroll and build an appealing future baseball product.

Not an easy assignment, either for Chris, who inherited the costs of his father’s understandable mission to win a World Series, or for general manager Al Avila, who is trying to remodel a roster at a point baseball clubs are in love with youth and low-cost acquisitions.

What must be kept in mind is how the Tigers have appreciated since Mike Ilitch purchased them in 1992 for $82 million. For the sake of 2017 perspective, that’s about the same price as he authorized for signing Anibal Sanchez to a new contract in 2012.

Forbes Magazine last month calculated the Tigers’ worth at $1.2 billion. The Miami Marlins, who are being dangled at the moment to interested investors for $1 billion-plus, were estimated by Forbes to be worth $940 million.

The Forbes numbers are but one window into how handsome can be the return when big-brand professional sports franchises are sold.

Assumptions, therefore, on any level, cannot be made. It’s valid to believe the Tigers and Comerica Park will remain integral to the Foxtown/Little Caesars Arena and 44-block phenomenon that continues to take shape wondrously as it pushes deep into Midtown.

Time of transition

But that will remain true no matter who principally owns the Tigers.

Would there be big-bucks moguls craving to own Detroit’s baseball club?

Assuredly yes. Take a look across America’s four primary professional sports. All find new buyers who generally pay exorbitant sums, which usually surpass estimates. A team with the brand name of the Tigers, enhanced incalculably by Mike Ilitch’s care and smarts, would be gobbled up.

These are realities necessary to bear in mind as transition years arrive for the Tigers.

How this plays out, ultimately, for the on-field product and for Avila, is difficult to project, regardless of who owns the team.

For now, Chris Ilitch is maintaining, admirably in this view, a sensible constancy in overseeing his baseball club. He did not act drastically during the offseason when luxury-tax costs, assumed by his dad, became more expensive with the arrival of a new December owners-players contract.

He knows he and his team are being squeezed disproportionately. The Tigers remain a mid-market team subject to New York-grade penalties in having overshot their payroll. But since absorbing more and more of his dad’s duties beginning last year, Chris Ilitch has been careful and patient in working with Avila to steer a team into new and leaner times.

The market simply hasn’t allowed for a club with bloated salaries to shed those paychecks. Ironically, at a time of record profits ($10 billion-plus in 2016), big-league teams have suddenly embraced a young-and-affordable creed in stocking their rosters.

And so the Tigers are caught. For now, anyway.

Some changes could, and probably will, arrive at the July trade deadline. Figure on J.D. Martinez being swapped for a talented trade chip or two ahead of his arrival on this autumn’s free-agent market. The Tigers aren’t a great bet to be thinking serious playoff thoughts nine weeks from now, so don’t be surprised if other expensive talent is likewise dealt in packages that could include even Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler.

Fans wonder if Avila is the guy you want sitting at a poker table when deals are cut at July’s deadline. The answer is, in this view, clear. There’s no reason to doubt he can make trades as deftly as did his old boss, Dave Dombrowski, who worked during his days in Detroit with a very different market, and who two summers ago traded for three-fifths of the current Tigers rotation.

Avila made a bad move out of the gate in December of 2015 when he signed Mike Pelfrey, an unimpressive pitcher, to an overly expensive, overly lengthy contract. It hurt the front office’s credibility. It spawned an overabundance of doubt that Avila could be trusted in trades and personnel matters.

But even a sour investment in reliever Mark Lowe ignores too many competing realities.

Plan in place

It was Avila who persuaded the Tigers three years ago to sign J.D. Martinez after the Astros had given up on him. It was Avila who traded at low cost (Javier Betancourt) in 2015 for Francisco Rodriguez. K-Rod no longer is Tigers closer, but at a point when closer options were few, the Tigers got a man who last year brought them 44 saves. Compare K-Rod with, say, Dombrowski’s decision in 2013 to sign Joe Nathan to a whopping two-year deal and you see how mistakes, as well as sensible transactions, occur during the timelines of all GMs.

Avila got the best free-agent starting pitcher available in 2015, at Ilitch’s behest, when he signed Jordan Zimmermann. The deal doesn’t look terribly sage today, but those are the risks taken when free-agent pitchers are signed. What also must be considered is that the Tigers had forfeited a good many draft picks, signing earlier top-shelf free agents during the Dombrowski/Jim Leyland heyday. There was a compound need to spend heavily at the free-agent auction block that autumn/winter of 2015-16 on Zimmermann and on Justin Upton, another acquisition Ilitch wanted and authorized.

You can spend hours listing and debating Dombrowski’s generally superb judgment on trades (he’d prefer you forget about Nathan, Edgar Renteria, Dontrelle Willis, and a few others). It’s just as fair at this point to be underwhelmed by Avila’s work, mostly because there has not been an ability since he took over in August 2015, to unload stars for youth, as often was the case in the pre-2016 era.

But there has been a detailed, multi-year plan in place, all focused on paring costs, bringing youth and athleticism into the picture, and steadily turning over a roster in a bid to avoid a decade-long rebuilding process.

The market has seriously, dramatically changed. Avila hasn’t lacked for ambition to make deals. Finding trade partners, when Tigers salaries are often preposterously high, has been a reality that can’t be erased by phone calls or by sheer will. Not when the market has done something of a historical flip-flop.

And so the fair and reasonable option is to let this tenure have time to which any new front office is entitled. Avila is a fine scout, knows player development, understands roster elements, is heavy on analytics, and was Dombrowski’s co-pilot for years. All because there was such broad competence practiced by one man.

We’ll know more in two or three years, much of which could be reassuring. It depends in part on what happens in July. A couple of helpful deals then, along the lines of the deadline trades made two years ago, and the Tigers would move closer to chopping payroll and getting a transfusion of young blood.

There’s no assurance today’s glutted shopping aisles will make any such moves possible, but July is unpredictable. The Tigers need a break at this summer’s deadline.

As for the owners, the Ilitches, they’re sitting in relatively enviable shape in any event. This is a franchise very much worth hanging onto. It’s also an attractive piece of commercial property, bound to deliver a glorious return, whenever, if ever, a family decides it’s ready to deal.

Lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning