The Detroit Tigers held a memorial to former owner Mike Ilitch before the start of Friday’s spring training opener against the Baltimore Orioles. It was an opportunity for fans and players to pay their last respects to the man whose competitive fire drove the resurgence of Tigers baseball over the past decade. It was also an opportunity for owner Chris Ilitch to express his family’s thanks for the love expressed toward his father since his passing. He also took the opportunity to expound on his own ownership philosophy, and to reassure fans and players that the Tigers’ pursuit of a World Series would not flag under his stewardship.
Mike Ilitch’s health was a delicate subject in recent years. His advanced age and the Tigers’ consistently aggressive posture in pursuit of a World Series title lent an aura of pressure, a sense of last chances, to the franchise and its fanbase. While the Tigers embarked on perhaps the greatest era of consistent excellence in franchise history, Mr. Ilitch’s age was an uncomfortable and unavoidable subject.
Uncomfortable because it is, of course, graceless to speculate overmuch on the impact of another man’s passing on something so frivolous as sports entertainment. Unavoidable, because Mr. Ilitch was a true rarity among owners of sports franchises in his single-minded pursuit of on-field success. Whatever came next, Mike Ilitch was always going to be a hard act to follow. For years, fans of the franchise have viewed the Tigers’ window of opportunity as something directly tied to Mr. Ilitch’s presence as the franchise’s driving force.
In his comments on Friday, Chris Ilitch expressed his commitment to continuing the intense pursuit of the World Series title his father sought for so long. In the process, he set a lot of minds at ease about the immediate future of the franchise.
"I told the players this morning: They're going to find the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.”
“I would say I share my father's passion for baseball. I still coach my children today, even though I have an incredibly hectic schedule. I do it because of my love for the game. And I love this franchise, and quite frankly I love this team, and I think we have a team that could win a World Series.”
While it’s impossible to completely unpack the Tigers’ operating costs in recent years, speculation has always been that the franchise has been operating in the red over the last five seasons. That sense that the franchise was well beyond its means has been the primary fuel for fears that things might change drastically with the younger Ilitch at the helm. He said everything a Tigers fan would want to hear, but we probably won’t start seeing the truth of it until the team decides its path next offseason.
In 2016, the Tigers’ payroll came in at approximately $212 million, against a luxury tax threshold of $189 million. The Tigers paid a luxury tax of 17.5 percent on that overage. This season, the Tigers’ payroll currently comes in close to $215 million, against a threshold of $195 million. As a result they will pay a steeper luxury tax rate of 30 percent on this season’s overage. While Chris Ilitch’s comments are reassuring, it’s also a near certainty that the franchise will ensure that they are under the luxury tax threshold in 2018. A luxury tax penalty of 40 percent on the overage looms if they are unable to do so.
Of course, the Tigers won’t have to do anything to get under the threshold. With the contracts of Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe, Francisco Rodriguez, Alex Avila and J.D. Martinez all coming off the books, the Tigers will be well under the threshold without lifting a finger. We will have to wait to see how much of that money the club reinvests in players.
However, while fans of the Detroit Tigers can probably breathe easy about ownership’s commitment to winning, that doesn’t mean that nothing is going to change. The commitment may be unwavering, but the process of building a quality baseball team is undergoing a serious overhaul under Al Avila. For his part, Ilitch stated that he has issued no mandate regarding the team’s payroll, and that he supports general manager Al Avila’s decisions.
Avila has made it clear that the Tigers have to move away from their tendency to solve roster issues with huge free agent signings. A renewed commitment to the organization’s scouting, analytics department and player development system is now the order of the day. To that end, the Tigers have added personnel to those departments, and invested $42 million to renovate the facilities at their winter home in Lakeland, Fla. Avila has Chris Ilitch’s full support in the change in approach.
"Al has a great plan. The first part of his plan is really to beef up our personnel in the area of sabermetrics, player development and analytics. And really, his goal is to identify and draft the very best players in the world, and then we need to develop them. He's beefing up our player development area as well as our scouting ranks. I support his approach wholeheartedly.”
Fans should make no mistake: the Detroit Tigers are certainly in transition. The possibility of some lean years ahead still looms. The approach Avila has outlined looks to build from within to a much greater extent than during his predecessor’s tenure as general manager. If successful, this should produce a much more sustainable club, but it’s also a long-term project. Avila and his staff currently have an awful lot to prove.
What does appear likely is that the Tigers’ financial commitment to putting a very good baseball team on the field every April is undiminished by Mike Ilitch’s passing, exactly as he wanted. For now, that’s all anyone could ask.