Cheering for a baseball team run by an 86-year-old billionaire is pretty exciting. We don’t often say it in so many words, but Mike Ilitch’s mortality is a big reason why the Tigers have been one of baseball’s best teams over the last decade. A person less comfortable with death might shy away from such unpleasant thoughts, but I am not that person.
After the Red Wings won three cups in six seasons, Ilitch turned his attention to his woebegone baseball franchise and decided he wanted to bring a World Series to the city he loved. Before he died. He gave new GM Dave Dombrowski the resources and freedom he needed to make a winner out of the AL’s punching bag. Free agents started coming to Detroit, the team reached the Series in 2006, and they wound up winning four division titles from 2011 to 2014. After more than a decade of losing, the Tigers had winning seasons in seven of ten tries from 2006 to 2015.
The club was relevant, popular, and powerful. But the World Series Ilitch wanted so dearly eluded him and he found himself closer to 90 than 80 while his beloved Tigers languished in the summer heat of 2015. In August, he gave the reins to Al Avila. Avila had done everything he could in an assistant role to prove he deserved a shot, but in his first gut-check moment, he decided to keep bumbling manager Brad Ausmus on for a third season. It was concerning to watch the new regime, one that claimed it was going to move the organization into the 21st century, retain one of the least impressive managers in the game. Al Avila had failed his first test.
But he would not fail another.
At the beginning of each offseason, I outline what the Tigers need to do over the winter to put themselves in position to compete the following year. This year, I asked Avila to acquire two starting pitchers (one very good and one solid), a star outfielder, three quality relievers, and some bench stuff. While the Tigers didn’t sign the exact player I suggested in any of those cases, Avila did acquire a player to fill every single hole in the roster he inherited from his predecessor.
The flaw in Dombrowski’s approach in Detroit was his unwillingness to build depth in the middle of the roster. No one could find stars like Dave, but he let far too many terrible relievers and replacement level position players onto his rosters. Avila did not make the same mistakes during his first offseason in charge. Without mortgaging the future, the Tigers put themselves in a position to compete in 2016.
The Tigers have three great hitters in the middle of their lineup. They have Ian Kinsler who remains solid. They have Victor Martinez who still has a chance to contribute before father time comes calling for him. Even with uncertainty surrounding center field, catcher, third base, and to some extent shortstop, the Tigers have good reason to be comfortable at every spot on the diamond. Catcher and third base look to be the positions most open to disaster, but both starters are young and showed promising signs in 2015.
The starting rotation isn’t adored by the projection systems, but those systems aren’t counting on second half Verlander or healthy Sanchez. They don’t know Shane Greene couldn’t feel his fingers in 2015. I wouldn’t say the Tigers have the best rotation in the division. They probably don’t even have the second best rotation in the division, but if Verlander-Zimmermann-Sanchez form a healthy and reliable top three, it should be enough to keep them in it. The 2013 Tigers they are not, but there is reason for optimism.
The bullpen won’t resemble the Royals or Yankees, but adding three solid back end relievers to go along with the interesting middle relief options they had in-house makes this the deepest bullpen the Tigers have had in quite some time. Even with the injuries to Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy, the bullpen remains better than the ones they went to battle with in 2014 and 2015.
Nothing about this roster screams 95 wins, but each of their AL Central rivals is flawed in their own way. The Royals and Twins lack starting pitching. The Indians and White Sox are wide open at several positions. There is less boom or bust in the Tigers than the other teams, but slow and steady might win the race. The American League is very balanced this season and the AL Central is no different.
The Tigers are built like an 86-88 win team and it appears as if the division winner won’t need many more. I won’t tell you that I believe strongly that this team will win the division, but I absolutely believe they will be right in the thick of the race all year. I think Cleveland, Kansas City, and Detroit are all 86-89 win teams, with Chicago and Minnesota close behind in the 80-85 win window. There are no bad teams in this division and no great teams either.
Whichever team winds up a little healthier and a little luckier probably takes the crown, and it seems plausible that one of the others could wind up in the Wild Card game. The Tigers aren’t positioned to run away with anything, but without destroying their shot at 2017, 2018, or 2019, the Tigers gave themselves an opportunity to win in 2016.
By now you should realize this isn’t a place to find bold, brash, and/or hot takes. The Tigers had a good offseason given where they started and I think they are a very real threat to win the AL Central. Without any truly great teams lurking around the AL, that puts them in fine position to win the pennant.
But it’s March and nobody knows anything other than that Mike Ilitch really wants to win and doesn’t have that many years left. There’s no reason to think he’s dying any faster than the rest of us, but this is a person who was alive before the Tigers won their first World Series in 1935. The clock is ticking and if it’s late July and the Tigers are in need, Al Avila will certainly have his owner’s blessing to do whatever it takes.
The final scene of Season 6 of Parks and Rec (spoiler alert) features Leslie and Ben stepping on an elevator. We don’t know where they’re going, but they’re clearly heading into some sort of chaotic and challenging future. That scene reminds me a lot of the scene from Breaking Bad (spoiler alert) when Walter White gets into the snow covered car in New Hampshire on his way to Felina. And that scene reminds me of the final scene from the sixth Harry Potter (honestly it’s too late for you if this is a spoiler) when Harry, Ron, and Hermione realize they’re about to spend a year hunting Horcruxes.
The Tigers find themselves in one of those moments. They’ve done everything they can to prepare, but there’s still no predicting or controlling what happens next. Baseball is mostly chaos. Beautiful, preposterous chaos. They did everything they could this winter to make sure 2016 ends with the title Mike Ilitch covets and the season will still probably be decided by something helplessly outside of their control.
This was a well-executed offseason and it should make for interesting and exciting baseball this summer. Yet the Tigers have a singular mission: to win a World Series before Mike Ilitch dies. They did everything they could this winter to maximize their odds of success this season, but baseball is unforgiving and cruel.