The question of ownership succession has long been on the mind of Detroit Tigers fans. Speculation has circled for years around the team’s ownership beyond the death of the family patriarch, Mike Ilitch.
Since Mike’s passing in February, the rumor mill has occasionally lit up with signals to suggest that his son, Chris Ilitch, is preparing to sell the franchise. The clearing of an enormous amount of future salary in the team’s recent trades set those rumors into high gear. Ilitch addressed the idea on Wednesday, insisting that that he and his family would not sell the Tigers now, or anytime in the near future.
Ilitch didn’t equivocate. “I am committed and we are committed to long-term Ilitch family ownership of the Detroit Tigers,” he told the Detroit News.
The difference between a franchise being prepped for sale, and one selling to prime the pump of a rebuild, isn’t such an obvious one. There were plenty of sound baseball reasons to make the moves they made over the past two months. Yet after operating more than $20 million in the red two of the past three years, per Forbes, and with the prospect of some lean years ahead for the team, it also feels like a likely time for a change in ownership. A recent franchise valuation of $1.2 billion will continue to leave some wondering if the right offer won’t change Ilitch’s mind.
One line of speculation has questioned Ilitch’s real interest in the Tigers. With the Little Caesar’s Arena opening this week, and the ongoing development involved in the District Detroit project, there is a lot on Ilitch’s plate these days. The Tigers are a project right now, with a sputtering revenue stream and a fanbase reeling from the team’s struggles, and the loss of franchise icon, Justin Verlander. It’s going to take time, attention, and reinvestment in order to bring the franchise back to relevancy. For now, there’s little to do but take Ilitch at his word and see just how committed he is to turning the fading Tigers around.
The Tigers’ braintrust has a lot of decisions on their hands. Possibly the moves the they make over the next six months will give fans a better idea of what to expect.
The next phase is to see how Tigers’ ownership proceeds in trying to reconstruct a younger, cheaper, and more versatile team. They have a decision to make regarding manager Brad Ausmus. However, it seems very unlikely that Tigers general manager Al Avila is going anywhere. And then there’s the question of reinvesting into a team that currently has a much reduced payroll on its ledgers heading into 2018.
The Tigers are currently at nearly $100 million less in team payroll than they were to start 2017. As a result, Avila should have some flexibility to make a few judicious, short-term signings. The team can’t just sit and wait until a completely new and talented young roster emerges whole cloth from the farm system. They need to make moves. Try to hit on small scale deals and exchange players for more prospects. Seeing signs of that strategy would at least illustrate that ownership isn’t holding the team in limbo pending a future sale of the franchise.
Right now, Chris Ilitch sounds like a man who wants to turn his team back into a winner. A frustrated and depressed fanbase will need proof of that commitment this offseason.