Lakeland, Fla. — The boss made his first appearance of the spring Saturday.
Tigers chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch met with everybody from general manager Al Avila and manager Ron Gardenhire, to the club’s big-league scouts, to the analytics team, the players and even the media, and his message was clear:
“I am excited about our vision and our plan and how it’s being executed,” he said. “I am very optimistic and I like the forward momentum of our club. I feel good about it.”
He certainly understands, though, the fans may be less enthused. After back to back 98-loss seasons and the prospect of another year of non-contention ahead, the impatience level is climbing.
“I have the same sense of impatience,” Ilitch said. “I am a fan, first and foremost. I want to see our team be a great team, a playoff team and ultimately, a championship team. But I think the key for all of us is to make sure we are very disciplined in following the right path to that success.
“I think we are doing exactly that.”
Ilitch said the Tigers rebuilding plan mirrors the plan his father, the late Mike Ilitch, implemented in building the Red Wings run of Stanley Cup championships and the long run of success the Tigers enjoyed from 2006 through 2014.
“I feel we are making progress,” Ilitch said. “I feel like we have a great plan. I know it’s a great plan because I’ve personally seen it at the professional sports level in two different sports. This is the right way to build a championship team.
“I feel we are on the right path. We just have to keep executing.”
The progress, Ilitch said, can be seen in the vastly upgraded talent level throughout the farm system, in the money and resources devoted to scouting, to analytics, to facilities and to player development. But just about all rebuilding plans include, at some point, opening up the pocket book and spending big money on elite talent.
Ilitch was asked if this plan included similar spending.
“A big part of my job is to make sure our ball club has the resources it needs to successfully execute our plan,” he said. “First and foremost, we are laser-focused on building up our young core, and we have invested heavily on analytics, in scouting and player development. And we are starting to see that pay dividends at every level of the organization. And as we feel we’ve assembled that young core, we will continue to bring the resources we need into the ball club and the organization to successfully execute our plan.”
He said it was “almost impossible” to specifically answer questions about how much will he spend and when the spending will start.
“The best way to answer that question is by telling you and our fans that we’re going to do exactly what we continue to do," he said. "We’re going to bring the resources to our ball club that we need to successfully compete and accomplish the goals we set for our self.
“Which is not only to be a playoff team, but we want to be a championship club. I will leave it at that. That speaks to the commitment we have to bringing a winner to Detroit.”
The contracts of both Avila and Gardenhire are up after the 2020 season. Although he said he and Avila have not discussed an extension, Ilitch made it clear he is pleased with the work of both.
“I feel Al is doing an excellent job” Ilitch said. “He’s painted a vision and he is executing on that vision, executing the plan, despite what I would say is a more challenging environment than it was 10 or 15 years ago trying to do the same kind of thing, based on the dynamics of the league.
“Al is doing a great job.”
As for discussing a contract extension, Ilitch said, “We haven’t had that discussion, but we will at some point. I’m not concerned about it and I don’t think he’s concerned about it. We have an excellent working relationship.
“We will have that (discussion) at some point.”
Without being prompted, Ilitch gave an even stronger vote of confidence to Gardenhire.
“I have a lot of respect for the work Gardy has done,” he said. “It’s very hard work. But I told him I really appreciate his passion for teaching and making sure our team plays fundamentally sound. That is so important for the future of our organization.
“He is very committed to it and I am excited we are starting to see progress throughout our entire organization.”
Extending the manager’s contract is Avila’s job. But Ilitch intimated that Gardenhire isn’t here just for the rebuilding years.
“I am very excited for him to lead a highly, highly competitive team, a playoff-caliber team, a championship-caliber team at some point in the near future.”