Lakeland, Fla. — Little has changed this year at Lakeland and at Tigers spring camp. And, in one sense, that’s a good thing.
Skies are blue. Ospreys whistle. Tigertown’s grass is St. Patrick’s Day-green. Fans stroll through concourses, grabbing a hot dog, then slip into sun-splashed seats at Publix Field at Marchant Stadium.
This is where spring’s and baseball’s rebirth sprouts as Grapefruit League season rolls toward Opening Day in the cold north.
What hasn’t changed in 2020, not enough, is the Tigers.
Another tough year at Comerica Park is evolving, with 90 losses or more looking like a safe bet. C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, and Austin Romine will help. But there isn’t enough talent to transform a team that last year dropped 114 games and continues to prove what was said five years ago:
This was going to be a long and messy rebuild.
One trend should make 2020 intriguing and keep this season from being a washout for fans who have had enough of last place.
Good, very good, young pitching will begin to show in Detroit. It won’t happen much before June. But it’s a matter of months, maybe weeks, before Casey Mize, or Tarik Skubal, or Matt Manning, or Alex Faedo, or Joey Wentz, start games for the Tigers.
At that point, folks will want to flip on the game, or even buy a ticket, and see how quality young blood can revive a team and town dying for hope — or even for a couple hours of entertainment on Motown sports’ presently starved landscape.
What isn’t clear is whether this Tigers rebuild, in its current construct, is going to work. And here things get sticky.
On the cheap
The Tigers’ problem isn’t payroll. You cannot spend your way to competitiveness. Doesn’t work — for either the team, for fans, or for premium players who aren’t signing long-term with a team that is far from sniffing playoff baseball. Winning, not money, most counts for players who have a choice.
Chris Ilitch is not the disinterested skinflint of popular lore. If he were, he would not have hung around Lakeland this month, for added days, all to get a glimpse of kids like Riley Greene and Casey Mize. If he were a true miser, Ilitch would have ordered a true fire sale — liquidate all inventory, no matter the return — after he took over from his dad, Mike Ilitch. He instead hung onto players and contracts that couldn’t be defensibly moved, even when luxury tax was being paid by a mid-market team.
Adding lard to a payroll to find that you’re, at best, a .500 team does nothing but hamstring your flexibility down the line. Worse, it can push draft picks deeper, reducing chances the rebuild will get impact players.
That’s what fans don’t always get: Free agency works, as a difference-maker, once you’ve established a young network of roster talent that can be brought to fruition with the help of certain, select, expensive free agents. But not until then.
For those who would cite Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez as evidence to the contrary, remember this: The only reason those players were available in 2004 and 2005 is because of back and knee ills. Other teams stayed away. Mike Ilitch gambled, and won. But those were heavy exceptions.
A new front office might be warranted once a full and fair review of this supposed roster restoration is final. But that isn’t a grade to be rendered in March 2020. Better perspective will come after this year’s draft and after farm events are gauged in August, when Al Avila’s work as general manager hits the five-year mark.
None of the MIT geniuses everyone believes is bound to restore this Tigers team to old, contending ways would have had this 2020 club in greatly different shape today. Not realistically. Not when the market turned so radically different beginning in 2017, when teams suddenly decided prospects were gold and big-money veterans were vampires.
The White Sox, as a popular example, are unique. They got in under the wire, all because Chris Sale in 2016 and Jose Quintana 2017 had nice, affordable contracts. Thanks heavily to those deals, the White Sox, very soon, are going to be where the Tigers were from 2006-14.
And their good times will have been made possible in large part by trades made just before a new consciousness hit baseball’s front offices.
People convinced that of late only the Tigers seem to stumble weren’t paying attention to the Astros, Dodgers, Rays, Twins, Braves, etc., when Detroit was riding high and fans of those teams were grousing and wondering why their teams couldn’t, yes, be like the Tigers.
The youth gap
Too many critics continue to see this in a cart-before-the-horse sequence. In fact, the Tigers’ malaise is not about payroll. Or about free agents.
In has more to do with incoming young talent.
This need for fresh, skilled blood is what will determine a front office’s fate, maybe even before contract extensions for Avila and his team have run their course, however long that undisclosed period stretches.
The Tigers have done a deft job of building a potential powerful young pitching staff. And, in baseball, that’s everything. Or, rather, almost everything.
The flip side is position talent and bats. Which, as 2020’s lineup and depth-chart implies, is where the Tigers today are perilously thin.
They did a good job getting Greene at fifth overall last June. They’ll likely add a dynamite hitter in three months when Spencer Torkelson of Arizona State could rank as a franchise bat and the easy pick at first-overall in 2020’s draft. A kid third baseman, Isaac Paredes, should be of help as early as this year.
But where this rebuild can look ominous is in sizing up talent that must be built on either side of Greene, Paredes, and, if he continues to sizzle, Torkelson.
Avila was on reasonably firm ground when he told his fan base, heading into 2020, that the tear-down of old personnel and contracts was close to complete and that a full remodeling could now begin.
What he didn’t acknowledge is that the tear-down didn’t preclude him and his lieutenants from drafting more farm help than so far has been delivered.
There is the Tigers’ issue.
“I would debate you on one point,” David Chadd, the Tigers assistant general manager, said during a Tuesday call. “I would say it’s tougher acquiring front-line pitching.
“Championship teams do it with pitching. We don’t go into a draft focusing on pitching or hitting — we look for the best player.
“It’s tough to have it both ways,” Chadd said. “It’s tough to have all the best pitchers and all the best position players.
“It takes time. And that’s how you build your system.”
Chadd makes fair points, including a mention of MLB Pipeline’s rankings of big-league ballclubs, released Tuesday, that had the Tigers fifth among 30 teams. Two years ago, the Tigers were 29th. He notes, too, that the Tigers are the only team other than the Padres to have four players in the top 50 (Mize, Manning, Skubal, Greene). And Detroit is the only team whose top four were delivered solely by the domestic draft.
Any position-player critique might also come with a caveat. When everyone cheered those free-agent investments of yesteryear, all of them sanctioned by Mike Ilitch, folks were warned: Losing first-round and early-round draft picks as penalties during those free-agent sprees was going to haunt the Tigers later.
Assume for now that a couple of those picks, at least, would have been helpful to the Tigers during recent seasons. And if not of great import to manager Ron Gardenhire the past three seasons, then, most likely, one or two or more could have loomed as trade chips, even as a tougher market arrived a few years ago.
But people didn’t object to the Tigers bringing aboard Jose Valverde, Victor Martinez, or Prince Fielder. Nor, despite some revisionist squawking, did they scream when Mike Ilitch basically ordered the Tigers five years ago to sign Jordan Zimmermann (the best starter then available) and Justin Upton.
All of these moves, all of them, cost the Tigers more than big money. The greater cost was in losing draft turns that added to a rebuild’s timeline.
The Tigers have done fine, on balance, with their first-rounders, especially when baseball drafts tend for most teams, most years, to be an exercise in cruelty.
They were shrewd in grabbing Manning out of high school. In opting for Mize two years ago, they went the way most front offices would have gone with the first overall grab. They also deserve medals for snagging Skubal with a ninth-round — ninth-round — pick in 2018.
But their position picks and bats often have been clunkers.
Nick Castellanos was one exception, with a footnote: Castellanos was bagged before rules tightened, when a gutty team could pay heavily over slot for a player other teams feared would infuriate Bud Selig (then commissioner).
Otherwise, little has materialized during this past decade, including James McCann, who two years ago wasn’t offered a contract.
Derek Hill is a first-rounder who lacks a bat to go with his sublime defense. While it’s accurate that all teams get socked all the time in gambling on hitters, even in the first two rounds, the Tigers have shown to an extreme that hitters are the hardest talents to find in all of sports.
Latin America differs, but not greatly. The Tigers hit on Suarez and Adames, and don’t overestimate what they’d have done the past few seasons for Gardenhire and for fans who would have appreciated living, breathing talent on their scale. Then again, Adams was traded for David Price, who was dealt for Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris. So play this if-they-hadn’t-traded-so-and-so game at one’s risk.
The Tigers also had Avisail Garcia, who was swapped for Jose Iglesias, and Hernan Perez, who would have and should have helped, especially had a key option year not been burned.
Recall, too, they have had enough talent from the domestic and Latin sides to make a heap of trades the past 15 years, all because other clubs found those prospects appealing.
But look at the big-league roster in 2020. Then look at the prospects lists and the farm lineups. And what you see is a team a long way, probably, from having a core group of position help that can meld with those promising arms.
Chadd had a different view Tuesday, speaking alongside the team’s analytics chief, Jay Sartori.
“I think we’re on the right course,” Chadd said, reminding that the Tigers’ playoff and World Series run from 2006-14 was built on starting pitching.
“In my opinion, we’ve drafted well.
“It’s no secret where each year the top WAR (wins above replacement) players are found: in the top six picks.
“But I’m extremely happy in how we’ve drafted and where this rebuild is going.”
On the bright side
In a sport that can turn long-range forecasts on their ear, and where debate is fair, it’s hard to say with any precision where the Tigers’ flight plan is headed.
But there’s a path for things to change within a time frame that would offer fans hope.
A. The Tigers have four picks among the first 75 in June’s draft. One of those is a competitive balance pick — awarded to lesser-market teams, and it’s about time Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office got real about Detroit’s baseball market.
The Tigers need to hit not only on Torkelson, or whomever they grab first overall, but on at least two more of those top four. First-round picks, alone, aren’t going to change this roster’s complexion.
B. They must hope that Matthew Boyd, or Spencer Turnbull, or some such starter, spurs a pitching-needy contender (hello, Yankees, Angels, or any other club locked on October) to grant the Tigers a big-league-ready bat, preferably at shortstop or the outfield.
C. They also deserve a break. A couple of breaks. They need for Christin Stewart to figure things out, or, more likely, for a kid like Bryant Packard to become a fifth-round hit, or for a couple of young Latin talents to mature and help buoy a lineup that today and for at least the next season or two will be way beneath sea level.
They must hope that Jake Rogers got his leg-kick ironed out and can by next season be their regular catcher. Or, that Eliezer Alfonzo or Cooper Johnson becomes one of those rare dazzlers who can mature in a hurry behind the plate and lend help after a few short seasons on the farm.
The same holds for Adinso Reyes and Jose De La Cruz, a couple of Dominican Republic kids who have been lighting it up on the back fields and who could be nice down-the-road talents.
If they’re able to weld together something approaching a roster core of bats that can balance their pitching, then Chris Ilitch can attack with his checkbook and add the big free agents who become difference-makers in a rebuild that, if you’re going to make playoffs realistic, can’t have holes or soft spots.
For that to happen, even in the next two or three years, today shapes up as either unlikely or delusional. This was always going to be a rebuild that would be more of a marathon, especially when Mike Ilitch decided, understandably, to go full-throttle even after the Tigers’ best shot at a World Series expired in 2013, leaving a long change-over ahead.
It was made longer by the Zimmermann-Upton deals. It was compounded when baseball’s market changed. And no GM in Comerica Park’s third-floor offices was going to make deals when teams weren’t interested in old, expensive goods of the kind Detroit held.
That resistance, by the way, approached stupidity on the part of other contending clubs. J.D. Martinez in 2017 should have been hunted by more than one other club: the Diamondbacks, who made it clear they weren’t offering anything special for a guy who nearly won them a pennant. They were close that July to leaving the Tigers with zero suitors.
Likewise, it should not have taken until 10 p.m. at the 2017 trade deadline for the Astros to finally decide they wanted Verlander. He later sewed up a World Series parade that wasn’t happening in Houston without him.
But that was the disposition toward veteran stars, even on Martinez’s and Verlander’s level, in 2017. And not a lot has since changed.
The Tigers had no serious takers last July for Boyd. They had the usual house-seller’s approach in early talks with a couple of clubs. They began high and waited for counter-offers, which is how most deals are done. But those counter-offers, or even conversations, never came. The hang-up: Teams hoarding prospects weren’t convinced Boyd’s track record was lengthy enough to hand over even a single young hitter.
This is, and was, a reality too many folks don’t care to accept. Rather, they believe Avila should be “selling” these players, like a showroom ace, or inventing “creative” deals that involve international signing money, or whatever hocus-pocus is available that surely a young genius would be employing.
The fact is, those “creative” deals have been offered, and still no one’s been interested in parting with meaningful talent.
That’s how much business has changed in four years.
Still, it’s sort of Avila’s job to figure this out, this need to add firepower on two fronts.
And while it’s a sensitive subject in Comerica’s executive sanctum, not until the Tigers get more talent marching through the organization’s front door will playoffs be more than a hollow promise.
It should be noted that these are not lifetime appointments, these front-office jobs. Detroit is a charter big-league club, with a pedigree on a par with baseball’s grandest towns and legacies.
It deserves better than a re-seed that didn’t take root because adequate farm talent that someday would coalesce in Detroit wasn’t collected.
There, right there, is the ballgame.
It’s not Chris Ilitch’s pocketbook, although down the path a bit that will make all the difference. It’s primarily about the capital the team is, or isn’t, bringing with its draft and international signings.
When the latter shifts, significantly — and June’s four early picks would be a good time to confirm it — baseball in Detroit might, at long last, be on its way to looking as it did during the old Jim Leyland-led days, when the skipper would say, as each spring camp broke:
“At least we have a chance.”