Detroit — The Tigers aren’t sugarcoating it. They’re not good, they’re not where they want to be, and they might not be for quite some time.
That was, essentially, the message in a seven-paragraph letter sent out to season-ticket holders this month.
“Needless to say, it’s been a difficult season,” the Tigers said in the letter, mailed to and posted on Twitter by a Tigers fan Wednesday. “We want to win as much as you do, and 2017 has been frustrating for all of us in the organization.
“That said, we will continue working hard and we will never waiver in our dogged pursuit of a fifth World Series title.”
On Thursday, the Tigers' rebuilding phase kicked into another gear when they traded star slugger Justin Upton to the Los Angeles Angels.
The Tigers are heading toward their third consecutive year of missing the playoffs, after making the postseason each of the four years prior. Following Wednesday afternoon’s victory over the Colorado Rockies, the Tigers are 58-74, putting them on pace for their most losses since 2003, when they lost an American League-record 119 games.
Their .439 winning percentage is tied for sixth-worst in all of Major League Baseball.
Still, the Tigers are pleading with season-ticket holders to stick with them through thick and thin, even offering incentives for early re-enrollment, like throwing out the first pitch, watching postgame fireworks from the dugout and sitting with the official scorer in the press box. That’s not quite to the depths of the franchise’s darkest days — when owner Mike Ilitch had to give away cars to get fans to buy a ticket — but it’s noteworthy, nonetheless, as the Tigers limp toward their fourth consecutive season of declining attendance, and their worst overall gate since 2005.
In the letter, the Tigers cited their new “home-grown approach” to rebuilding the roster, which long has been compiled of high-priced free agents and star players acquired in blockbuster trades — most recently, signings of Upton and Jordan Zimmermann two winters ago, when Ilitch still was alive and still authorizing big checks as he chased his Holy Grail, a World Series ring.
But that trend ended abruptly this past offseason, when, with Chris Ilitch overseeing business operations after his father died in February, the Tigers signed just one major-league free agent, the general manager’s son, backup catcher Alex Avila. He has since been dealt to the Chicago Cubs along with reliever Justin Wilson as the Tigers were sellers at the trade deadline. They also traded J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Then, just before Thursday's waiver deadline, they traded outfielder Upton to the Angels for a minor-league pitcher.
In those three trades, the Tigers brought back a bundle of prospects, mostly position players, to replenish a wildly depleted farm system, one which has some promising arms but not much else.
“The franchise is transitioning into a new era, and that transition is well under way,” the Tigers said in the letter, which is co-signed by GM Al Avila and Duane McLean, EVP of business operations.
Under Al Avila, who took over as general manager following Dave Dombrowski’s stunning firing in the summer of 2015, the Tigers have boasted of beefing up their scouting and analytics department as they try to find better value in players and work to get their payroll, an out-of-touch-for-this-market $200 million or so, back in line with reality.
Avila’s tenure, though, has had more misses than hits, notably veteran pitchers Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe, who were a disaster in their first seasons in Detroit, and were released before they could start a second. Zimmermann would seem to be an even bigger concern, given the $74 million he’s still owed for 2018-20 on the end of a heavily backloaded $110 million contract. He is 17-18 with a 5.57 ERA for the Tigers.
Miguel Cabrera (owed $184 million through 2023) and Victor Martinez ($18 million for 2018) are showing their advanced age, in the box scores and on the medical reports.
Justin Verlander, at 34, remains a legitimate star, but also a financial liability. The Tigers worked to trade the face of the franchise last month and this, but couldn’t find a taker willing to absorb most of the $56 million he’s owed through 2019 while also offering a package of prospects Tigers brass considered to be anything close to fair. Verlander discussions are expected to continue this offseason, as the club increasingly acknowledges its rebuilding status.
Anibal Sanchez’s contract comes off the books this winter, which will help, and in trading Upton, having a monster year, the Tigers shed $88.5 million of future payroll commitments. And more trades could be coming Thursday, as Avila continued talks into the evening.
Meanwhile, it's unclear if manager Brad Ausmus, in the last year of his original contract (three years plus an option), will get to stick around to see the rebuild through.
“We have committed to spending and investing significant resources in player development -- including the addition of domestic and international scouts, minor-league instructors, support programs for players, world-class facilities in Lakeland and renovations to our Dominican Academy,” the Tigers’ letter to season-ticket holders continued. “Further investment has been made in the aggressive build-out of our analytics department, and the introduction of Caesar, a decision-support program that houses reports from our talent evaluators, as well as baseball analytics.
“Going forward, we hope to make good, sound, data-driven decisions to position the ballclub for sustainable success.”