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.