Beginning in Lakeland
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.