As we begin to wade into the offseason it has become apparent that the fan base has some differing views on the direction that the organization should be taking. In many cases, people are acting as though the decision making with the team is in the control of Al Avila. I think the history of the Ilitch-owned Tigers tells us differently. The Ilitch family is, first and foremost, a business. And they have operated the Tigers as such.
The Ilitch family have owned the Tigers for 26 years. The team was legitimately competitive for about eight of those. Not coincidentally, those eight years are the years in which the GM had the ability to make meaningful moves. We love to remember Mike Ilitch as "The former farmhand who loved the game" and "wanted nothing more than to win a World Series!" While those things are (partially) true, most of his years as owner don't back up those narratives.
Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1992. And prior to 2006 had one season where the team won even 80 games. That one season was 1993, with a roster full of contracts that had been signed primarily by previous ownership. He did attempt to fortify the rotation with a trio of pitchers (Mike Moore, Bill Krueger, and Tom Bolton) to try and keep up with with an insanely fun offense carrying over from the '92 team. After finishing a disappointing fourth place in the AL East, they decided to strip it down. Little did we know at the time, but we wouldn't see winning baseball for more than a decade.
The Tigers operated with a small payroll and rarely made "big" moves in an effort to win. I highly doubt the GM's of the time were satisfied with the big signings being the likes of Geronimo Berroa. Pieces were traded around before we could even learn their names. Melvin Nieves, Brian Hunter, Joe Randa, etc. This pretty much defined the team throughout the entire 1990's.
The year 2000 saw a shift. A big trade was made for Juan Gonzalez. Hideo Nomo was signed. Why the sudden shift? Was Mike Ilitch rediscovering his love of the game? After a decade of futility did he remember his lifelong dream of holding the World Series Trophy? No. Of Course not. They had a new ballpark to sell. Secretly owned parking lots to fill. Sure, winning would have been nice. But they needed to try and convince a dormant fan base that they were committed to giving us a team to fill that shiny new ballpark with gigantic dimensions (Hi Lynn!) that we paid to build. That commitment lasted all of two years. By 2002 Randall Simon led the team in home runs and we traded Jeff Weaver to leave Mark Redman as our ace.
The positive part of me would like to believe that the embarrassment of 2003 led the Ilitch family to recommit to baseball and being competitive. I'm sure it played a role. Some moves were made to improve in 2004. Although I'd argue the best move was more luck than an owner committed to winning (trading for Carlos Guillen). Signing Fernando Vina, Rondell White and Ivan Rodriguez was a first step to respectability. Did Mike Ilitch finally decide after 10 years of being a laughing stock that all of a sudden he was OK with the Tigers losing money?
The answer is, and always has been, a resounding no. For years Mike Ilitch had been making money hand over fist as a successful team owner. That team of course was the Detroit Red Wings. They sold out every night, no matter how expensive they made the tickets. They spent lavishly on free agents in order to maintain their edge in the NHL. In 2004, that all changed. A contentious labor stoppage was on the horizon. Everyone knew it. Everyone knew a salary cap was coming. After the 2004-2005 NHL season was cancelled, Mike Ilitch could no longer spend as much as he wanted on every free agent that tickled his fancy, yet that did not cause him to lower ticket prices or reduce concession costs. The roster was still sound, Detroit was still Hockeytown. Mike Ilitch was bringing in the same amount of money, with player costs reduced more than 50 percent.
To his credit, he could have pocketed that profit. Instead he invested that money, at long last, into the Tigers. But only after an improbable and magical 2006 season where everything that could go right, did go right for the Tigers. Justin Verlander emerged, Craig Monroe pretended to be a good major leaguer, and two heavily derided mid-level signings (Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones) worked out far better than anyone could have anticipated. Mike Ilitch then, and only then, decided to fully invest in the Tigers.
From 2006-2014 we had a solid baseball product, being invested in heavily by an owner with, in many cases, ridiculous contracts. Is it a coincidence that was also a period with a still successful (albeit deteriorating) hockey team? As the hockey team began to sputter, we began to see the Tigers do the same. Letting players walk over money (Max Scherzer), trading players for cost reasons (Doug Fister), and letting the best GM in baseball go.
As we see Al Avila getting hamstrung this offseason in his inability to make any moves, it is feeling more and more like an ownership unwilling to allow any spending of significance. Which is a shame, as Al Avila seems to be the type of GM who can do quite a bit with less as it relates to scrap heap acquisitions. But even those require some salary commitments. Even Mike Fiers wasn't free. So every time you think "Hey, The Tigers should sign _____" remember that Al Avila very well may be having the same thought. Unfortunately, it appears that he has just as much ability to acquire the player as you do. Without any ability to spend, it's unlikely we can be a 2030 optimist, much less a 2020 optimist. If it wasn't for the shrewd moves that Avila has made up until this point, I think we would be fast approaching our 2003, with little to no hope for the immediate future.
The Ilitch organization's Red Wings piggy bank has dried up, and with it their supposed "commitment to winning" with the Tigers.