Wojo: As long as Ilitch is all in, Tigers can win rebuild chase

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — We bemoan the relentless ugliness, rightly so. The Great Detroit Rebuild Chase is well under way, and in the next few months, the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons all could “earn” top-three draft picks, a futility feat surely unprecedented in pro sports.

But instead of revisiting how they got here – poor management, ownership inattention, rotten contracts, rotten luck, inevitable player and roster deterioration – let’s figure out who’s likely to recover first. The answer will stagger you, until I explain it.

Matt Manning is one of several top pitching prospects who figure to find their way to Detroit in the coming year.

It’s the Tigers, who admittedly got a head start. Next would be the Wings, who are banking on Steve Yzerman but lack prospects, followed by the Lions (the NFL is built for rebuilds, no matter how inept you are). The Pistons are late to the teardown craze and will need draft lottery luck to get in the race.

After a 47-114 season, which followed back-to-back 64-98 records, the Tigers might actually see a light at the end of the pitch tunnel. As bad as they are, with the worst odds in the majors and again likely to lose 95-100 games, the Tigers have two things the other local teams don’t.

First, they have the most valuable commodity in their sport — young, promising pitching. First-round picks Casey Mize and Matt Manning are flashing their potential in Lakeland, perhaps poised to debut in Detroit later this season. They have another touted pitcher — former ninth-round pick Tarik Skubal — and finally a hitting prospect of note in first-rounder Riley Greene, who’s only 19 but has wowed. With four prospects in the MLB Pipeline’s Top 50, they’re as stocked as they’ve ever been, nudging into the top 10 of farm systems.

And the other important edge? The Tigers have an owner, Chris Ilitch, who by birth and by growth, is more engaged in his teams than anyone in town. It took him a while after the death of his father, Mike, in 2017, amid conjecture he didn’t have the competitive stomach to turn the Tigers and Wings around.

Speculation that the Ilitch family would sell the Tigers have faded, as I suspected they would. They’re building the Little Caesars world headquarters directly across the street from Comerica Park. Do you really think Chris Ilitch wants to spend the rest of his career looking out the window at someone else’s team in an area — District Detroit — that was his father’s vision? There are complicated issues of heirs and estate taxes, and the team is in a family trust, but he increasingly seems motivated for the task.

‘The fire is burning’

As far as the products on display, dire predictions have proven true. The Wings are crafting an historically horrid season, missing the playoffs for the fourth straight time. At least there’s a plan, unlike the Pistons who haven’t won a playoff game in 12 years and just now are plotting a direction. When Bill Davidson died in 2009, his widow, Karen, unloaded the team and the doomed Palace on the cheap to investor Tom Gores.

To be fair, Gores has spent substantially, if not wisely, and aided the development plan by moving the Pistons downtown. As much as he contributes charitably, there’s no way he’s as invested emotionally in his team. It’s impossible for a Beverly Hills billionaire and first-time owner to be as connected as a family that has owned the Tigers since 1992 and the Wings since 1982.

From left, Chris Illitch, 2019 first-rounder Riley Greene and Al Avila.

Why does that matter? Well, it doesn’t always matter. Last I checked, the Ford family has owned the Lions since 1963, hasn’t won anything and hasn’t seemed overly bothered by public scorn. Does Martha Ford care if the Lions lose? I’m sure she does, and so did William Clay Ford Sr. Have they burned to win at all cost? There’s not much evidence of that.

In the past year, we’ve seen evidence Chris Ilitch isn’t afraid of the competitive fires. When the Tigers lost 119 games in 2003, it was a key juncture in Mike Ilitch’s tenure. He was so embarrassed, he vowed to do more, just as he had when he turned the Dead Things into Stanley Cup champions. With a bevy of pricey free-agents and talented young pitchers, the Tigers were in the World Series by 2006.

After last year’s 114-loss debacle, it was obvious the Tigers needed to do more than preach patience. It wasn’t huge, but signing veterans C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Austin Romine and Ivan Nova was an admission that ridicule stings. While spending time in Lakeland recently, Ilitch, 54, was open about how he might be misperceived.

“I am very competitive,” Ilitch told reporters. “My father was an exceptionally competitive person. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. I am more inward in my reaction. You really won’t see it, but the fire is burning inside.”

Chris Ilitch is more analytical, less emotional, a product of the corporate world. He speaks in measured tones but is becoming comfortable in the spotlight.

Of course, words don’t mean as much as actions, and promises don’t mean as much as wins, but there are signs he’ll push harder. General manager Al Avila has a checkered record as a deal-maker, with questionable trades and free-agent signings, but drafting and development have improved.

“When Al and I feel the time is right, Al is going to have the resources to go out and sign the free agents he needs to add to our home-grown base of talent,” Ilitch said. “That day will come and we’ll be ready for it.”

The Ilitches certainly have the resources, as do Martha Ford and Gores. Money should never be an issue with three billionaire owners. The issues are leadership and passion and shrewd decision-making.

Wings are intriguing, too

Ilitch’s hiring of Yzerman was much more than a huge public-relations coup. He added a franchise legend with a proven record of success in Tampa. That said, the Wings are way behind, and not just a staggering 21 points behind the next-worst team in the NHL. They have four prospects — Moritz Seider, Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno, Evgeny Svechnikov in the top 100 — but are sorely lacking foundational pieces on the current roster.

The Red Wings have a lot of top draft picks yet to be used. The Tigers have a lot of top draft picks — No. 1 again this summer — and several throwing now in Lakeland. No team here has a vital asset like the Tigers have pitching prospects. The Wings have no goalie for the future and few viable defensemen in their system.

The Lions lack in many areas, with thoroughly unproven Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia and a pending quarterback conundrum with Matthew Stafford, 32. And the Pistons? Dwane Casey is a solid coach, but they finally caved to reality and cleaned it all out, left now with rookie Sekou Doumbouya, a hobbled Luke Kennard, a high draft pick and a mascot named Hooper.

The Tigers and Wings started the Great Detroit Rebuild Chase of the 21st Century, and it’s still a long way from the unpleasant present to a favorable future. Chris Ilitch can’t offer timetables or guarantees, but if he’s willing to compete — financially and emotionally — for as long as it takes, his teams will have a shot.


Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski