Over the past several years, Detroit Tigers fans have struggled with the idea that their team’s window is coming to a close. We bristled at the idea that these Tigers were the next Philadelphia Phillies, then bashed the projection systems when they started to say what we didn’t want to hear. We pointed to things like Miguel Cabrera’s ludicrous stat lines, Justin Verlander’s advanced repertoire, and Dave Dombrowski’s striped polos as reasons to believe that this Tigers team could hold off Father Time long enough to win a long-desired championship.
Unfortunately, Father Time is undefeated. All good things must come to an end, and that includes us as humans. After questions circulated about his health for months (if not years), team owner Mike Ilitch finally passed away in February at the age of 87. His death left the Tigers and the city of Detroit in mourning. Few sports team owners are eulogized the way Mr. Ilitch has been, in large part due to his generous spending on the Tigers roster.
With his passing, the Tigers’ window of free spending closed. Gone, presumably, are the days of signing players to nine-figure contracts on a whim. Remember the shock we experienced when Prince Fielder signed a $217 million deal? The joy that Justin Verlander’s extension warranted? It almost became routine, to the extent that Justin Upton’s contract announcement in February 2016 was somewhat of a ho-hum affair. Holes in the wall of this roster will no longer be plastered over in gold.
With Mike Ilitch’s death, a new face of the franchise has emerged. Chris Ilitch, now the principal owner of the Tigers (and still team president) has vowed to continue the path set forward by general manager Al Avila after he was promoted in 2016. He will likely cut payroll, but because the game has evolved, not because he doesn’t want to win. Those around him describe Chris as “data-driven” and analytical, two qualities shared by most, if not all MLB front offices these days. With the Tigers still lagging behind most of baseball long after the analytics revolution, they are now in position to catch up quickly.
Unfortunately, statistical analysis only goes so far when you have a roster like the Tigers. For every young starting pitcher there is an aging veteran owed many millions of dollars. The team, for all its newfound analytical savvy, is still relying on Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey as potential options in the starting rotation. The bench is a combination of utility infielders, out-of-options outfielders, and a backup catcher with injury issues. They were relatively lucky when it came to injuries last year — their players combined for 887 days on the disabled list, the 12th-fewest in baseball — and Mike Aviles still played in 68 games before getting traded in August.
Whether their organizational depth issues are a product of the team’s previous win-immediately philosophy or more systemic remains to be seen. Vice president of player development Dave Littlefield was a disaster of a general manager in Pittsburgh, and assistant general manager David Chadd isn’t any more popular in Detroit. While the two are just pieces in the whole front office puzzle, recent signings like Pelfrey and Aviles don’t inspire much confidence.
Of course, the Tigers would not have needed to sign either player were it not for one of the worst farm systems in baseball. The Tigers were all but unable to fill their final roster spots from within last winter, and are facing a similar lack of depth this season. Sanchez and Pelfrey are still around in part because the team needs them, not just because of loyalty. Aviles is gone, but the team is still struggling to find an everyday center fielder. The fanbase is currently holding its collective breath as J.D. Martinez seeks a second opinion on a foot sprain because the options behind him haven’t improved one iota since Aviles started 22 games in the six weeks Martinez spent on the disabled list last year.
And yet, this flawed, top-heavy roster won 86 games last season. They were 2 1⁄2 games out of the AL Wild Card despite missing their No. 2 starter for nearly half the season. Justin Upton was AWOL for roughly three months, but still nearly willed the team into the playoffs with a scorching September. Miguel Cabrera was once again superhuman in the second half, posting a 179 wRC+ while (probably) battling a lower body injury or three. There were other great performances along the way as well: Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, and Michael Fulmer were all spectacular. Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd solidified the rotation from June onward, combining for a 4.05 ERA in 166 2⁄3 innings. Shane Greene, Justin Wilson, and Bruce Rondon showed flashes of brilliance out of the bullpen.
Those players will determine how the Tigers fare in 2017. If they and the other main pieces stay healthy and productive, the Tigers could be a dark horse playoff contender, if not challenge for the AL Central crown. The Cleveland Indians are already showing some cracks, and that’s before any statistical regression occurs. The Tigers were 62-48 after June 1 last season, the unofficial date Boyd and Norris joined the rotation full-time. With a bit more luck — both J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos hit the disabled list after that date — they could sustain that 90-win pace over a full season and sneak back into the postseason.
Regardless of their fortunes in 2017, the team’s long-term future is still at stake. Avila and Chris Ilitch have a plan in place, but it takes more than a few reallocated dollars to build a sustainable winner. Can their build-from-within philosophy eventually bring home the championship Chris’ father never won, or will this team’s past transgressions be too large a burden, plunging them into a long-avoided rebuild?
Only time will tell.