'It's about progress': Ilitch says Tigers have made 'great strides' this season

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Christopher Ilitch

Detroit – At some point, controlling owner Christopher Ilitch said Friday, the Tigers will be among the teams bidding on high-priced, high-end veteran players in the offseason.

But it’s not likely to be next season.

“Al (Avila, general manager) and I have talked a lot about that,” Ilitch said, speaking in the Tigers dugout after participating in the annual team photo shoot. “It’s certainly part of the plan. When Al feels the time is right, he’s going to have the resources to go out and address specific needs.

“It is undoubtedly part of our plan.”

But, as the team slogs through a 100-plus loss season, its worst since 2003, what about adding some veteran talent to make 2020 more palatable for a fan base that will likely endure some 300 losses since 2017?

“I think our fans are excited to see the next wave of young stars put on the Old English D,” Ilitch said. “I know that’s what they want because I talk to a lot of our fans and they tell me how engaged they are, how they are following our prospects and, like me, can’t wait until they make it here to Detroit and Comerica Park.”

The accumulation of losses, Ilitch believes, is part of the cost of eventually building a sustainable contender. What he’s looking for, though, is steady progress. He’s seeing it in the team’s battle level, the development of players at the minor-league and major-league levels, and he’s certainly seeing it in the beefed-up farm system.

“As it relates to Gardy (manager Ron Gardenhire), Al and myself, we’re all on the same page,” Ilitch said. “For me, it’s about progress, and when I look at our organization for this season, there’s been a lot of great progress.”

Ilitch cited the organization’s prospect rankings in Baseball America (from dead last in 2015 to 13th) and MLB Pipeline (ranked 10th before the season, sixth presently).

“Of our top 30 prospects, almost two dozen players are at the Double-A, Triple-A and Major League levels, and to me, that’s impressive,” he said. “That’s one of the highest numbers in Major League Baseball. That’s progress and I am pleased about that.

“That bodes well for our short-term and our long-term success.”

Not every fan is on-board with the gradual nature of this rebuild, though.

“Yes, I have encountered some negativity,” Ilitch said, a smile creasing his face. “My 9-year-old son is not happy. He really wants us to win right now. I say, 'Son, I want to win right now.' And then I'll explain to him how the process works. He gets it -- kind of."

Ilitch repeated his conviction and confidence in the plan and in Avila’s execution of it.

“I think Al and his staff have done an excellent job of bringing new talent into our system and now developing that talent,” he said. “It’s not just what I think, there are demonstrated results.”

The question that won’t go away, of course, is when will this thing turn?

“For me, it’s about progress,” he said. “I want to see progress and this season we’ve made great strides. How much longer is it going to take? I can’t answer that. All I want to see is that we’re making progress each and every year.

“And if we’re doing that, we’re going to wake up one day and we’re going to have a pretty doggone good baseball team. And the way we’re doing it, we’re going to be able to sustain having a competitive team over the course of time.”

Ron Gardenhire

Ilitch would not address Gardenhire's contract status beyond next season, citing corporate policy. But he did not hold back on his praise. 

"Under Gardy's leadership, our players, our team, has battled," he said. "They're working hard game in and game out. I know it's a grind, but these guys are battling and that's a real credit to Gardy's leadership."

Pressed on Gardenhire's status beyond next season, when his three-year deal is up, Ilitch continued in the same vein. 

"With Gardy, our players have battled so hard," he said. "They are developing under Gardy. He is doing a fine job. I really admire the resolve that both Gardy and Al have shown through this whole rebuilding process.

"It's a grind and it's not easy. But it's the process we have to go through."

Twitter @cmccosky