When will the Detroit Tigers contend again? Here's one possible timeline

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Timelines. Tigers timelines.

People wonder when life at Comerica Park will resemble those days when Detroit’s baseball crowd reveled in Verlander and Scherzer and Ordonez and Pudge and Guillen, with a prime-time Cabrera anchoring the whole playoff-destined team.

It still will be a few seasons before it's even possible this scene plays out against for the Detroit Tigers, who here clinched the American League Central Division title in 2013 behind Max Scherzer (pictured)

The harsh news: It won’t happen for a while. The better news: It should be an entertaining era getting there, at least once 2020 arrives.

A candid estimate for the Tigers’ next playoff year would be 2024. That sounds like eternity, but in baseball’s world, it’s about the time required to rebuild with talent and with maturity once a team can begin to reconstruct, which in the Tigers’ unique case, really couldn’t begin until mid-season of 2017.

It takes 5-7 years, in most instances, for a ground-up rebuild to pay off. The Tigers are looking at a full and extended forecast, in part because they invested so deeply and lengthily in trying to get late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch the championship he desperately wanted and deserved.

The fact is the Tigers got caught with the worst possible roster and payroll precisely at the time baseball’s front offices decided to back away from expensive and older talent. Boom. No real market for J.D. Martinez, for Justin Upton, for Ian Kinsler, etc. Finding a taker for Justin Verlander was even prohibitive — until the Astros relented at the final minutes and made a trade that brought them a World Series parade.

The Tigers are still paying the price for their full-throttle bids, engineered at Ilitch’s behest, which postponed the rebuild and stuck them with some bad, immovable contracts.

It leaves the Tigers in November of 2018 with back-to-back seasons of 64-98 and very possibly something similar coming Comerica Park’s way in 2019.

And then it will begin to change. The record won’t improve dramatically, not initially, but the rebirth of baseball in Detroit will have begun. What will be lacking is any guarantee this will bring a natural progression to regular playoff spots and division titles, all because other teams— the White Sox, the Twins, the Indians — also have been rebuilding or retooling in what is shaping up as a potentially wicked long-term division bloodbath.

If projections can be made in 2018 — talk about inexact science — the ensuing years are beginning to take shape in the form of outlines. You get glimpses of future rosters. You can begin to see years when those old celebrity free-agent signings will again become reality at Comerica Park.

Here’s what one not-so-crystal ball hints at:

2019: The Tigers have one more season of playing baseball in survival mode. And, no, don’t mess up an ultimate recovery by over-paying for free agents who are going to block some kid and make you only slightly less bad than the team otherwise will, and probably must, be in 2019.

To get the kind of free agent now fans will applaud will mean offering them something heavily in excess of anything a playoff-grade team must pay. To expect even then that they’ll make the Tigers attractive and competitive in 2019 is nonsense. This remains a remodeling project, and nothing that's going to satisfactorily be built for a long haul with Band-Aids.

More: Mensching: Tigers shouldn't take a pass on this offseason

The Tigers don’t need more red ink, and potentially a deeper draft position, by adding expensive free-agent freight. They’ll soon get an affordable shortstop, a starting pitcher, and probably another swing-role arm, but they won’t be payroll balls-and-chains. Nor should they be. Heavy spending accomplishes zip and retards a quality rebuild.

Next season, break in Christin Stewart. Go with Grayson Greiner behind home plate. Add in a starting pitcher from the bushes (Beau Burrows, perhaps) if it’s wise to bring him in at some point in 2019. Otherwise, see what deals can be made at midseason, accept some bruises as a surprise or two on the plus side also develops, and prepare for a new brand of Tigers baseball beginning in 2020.

Prospect Matt Manning could be part of a Tigers rotation that helps the team contend for a wild-card spot in 2022.

2020: This is where a rejuvenated team will turn interesting, and probably entertaining. There will be kids everywhere. In the rotation (Burrows, maybe Case Mize, maybe Franklin Perez, maybe Matt Manning) and in the lineup (Isaac Paredes, Willi Castro, Kody Clemens, Jake Rogers, Danny Woodrow, etc.).

These will be rookies, so prepare for some head-shaking moments and interludes. But the genesis of a talented, competitive roster should arrive on stage. And with the kids will come a team that can begin to taste .500 ball.

2021: The Tigers will by this season have added to their Kiddie Corps the fruits of what inevitably will be a trade or two. And one of those deals could happen even in the next few days or weeks: Nick Castellanos? Matthew Boyd? Michael Fulmer, after he's back in gear? Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, can during this offseason or next July get a quality prospect or two by way of an eventual deal for one or more of the above.

The Tigers will no longer have to contend with pitcher Jordan Zimmermann's hefty contract in the 2021 season, giving the team some added salary flexibility.

One possible target: A genuine, left-handed slugging first baseman. The Tigers farm is barren there even as it has been partially re-seeded during the past 16 months. Look for a power hitter who can play first to be high on Avila’s shopping list. And look for that player to be plugged in by 2021.

It’s true that Jeimer Candelario could find his way to first base. It’s also possible Paredes, who looks as if he’s targeted for third base, could be moved to a corner outfield spot. The Tigers can sort this out in time. But that big, left-handed bat who was supposed to be 2017 draft pick Reynaldo Rivera, is yet a no-show.

This should be the season, 2021, when a plus-.500 team pokes its head through Comerica’s turf. It also will mark the year Avila and his lieutenants no longer are socked with Jordan Zimmermann’s punishing contract. The first glimmer of payroll flexibility will have returned to a club stuck with only one remaining handcuff: Miguel Cabrera.

2022: You might hear the term “wild card” mentioned a time or two as the Tigers dress-rehearse for 2022. They will have various kids heading into a third full season. They will have been able to patch a hole or two with a premium free agent. They will be, in any broad playoff conversation, a con-ten-duh.

Attendance will begin to approach the golden-oldie days when 2.5 million and beyond were givens during the days of Jim Leyland’s old gang.

It must be remembered the Tigers won’t be the only team trying to win in 2022. The White Sox figure to be in peak form following their long and artful rebuild that wasn’t hamstrung by payroll, as Detroit’s was. The Twins could be very good indeed. The Indians will be the Indians. The Royals might be in duress, but counting on even one dog in this division is perilous.

Still, this is the year when baseball in Detroit should again be good, and maybe better than good. It will have been eight years since the Tigers last enjoyed a playoff game. They’ll be playing for one in September.

The 2023 season will be the last in which the Tigers will have guaranteed pay for first baseman Miguel Cabrera.

2023: Note that this will be the last season of Cabrera’s guaranteed pay. The Tigers will have a farewell celebration, will thank a Hall of Fame-booked hitter for his presence, and privately will wonder why they ever committed to a contract that they offered ostensibly with sound minds and that tortured them in Cabrera's waning years.

The Tigers will be ready by the end of 2023 to spend whatever must be paid to put a team over the top. They’ll have the roster, and the payroll freedom, to go for it.

They’ll add a player or two who will keep their season-ticket phones hot — and their shot at a division title real — well ahead of spring camp.

2024: This is when it figures to pay off. All the waiting. All the planning. All the restraint on spending silly free-agent dollars early in the process when it wouldn’t have made much difference.

This is the year a team from Detroit competes, seriously, for a deep October run.

Can the fans wait for something that’s probably closer to five years down the road? Probably — as long as youth and talent and progress are showing up during the roll-out.

And beginning in 2020, the belief here is that’s exactly what Comerica’s customers will see.

It’s not easy, not fast-track, these roster renaissance projects. But one’s in place. After another year in the wilderness, better times, and better baseball, should be headed in Detroit’s direction.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning