On Friday night, the 2020 Tigers will play a regular season baseball game. This is not a particularly noteworthy sentence if you’re a time traveler reading from January, but for the rest of us who lived through everything that has happened on planet Earth over the last six months, it is worthy of note. Baseball is back. Well, presumably it’s back. I’m writing this on Thursday and a lot can happen in 36 hours.
I have not had a lot to say about the Tigers during the last couple of years after writing hundreds of posts about them between 2012 and 2017. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I started this site because I was miserable in grad school and needed an escape, but that need for escape ended a long time ago. I haven’t blogged much in the last few years partly because I simply haven’t needed the outlet because I’m not miserable all day at work. But the other reason I haven’t written much in the last couple of years is because I’ve found my self less and less interested in the Tigers — who have been terrible — and less and less capable of contributing much to the overall discourse surrounding the game at large.
I have written on a few occasions about my growing alienation with the game (i.e., Major League Baseball as an institution, not the actual sport). I’ve followed the league and the Tigers over the last couple of years, but I haven’t consumed the sport in the way I did in my teens and early twenties. There was a time in my life where I would spend hours each day watching baseball and consuming and/or producing baseball content. Last year, it was rare that I would watch a full nine innings in one day. Part of this is simply a story about how my life is different and how I’m different, but I think part of it is driven by how hard it is to really care about a team that is so militantly trying to lose. Presumably, the 2021 Tigers will be in a position to try to win games given the development timetable of the various prospects and young players.
So that makes 2020 kind of a weird year. The Tigers blew it up in 2017. There was no way to put together a good product in 2018. They tanked in kind of an off-putting way in 2019 because they could have put together a better product without sacrificing the future and they simply chose not to for the benefit of Ilitch Holdings. Going into 2020, it didn’t seem like the Tigers were interested in getting much better, but they signed a few players (Nova, Cron, Schoop, and Romine) who will solidify the bottom end of the projections a bit. Clearly, the Tigers are going to hoard their dollars and hope the prospects pay off. But under any reasonable timeline, the 2021 Tigers need to try to win. That makes the 2020 team the last year in the wilderness. The last year where we will enter the season with no real expectations.
Which I guess makes this whole thing even more absurd than it already is. I’ve been quite vocal on Twitter that I believe playing baseball in the United States this year is wildly irresponsible. Not only does it create a risk for the players and staff, it could lead to additional community spread. And this is to say nothing of the fact that baseball is taking testing resources from the broader community that is still in desperate need. It would be one thing to play baseball in the aftermath of tragedy. But the tragedy is still unfolding and there is a very real case to be made that playing baseball could make it worse. The benefits of baseball simply do not outweigh the costs unless your only operating principle is cashing in on your television contracts, which most of us do not have.
It seems particularly weird for the 2020 Tigers to even exist. Sure, it’s good for the long term development of Casey Mize and Matt Manning to face live competition, but nothing that happens in the next three months matters beyond that. The Tigers, a team that is not trying to win and hasn’t fielded a competitive roster since 2016, is going to fly all over the country and subject hundreds of people to an increased risk of contracting a deadly virus. For what?
On top of that baseline, the season is 60 games. There will be a runner on second base when extra innings begin. High-fives are cancelled. No one is allowed to spit. There will be no fans. Nothing that happens during this faux season will count, even if the season is somehow played to completion. We won’t be able to view the stats alongside other seasons. Whoever wins the World Series will get to claim victory, but only in the narrowest possible way. There will be no pile-on at the mound and no champagne showers.
I know people have talked this to death, but everything that happens this year comes with an asterisk. It’s a standalone season with its own set of rules. People are going to try to make it seem normal, or like some sort of triumph. But we know that it is not. Maybe there will be good news on the therapeutic or vaccine front in the near future and we can start to imagine a more normal 2021 season. But until the world stops burning, it’s hard to see why we’re doing this.
We’re going to wake up tomorrow and it’s going to be Opening Day. Normally, we’d all think fondly about Ernie Harwell’s recitation from the Song of Solomon:
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
Yet those words are hollow this year. The winter isn’t past. There will be baseball this year, but nothing about it will be real.
Al Kaline was the rare athlete whose influence stretched across generations. He wore the Old English D for the first time in 1953. My father had just turned four years old and my mother hadn’t quite yet been born. Even though he retired a full 15 plus years before I debuted on planet Earth, he was unquestionably the most famous baseball player of my childhood.
Al Kaline was above suspicion. Archetype of a professional. Gentleman. Signed a deal fresh out of high school and worked for one company his entire life. Not only was Kaline a no doubt Hall of Fame player, he was the greatest Tiger of his era without competition. His career essentially ran parallel with Detroit’s time as the engine of the American Dream, and it’s just hard to separate the two. Al Kaline was baseball in the third quarter of the 20th century, especially in Detroit, and his long shadow lingered over baseball in Detroit in the five decades that have come since.
Al Kaline was the kind of a ball player and person that everyone could appreciate. Old school, new school, flashy, understated? Something for everyone. I said on Twitter earlier that only Ernie Harwell stands as Kaline’s equal in terms of adoration among Tigers fans. Trammell, Verlander, and Cabrera will all certainly have flags flying on the Comerica flag pole with their initials when they pass, but Kaline’s death will ring loudest among them because of how long and how permanently he’s been a Tiger.
Yet today, at this benchmark moment in Tigers history, there was no on-field ceremony. No tribute on FSD. No Dickerson-Price remembrance. There is no baseball because there is nothing but despair. As I write this, more than 700 Michiganders have died from the novel coronavirus and hundreds, maybe thousands, more will join them. In the long line of horrible things we are living through and will continue to live though over these months, one of them is that Al Kaline will not get the curtain call he earned.
But it’s not just Kaline. We all know that. People are dying separated from their families. Families are coping with loss without the normal ceremonies and togetherness that typically comes with this kind of heartache. It’s a particular kind of cruelty to take loved ones away without the chance to grieve among friends.
Kaline’s loss is a poignant reminder, not only of the world we’ve lost but also of the hell we currently occupy. All men must die, and few have made better use of their 85 years than Kaline, but to lose someone this beloved by the entire community with no opportunity to be among that community is cruel in a way that gets to the heart of where we are.
We are surrounded by loss and unable to grieve. Some day this will be over. Some day they’ll raise a flag with “AK” above Comerica Park and a parade of former teammates and friends will eulogize Kaline. The stadium will probably be full, although it’s hard to imagine it now. The stories they’ll tell will speak to his greatness on and off the field. People will be comforted by the shared experience of having watched Kaline or grown up hearing about what it was like to watch him unleash throws from right field at Tiger Stadium.
Some day we’ll be able to think about that. Some day there will be time. Some day we’ll go to funerals.
When the 2019 regular season ends tomorrow, the Tigers will find themselves with the worst record in baseball for the second time in three seasons. They arrived at that mark deliberately and purposefully. They did not have the second worst season in franchise history because of bad fortune between the lines or poorly timed injuries. The Tigers chose to provide an atrocious 2019 season, ostensibly in the name of future success.
The Tigers’ decision to sell the way they did in 2017 was absolutely justified and correct. They needed to restock their depleted system and they traded away talented veterans to do so. Given that choice, it was clear the Tigers would not compete in 2018 and they didn’t. No one could really blame them for that, given how hard it would have been that offseason to assemble a reasonably competitive bunch. But going into 2019, the Tigers absolutely could have improved the roster and made this year’s team watchable. Would they have won enough games to take the division? Probably not. But they could have put together a team that would have been watchable and unembarrasing, while sacrificing nothing from the future. There were tons of available free agents this winter who signed below-market deals and some who didn’t get offers until much too late in the process. A few of those names in the lineup this year would have made the team much more interesting, only at the expense of Chris Ilitch’s portfolio.
No one would have asked the team to trade Casey Mize for a shot at winning 75 games, but the Tigers could have spent some money and made this a team worth paying attention to without removing anyone from the farm.
This is all to say that the Tigers didn’t just choose to carry out a much needed rebuild; they chose to completely and utterly tank. They made no effort to compete and slashed payroll to an unacceptable level given the financial health of the organization and the sport. And based on Ilitch’s comments recently, it is clear the team intends to do something similar in 2020. That means the Tigers will spend at least four seasons being unbearably awful.
Now don’t get me wrong, they are not the first team to tank. And more than one team has tanked their way to a World Series. It’s not necessarily a foolish strategy in the long run, but that’s exactly what it must be: a strategy. And it has to work.
The Tigers have to make these four years count. They must draft well and they must develop their prospects in a more successful way than they have over the last two decades. The great teams of the Verlander Era were mostly dotted with players drafted and developed elsewhere. If the Tigers want to tank their way to glory, they will have to learn how to teach players like the Astros, Dodgers, and Cardinals.
If the point of this half decade of misery is to reset the organization for sustainable success, the team needs to be investing in the kinds of development that have become commonplace among the elite teams. It can’t just be Mize and Manning blossoming into stars. Anyone can take top of the draft talent and get them to the majors. The Tigers need to turn borderline prospects into real contributors. If they don’t, the entire purpose of this endeavor is flawed. The point of tanking is to gather and hoard talent—through high draft picks and not trading away prospects at the deadline—so that you have a higher chance of hitting on multiple guys. If that doesn’t happen, this was just a waste of time.
Tigers fans face the unpleasant reality of watching our erstwhile franchise icon flourish in his late 30s in Houston. The Tigers gave up on Verlander’s twilight years for the hopes of finding one or more new Verlander’s during the rebuild. But if the rebuild is not executed properly—a matter on which the jury is out—then it will have been pointless. The Tigers could have held their stars in 2017 and worked the free agent market each offseason and definitely been in contention this year and next. The purpose of the tank was to come out the other side as a powerhouse, better than they otherwise could have been.
We can’t lose sight of that goal. The Tigers didn’t have to tank. They didn’t have to lose over 110 games this year. They’re doing it because they believe it will have a positive long term outcome. But you shouldn’t accept an outcome that just returns the Tigers to the playoff race, it must return them to the echelon of elite teams. You spend five years in the wilderness to come out the other side looking like the Astros. That is the goal and that is what the fans must demand.
If Chris Ilitch will be satisfied simply with a profitable 85-win team with a middle-tier payroll in 2021-2024, he could have gotten that without the misery of 2017-2020. We cannot accept tanking as a means to save on payroll. It must only be accepted a pathway to greatness.
It was brutal watching the 2019 Tigers and we’ve been told it will be this way again next year. The only justification for putting us through this is a truly roaring 20s.
The 2019 Detroit Tigers are not going to win very many baseball games. While my ability to predict the future is limited, the evidence is basically as definitive as you can ever be about this kind of thing. Could the Tigers defy the odds entirely? Stranger things have occurred in baseball’s long history. Anything can happen, but it usually doesn’t.
The Tigers are coming off two miserable seasons of fewer than 70 wins. They made virtually no effort to improve their club this winter and their best pitcher is about to undergo Tommy John Surgery and miss the entire season. A rosy prediction would probably estimate the Tigers miss the wild card by 15 games.
Save Miguel Cabrera—who is coming off a year lost to injury and is about to turn 36—the Tigers will field a roster without any superstars. The bottom-line-be-damned owner is gone. The can’t-build-a-bullpen-but-is-otherwise-great GM just won a World Series in Boston. Jim Leyland no longer holds court after each game. The team’s long-time TV broadcast crew was fired after an altercation last year that the team and network have still not publicly discussed.
After a decade of competitive teams—championship caliber in some cases—the Tigers are firmly in the middle of their decline. It was understandable in 2017 and inevitable in 2018, but the malaise lurks in year three. The brass has made clear that they do not even intend to build a winner until 2021 (even though, as I’ve argued, they could build one more quickly).
By every indication, there will be essentially zero Tigers games with playoff implications over their next 162 contests.
In essence, nothing matters.
So how do we cope this fact? We used to manage just fine, before the revival. But that was before we had experienced the feeling of actually caring. Before we knew the rush of pennant chases and heartbreak of Nelson Cruz, and of Torii Hunter flipping over the right field wall in Boston.
When the rebuild began, I was ready. The team needed to develop a new generation and I was being pulled in other directions in my non-baseball life. It was refreshing to be focusing less on the day-to-day triumphs and more on the growth of the Tiger cubs. After a decade or more of watching nearly every inning of nearly every game, it was kind of nice to be able to step back and allow myself to detach a little.
But it’s 18 months later. The farm is better but the club didn’t make use of any of its financial savings this winter when it could have gone a long way and they don’t seem keen on even pretending. Even if I didn’t win the argument about signing Harper, Gio Gonzalez just got a minor league deal for $3 million!
There isn’t going to be meaningful baseball. So how do we fight the drift towards ambivalence about baseball in general? If the organization doesn’t care, and isn’t going to care for two more years, how do we fight the atrophy of our baseball muscles?
I’ve never needed the team to win the World Series to care. It’s not disappointing for me to watch a team miss the playoffs by three games or run into a wall in the LCS. But finding a way to stay engaged when you know how it ends from the beginning is another matter. It’s one thing for that to be an occasional thing, but this is a four-year promise from management.
One of the things I really like about baseball is that each individual game is relatively unimportant and that the real story unfolds across the individual contests. An intentionally bad team ruins that vibe. Any given day, it could be fun to watch, but the sum total of the product will be subpar.
I am going to try to take two approaches to dealing with this. The first is that I’m going to try to watch more full games that don’t involve the Tigers. I’ve always watched a lot of background baseball but following a single team demands a lot of time and if you give three hours a day to one team, it’s hard to find time to watch other games in full. So sometimes I’m just going to do that. If I can’t follow a single interesting team over an entire summer, I should at least make some of the individual games more exciting.
The other thing I’m going to do is try to watch baseball at a very micro-level. This is easy to do in person when your neck is the camera operator, but I’m going to try to get myself to focus more closely on small things. The batter’s hands. The shortstop’s footwork. The catcher’s stance. I really admire people who can notice detail amid chaos, so I’m going to try to get better at it.
I’ve written a few times in the last couple of years about how it’s getting harder for me to like things as I’ve gotten older because it’s gotten harder for me to ignore the bad parts. It’s harder to like baseball because of the way the league treats minor leaguers. It’s hard to like the Tigers because Al Avila doesn’t care the Derek Norris abused his wife. It’s hard to like art because so many people who make it are terrible.
I don’t want to become a person who just suspends their contempt for something to allow myself to selfishly enjoy it, but it’s probably also too simple to just say anything poisoned at all is poisoned in full. The world is too complicated for that. Liking the good parts of a thing doesn’t prevent you from hating the bad parts as long as you stay angry when it’s required.
This era is going to require that we carry out our fandom differently, both in terms of how we watch games and in terms of how we confront the storm gathering around how the league’s owners are behaving. A few years ago I was content with where the game was. There will probably never be baseball I enjoy more than I enjoyed the early 2010s.
I’m still going to care about the Tigers but I’m going to give myself permission to care differently. Being a Tigers fan was a lot of who I was in my teens and early 20s. It’s probably not going to be that way in my 30s. I’m okay with that. I’ve made peace with it. But just because something is different doesn’t mean it can’t provide meaning.
The Tigers opened Spring Training last week in Lakeland without having done much to improve on their 2018 campaign. This offseason they signed Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, Jordy Mercer, and the standard contingent of minor league free agents. Moore, Ross, and Mercer were all solid signings, as they all have the potential to reclaim some past glory and provide the Tigers with a nice little return on their investment. But the 2018 Tigers were not a team that needed tweaks to contend in 2019, they needed big upgrades.
The 2018 Tigers won 64 games, which is the same number of games they won during the 2017 season in which had the worst record in baseball. Now of course there is no way to guarantee a great season, or even a contending season, but the Tigers haven’t done anything this winter to even make an attempt at getting into the wild card or divisional race. That is especially odd given how little most of the other teams are doing to truly improve themselves.
What is going on?
Obviously the Tigers were in bad place in 2017 and trading away their good, aging veterans made tons of baseball sense. They were unlikely to win with the core they had assembled and rather than stumble through the next couple of years, they blew up the roster and turned Verlander, Martinez, Upton, et all into players who would help them win in the future. Trading now talent for future talent was a wise baseball move. The financial savings from getting Verlander off the books was relatively unimportant from a baseball perspective, but the long term talent wasn’t.
Going into 2018, there really wasn’t a way to build a winner through free agency given the roster they had. There were too many holes and not enough available players to make it a great short term move, and it certainly wouldn’t have made sense long term.
But 2019 is different. The current Tigers roster is probably assembled to win around 70 games, give or take. That’s not a great team at all, but there is a lot of room for growth and there are a lot of good players still available in February. Bryce Harper. Manny Machado. Dallas Keuchel. Craig Kimbrel. Marwin Gonzalez. These are potentially large upgrades for the Tigers this year, with many of them having the potential to be good for the next several seasons. This is to say nothing of the many players the team could pick up on one- or two-year deals to help bridge the gap (e.g. Adam Jones).
Why aren’t the Tigers making serious plays for at least some of these players?
It’s reasonable for the team to look at their current roster and think they probably can’t win the division in 2019 even with some major upgrades. But they can certainly sniff the wild card, and more importantly, the players they sign in 2019 will be on their team in 2020 and 2021 when their prospects start graduating. The Tigers shouldn’t sign a 34-year-old 1B/DH to five-year deal right now, but Harper and Machado are in their mid-20s. They will still be in their peak years in 2020, 2021, and 2022. And it’s not like the Tigers can pass on Harper this year, save the $35 million and then sign him next year. That’s not how it works.
The Tigers are also not in any kind of financial crunch. In 2018, they had the 20th highest payroll in the league at around $125 million. This was a stark contrast to the 10 previous seasons in which their payroll was in the top 10, including nine seasons in the top six. They had payrolls in the high $190M range in 2016 and 2017.
Clearly, a major difference is that Mike Ilitch died and his son is now running the team. Chris Ilitch isn’t trying to win a World Series as urgently, which makes sense given that he’s not in his 80s hoping for one last taste of glory. I get that Chris Ilitch isn’t going to push Avila to mortgage the future and spend like there is no tomorrow, but he’s used that cover, the cover of the 2017 rebuild, and the fact that the rest of the league is pretending they can’t afford free agents to completely avoid investing in the team. The Tigers payroll in 2019 might end up being less than it was in 2018, and even if it’s higher it will be roughly in the same place.
There is no justification for that. The Tigers were financially capable of handling payrolls near $200 million a couple of years ago. The fact that they aren’t even close to that is indefensible. The league as a whole is making tons of money, the Tigers are closing in on a new TV deal (either with Fox or their own RSN), and the Ilitch family shows no signs of being in a difficult financial situation. The Tigers aren’t spending money right now because they don’t want to, and the only reason they don’t want to is because the ownership group would prefer to have higher profits.
Put another way, there is no baseball reason why the Tigers shouldn’t be out there trying to sign some of these marquee free agents. It would be one thing if every player had a bidding war going and the Tigers decided they didn’t want to overpay for Harper or Machado given that they probably aren’t going to get a ton of value out of the 2019 version, so a team like the Yankees might be able to spend more. But that’s not even the case. The Tigers could get these guys for less than they’re actually worth and they don’t appear to be trying.
They have room on the balance sheet, they need big upgrades, and they are in the market for a new generation of stars to carry the marketing side of the organization. Harper could be with the organization for a decade, selling merchandise and earning a spot on the brick wall, but the Tigers appear content to give that up so that the Ilitches can…have more money?
The Tigers could be a lot better in 2019 if they went out and signed free agents, but much more importantly, they could set themselves up for real greatness in 2020 to 2022 if they acquire building block players right now who will be there when Mize, Manning, Paredes, and Perez coming knocking.
There is still time. We are in the midst of a league-wide cheapskate crisis, meaning that there are great players still available on the market in mid-February. If the Tigers want to build a winner now and into the near future, the path to return to the top of the Central is wide open. All it will take is spending money that they have. It will cost them nothing in prospect talent. Going into 2019 spending less than $130 million on the big league roster is a joke for an organization with the history and resources of the Tigers. The fans in Detroit want a winner and the leadership of the team isn’t even pretending like they care.
Mike Ilitch sometimes overspent on big name veterans, occasionally to his detriment. But you can bet if he had a change to sign generational talents at age 26, he wouldn’t be sitting on his hands talking about payroll flexibility and rebuilding. Mike Ilitch would have spent the money because Mike Ilitch wanted to win as desperately as any owner in recent memory. There is still time his successor to follow that example.
Every year, Ernie used to read this quotation from the Song of Solomon on Opening Day. Four years ago, I heard a priest recite this in Ernie’s name in reference to the rebirth of baseball, Spring, and Easter.
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
We made it.
In years past, I’ve previewed the upcoming season with a countdown of the nine bellwether players whose fortunes will dictate the Tigers’ performance. That doesn’t make a lot of sense this year, neither does my annual piece explaining the path the team could take to a World Series win. The Tigers aren’t going to win the World Series and it would be a massive surprise if they earned a wild card berth. For these reasons, I want to take a slightly different approach to the preview. I’m going to run through the players whose 2018 performance will shape what happens for the Tigers in 2019 and beyond.
Miguel Cabrera: Cabrera had his worst season as a professional in 2017, and while it’s easy to point to injuries (and significant turmoil in his personal life) as contributing factors, it’s not clear that we can count on those to abate going forward. At Cabrera’s age, his body may be breaking down rather than dealing with individual acute injuries. At his best, he’s one of the most gifted hitters of his generation, but superstars don’t say superstars forever. If Cabrera bounces back and has a good 2018, we’ll take it as a sign that he’s capable of being an elite hitter for the immediate future. And that matters a lot because starting from a place where Cabrera is a 5-win player is much different than starting from a place where he is a 2.5-win player. It’s hard to imagine building a contender in 2019 if Cabrera’s days as a star are over.
Daniel Norris: Norris was the centerpiece of Phase 1 of the rebuild, but after a solid showing in 2016, he took some steps back last year. His strikeout rate went down, his walk rate went up, and he allowed a lot of runs despite keeping the ball in the park a little better. He turns 25 next month and has plenty of time left to develop, but it will be important for him to show signs of growth this year. Whether Norris turns into a #2 or a #4 will say a lot about the Tigers over the next few years.
Matt Boyd: The story for Boyd is pretty similar to Norris, except that he’s two years older. He’s shown flashes of great potential, but has also struggled mightily at times. Boyd doesn’t have the same prospect pedigree as Norris, but he’s had a ton of success in the minors and has shown more velocity in recent years than he was expected to have. I’ve been driving the Boyd bandwagon for the last two years and don’t intend to de-wagon any time soon, but it will be important for him to put some good results on the board this year as the club figures out what to do this offseason.
Jeimer Candelario: Candelario came back in the Avila/Wilson deal last July and proceeded to have a very solid 38-game run for the Tigers down the stretch, hitting 111 wRC+. The scouting reports like what he can do at the plate, and if he’s good enough to stick at third, the Tigers might have themselves an above-average regular for the next six years. But there are still plenty of questions for Candelario who is less than 160 PA into his MLB career. He’ll have every chance to establish himself this year, but figuring out if he’s more likely to be a 1.5-win player or a 3-win player is going to be a big part of 2018.
Joe Jimenez: Jimenez has dominated in the minors but was truly terrible in his 19 MLB innings last year. One reliever isn’t going to make or break a rebuilding team, but Jimenez is hopefully going to be given a chance to get acclimated to the majors in 2018 and we’ll see whether he is equal to the competition. The raw talent is there, but there is a reason relief prospects are relief prospects — some aspect of their game is limited. Jimenez certainly looked over-matched last year, but he’s young and was facing hitters that could handle his heat for the first time. If Jimenez is a relief ace or top tier right-handed reliever, the Tigers will be in good shape.
Nick Castellanos/Jose Iglesias/Victor Martinez: Barring something very unlikely, Castellanos, Iglesias, and Martinez won’t be Tigers on Opening Day 2019. The big question is whether they will be Tigers on August 1, 2018, and if not, what kind of return the Tigers will have gotten for them. Each player could earn the Tigers a mint with the right season. Castellanos’ power has developed nicely, but he still struggles to control the zone. He’s a good player, but he’s limited defensively so a couple months of Rentallanos isn’t going to bring back much unless he has a breakout. Iglesias is a good defensive shortstop, who looks great at times, but he really isn’t a very good hitter. A career year at the plate would help. Finally, Martinez has had a remarkable career that looks like it’s coming to an end. If he can recover from health problems that plagued him all last year and hit like it’s 2016, he’ll be in demand at the deadline. If he can find the magic and hit like it’s 2014, teams will be falling all over themselves to grab him at the deadline.
I’ll put the Tigers at 73-89 for the year. We’ll get to obsesses about the first overall draft pick in June and there will be some interesting young players to follow. I’m confident that if the Tigers want to, they can put themselves back into contention next winter. It’s going to be a rough season at Comerica, but hopefully we’ll find sun among the clouds.
The Tigers have arrived in Lakeland in preparation for the 2018 season. In a clear sign of the times, Justin Verlander will not be among the players playing long toss or running sprints. The only connection to the powerhouse days of the late aughts and early teens is the first baseman coming off a career-worst season. It’s a new day.
This winter, the Tigers made very little news. Ron Gardenhire replaced Brad Ausmus and brought with him a mostly new coaching staff. The club traded Ian Kinsler to the Angels. They signed Leonys Martín and Mike Fiers, and also approximately one-hundred thousand minor league free agents, including domestic abuser/replacement level catcher Derek Norris.
If you run the numbers, fingers off the scale, the Tigers line up for a very bad year. A 70-win season seems a reasonable bet. A healthy Miguel Cabrera can still be a superstar and a healthy Michael Fulmer remains worthy of a mention in your AL Cy Young preview, but otherwise the Tigers do not have anyone who is a good bet to be above average in 2018. That is not to say they have no one who will be above average this year, just that that the roster is full supporting actors and not many leads.
This is by design, of course. The Tigers emptied the larder last year and made no effort to sign any of the talented free agents. The club will pick first in the June draft and is lining up to pick near the top again in 2019. They are in the midst of rebuilding and have deliberately chosen this path.
It’s not clear how long they intend to be bad. They could presumably be back in buying mode as soon as next offseason. While the team has been known for big contracts tied up in aging players, after 2018 they will only owe such monies to Cabrera (through 2023) and Jordan Zimmermann (through 2020). If the prospects develop well, they could be ready to contend in 2019, and certainly by 2020.
This year is the only year of certain infamy. It will be just the second year since 2007 that we will enter the season expecting to watch a bad team. That will be both frustrating and freeing. Success will be limited but it will all be house money.
There are lots of plausible ways the 2018 Tigers could be decent. Cabrera could be Cabrera. Candelario could break out. Mahtook and Martín could do well, Castellanos could grow. Norris and Boyd could be more consistent. Zimmermann could be healthy. Joe Jimenez could become a relief ace. If it all goes well, they could be on the fringes of the wild card, a mid-80s win team. It’s unlikely to all go well, but this shouldn’t be 2003 reimagined. They will look respectable. And as opposed to last year, there will be a sense of beginning rather than a sense of ending.
I made no secret that the owner and front office lost a lot of my respect through their handling of the Derek Norris acquisition. In terms of their stewardship of the franchise on moral and respectability grounds, I have levied my vote of no confidence. But in terms of their purely baseball pursuits, there is potential. The farm system is looking up and most of the payroll has been cleared to allow for big signings in the next two offseasons. Whether Ilitch the younger follows in his father’s footsteps will determine the arc of the team beyond this year.
I also wrote this winter about disillusionment with a sport full of problems like embarrassing minor league wages, lacking front office diversity, poor response to players who commit violence against women, and nonsense codes of honor surrounding head hunting. I thought a lot about whether I should just let my fandom wither on the vine or whether I should remain and demand better. That’s not the kind of thing that calls for a final decision, but rather constant evaluation.
So much of the game is good, even if specific people currently in charge have lost my faith and respect. But the game will outlast them and it’s important that people rising in all parts of the game today are given the tools to make things better.
I have a small corner of the arena, but I will continue to do my part so that in the future the good decisively outweighs the bad. In Detroit, we are in a moment of genesis. In every respect let us build something about which we can be proud.
On Tuesday, the Tigers announced a number of signings. The headliner was outfielder Leoyns Martín, but the notable minor league name was Derek Norris. Norris is a catcher who last year was suspended for the final month of the season after his former fiancé described him as physically and emotionally abusive, and detailed a time in which he put her in a choke hold, grabbed her hair, and restrained her as she tried to get away.
This is the man the Tigers have chosen to sign.
Now I have heard reasonable and evidence-based arguments against a zero tolerance policy. In certain situations, harsh sanctions on abusers can put victims in more danger, and ultimately any policy from MLB should focus on victim safety and changing societal attitudes ahead of simply punishing the player. I understand that banishing players from the game entirely may not be ideal or reasonable, even if that’s what my gut wants to do. The problem I have seen time and time again is that it’s not just that MLB can’t get the punish right, it’s that MLB teams don’t take domestic violence seriously.
The Tigers are no different. Here are some quotes from Tony Paul’s story:
“When we consulted with (MLB), they were like, ‘The guy served his penalty, he should be able to sign, that’s the way the process works,’” Avila told The News. “We do know the guy, David Chadd has known the guy for a long time, he knows the father, he knows the issue.
“We signed a good kid.”
Norris, as Avila pointed out, was not charged.
“We know this kid,” Avila said. “It’s not his character.”
Avila makes a couple of major mistakes in those comments. The first is that he essentially denies Norris’ fiances’ claims. Avila does nothing to indicate he thinks the claims are true, and hints that he doesn’t believe they are consistent with who Norris is.
Second, Avila says good things about Norris’ character and does not say anything negative about his actions. It’s one thing for a baseball executive to say “this guy is good at baseball,” but he specifically calls him a “good guy.” I don’t expect baseball teams to care more about morality than they do about winning, but they should at least be willing to discuss the moral failings of the people they employ to play baseball.
Al Avila is not a politician, a clergyman, or a public intellectual. I don’t expect Avila to solve the problem of domestic violence. He wasn’t selected for his ability to do that. But he is a public figure who has been given stewardship of one of our most treasured institutions.
Avila’s comments reflect a man who does not take domestic violence seriously. Full stop.
As I said, general managers aren’t responsible for solving the problem in society but it’s hard to root for a team that doesn’t even seem to care about the issue. Avila dismissed the victim’s experience, lauded Norris’ character, and didn’t even say anything about how domestic violence is bad in general. This is all compounded by the fact that the Tigers are going to be bad this year and that Derek Norris, excuse my language, kind of fucking sucks. What’s even the point? This isn’t like Miguel Cabrera, who provides immense value on the field and brings with him significant personal flaws. This is a bad player and a bad guy. And the Tigers signed him without seemingly giving it much thought.
Believing women and working to stop domestic violence are important. Sports franchises have the power to shift public opinion. I’m not naive enough to say Al Avila taking a stand on Derek Norris would have changed the world, but meaningful change is always the product of a lot of small actions.
From a fan perspective, though, the only way I feel comfortable cheering for an organization is if they demonstrate they understand the seriousness of the offense. You don’t have to sacrifice winning for the sake of your morals (although I’d respect the hell out of that), but there’s no reason you can’t be forceful in your language and clear in your message that what Norris did was wrong and doing what he did makes him a bad person.What I want to hear is “Player X did a horrible thing. An unforgivable thing. But he insists he wants to change and he is doing A, B, and C to work toward that goal. We want to support his efforts to become a better person.” I don’t want to hear about “mistakes” or that he’s a “good guy” or that “well we don’t really know what happened.” No victim blaming. No discussion of baseball as a road to salvation. No “obviously I don’t condone it, but…” No efforts to minimize what he did.
I want institutions like MLB and the Tigers to use these cases as an opportunity to model behavior. And I understand there are people who say it’s not the job of teams and leagues to police society. That’s a fine position. There’s a difference between a quasi-judicial approach and simply taking the time to learn about domestic violence and how to speak about it intelligently. I don’t need players to be blacklisted automatically, but if I’m going to cheer for their team, I need to know the team is on the right side of the issue — that they care about the victim and the millions of victims who aren’t in relationships with pro athletes.
When you defend Norris or minimize his actions, you are essentially saying what he did isn’t a big deal and that attacking women is acceptable. You don’t have to send him to Siberia where he can never play again, but please, please, please take this seriously. Devote some time to learning about this problem and how to talk about it in a way that makes the world a better place to live.
Avila and the Tigers have failed that test. When you combine this with other previous problems on similar issues (i.e., Simon, K-Rod, Reed, Cabrera), it gets harder and harder to wear the Old English D with any sort of pride. Maybe someday soon I will simply stop wearing it.
The Tigers season ended Sunday as Efren Navarro flew out to left, but of course the writing was on the wall much sooner. The Tigers last led the division on April 26th. They were last .500 on June 4th. They were last within three games of the division lead on June 16th. They were last within 10 games of the division lead on August 10th. The club went 6-25 in September and finished 64-98. In 2017, they tied for the worst record in baseball and will pick first in the 2018 draft.
Unlike in previous years, this requiem need not consider the randomness of baseball. Unlike in previous years, a few lucky bounces or one fewer injury would not have made a difference. The 2017 Tigers started the season looking like a team built well enough to contend for a wild card, but by the All-Star Break it was clear this team would fail.
Jordan Zimmermann did not pitch well for most of the year. Anibal Sanchez provided little. Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris had good performances and bad. Michael Fulmer was good, but got hurt. Justin Verlander was solid, and was traded. Like most years, the bullpen had a couple of good arms and then a collection of unsuccessful performances. The Tigers pitching was probably not the worst in baseball in 2017 but combined with an unremarkable defense, the club allowed more runs than any other team.
The offense was a little better, but by the end JD Martinez, Justin Upton, and Alex Avila had been traded, pulling most of the good performance off the field for the final couple of months. Nick Castellanos, Mikie Mahtook, and James McCann had solid seasons given expectations, but Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Jose Iglesias all underperformed to varying degrees. It was the first time the Tigers collectively produced a below average offensive output since 2009.
When a team fails this completely, there is not one primary cause. Miguel Cabrera was obviously the biggest single problem, but even if he was a 6 WAR player instead of replacement level, the team still wouldn’t have made the playoffs. If Cabrera had hit well, if Kinsler or Victor Martinez had provided more offense, and if one of the mediocre starters stepped up, you could imagine a world in which the Tigers hold JD Martinez and Justin Upton and find themselves chasing the Twins for the second wild card. The final results look really bad, but the club traded two critical offensive players, their ace, and their closer along the way. The Tigers nearly lost 100 games, but this team had the character of a 90-loss team that was blown up to make way for the future.
And it is in the future that we may remember 2017 fondly. While we were living it, we were miserable. The Tigers didn’t provide a particularly compelling brand of baseball this year. There were some good performances and great moments — every baseball season has them — but the season slipped away early and the most enjoyable components of the team now wear other uniforms.
But those trades brought back a lot of players who will be a part of the next competitive Tigers team. Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, Jose King, Jeimer Candelario, Issac Paredes, Grayson Long, Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, and Jake Rodgers have fortified the Tigers farm system. They won’t all make it to the show and the ones who do won’t all shine, but suddenly the Tigers only have two big contracts that you’d like to get out from under and a nice bunch of young players who will be able to make an impact in 2019, 2020, and beyond. Years of throwing caution to the wind and going for it finally caught up with the Tigers and they recognized it, pulled the rip cord, and started fresh. The 2017 season will be remembered as a hinge. The next Tigers contender will look nothing like the 2014 team that won the division.
The trades will forever define this season. That’s all we’re going to remember. It will be the year Ilitch died, Verlander was traded, and Ausmus was fired. The hundreds of hours we spent watching frustrating baseball will fade from memory. Whether the season is remembered fondly will depend on the careers of the prospects the team acquired. The legacy of 2017 depends on what happens in the future, ironically.
I attended one game this year. As far as I can remember, it was the first Tigers game I attended since 2010 that carried no postseason implications. That’s a bit deceptive, because I didn’t go to any late season games in 2015, but even during the course of the last decade, we’ve watched a relatively small share of meaningless baseball. The Tigers were in the race for all or most of the year except for 2008, 2010, and 2015 prior to 2017. We’ve fallen out of practice at caring about games that carry little meaning. Fortunately Matt Boyd reminded me how to care two Sundays ago as he completed the first 26 outs of a no-hitter. Last night, Andrew Romine gave us another reminder when he became the fifth person to play all nine positions in one game. It’s been a long year, but even in long years there are things to hold onto.
There are 179 days until Opening Day.