Some time last week, Detroit Tigers owner Chris Ilitch spoke to reporters about the direction of the franchise. His comments were positive (almost annoyingly so), as he voiced support for the job general manager Al Avila is doing despite the fact that his team flirted with the worst record in American League history for most of the summer.
But while Ilitch’s comments were frustrating — we are all his nine-year-old son, it seems — they don’t actually matter.
For now, at least.
Take the upcoming offseason, for instance. Though his answers were noncommittal, Ilitch all but suggested that the Tigers would not be putting much money into the major league roster, instead giving some of the younger talent in the system ample big league playing time. Whether that younger talent includes some of the top prospects in the system, like Isaac Paredes and Casey Mize, for large stretches of the 2020 season remains to be seen.
We can (and probably will) argue all winter about the efficacy of this strategy. The Tigers are currently at the lowest point of their rebuild, in terms of on-field talent at the major league level, and spending big on the free agent market — one that is already remarkably thin even before Anthony Rendon signs elsewhere — doesn’t guarantee that the club will be substantially better in 2020. Even a 20-win improvement would still only put them at a 70-ish win pace next season.
That means that this is largely Al Avila’s show. The Tigers have promised a more sustainable winner ever since Avila took over, and while Tigers Twitter is tripping over itself to proclaim the current regime a failure, the jury is still out on how this rebuild will unfold. Barring a Mike Ilitch-ian spending spree — and even if one were to materialize, really — the Tigers will need their farm system to produce much more homegrown talent than it has in previous years to come up with their next contender.
Ilitch’s lack of urgency is concerning, though, especially as new rumors of the team’s potential sale surfaced over the past week. Fans aren’t just worried about whether the team will spend in 2020, they are concerned about whether the team will spend at all. The club has already slashed over $100 million in payroll over the past few years, and will see that number grow even more this offseason now that Justin Verlander’s contract obligations come off the books.
Unfortunately, there is not much Avila and Co. can do this offseason to assuage those concerns. Signing a big money free agent, even one as talented as Rendon, doesn’t completely fix what ails this club. It would certainly be a step in the right direction — signing anyone of note, that is, not specifically Rendon — but until the team starts to produce legitimate homegrown talent at the major league level to back any spending, we are left with little more than blind faith that the powers that be are capable of putting together a winner in this era of baseball.
So... here we are. The Tigers are not very good right now, and we can do little more than wait to see if the current rebuild pans out. This makes for bad viewing right now — I don’t know if fan morale is at an all-time low, but it’s close — but things could eventually turn around.
It is only then that we will know whether Ilitch’s comments had any merit, or were just empty words. You may or may not share his faith in Avila and the rest of the front office, but there is little that can be done to shake up the current situation. Either the prospects pan out, or they don’t. Either the Tigers eventually spend, or they don’t. How the Tigers do in developing and deploying their young players will determine the team’s timetable for contention in the future, not empty words from their owner.