Imagine Where Detroit Tigers Would Be If Chris Ilitch Were Even Barely Trying
The Detroit Tigers are in the middle of a nearly decade-long rebuild, having just restarted the process within the last few months.
This reclamation project began in earnest in 2017 when then-GM Al Avila began cutting the Tigers' bloated payroll, selling off valuable parts like Justin Verlander and J.D. Martinez for prospects in an effort to jumpstart the rebuild. The problem is that none of those moves ever really returned any value to Detroit, rendering the rebuild a fruitless blood-letting.
Avila was finally fired last season, during his eighth season at the helm of the Tigers' front office. Detroit brought in Scott Harris, who had been the general manager of the very successful San Francisco Giants, as president of baseball operations. Tigers owner Chris Ilitch said on multiple occasions that he and, therefore, the organization are committed to building a World Series winner. But Harris was given no real resources to supplement a roster full of over-young prospects and career AAAA players.
Despite that, the Tigers find themselves in the thick of the AL Central race near the midway point of May. As of May 8, Detroit is just 2.5 games behind the first-place Twins, which is remarkable given a batting order bereft of major-league hitters and a starting rotation with an ERA north of 6.
It's also remarkable given where this team was four weeks ago. On April 12, the Tigers were 2-9, about to be swept for the third time in their first four series of the season. Then Javy Baez's infamous brainfart happened, manager AJ Hinch benched him, and, somehow, the Tigers salvaged one game in Toronto.
Since that point, the Tigers are 14-9. They've raised their team batting average nearly 30 points, from near .200 to .233. That's still an awful mark, but the Tigers have climbed out of the cellar of MLB's team batting average ranks to 24th.
They've put together two five-game winning streaks over the last three weeks. And the Tigers have an opportunity to continue winning more than they lose. Just two of Detroit's next 26 games come against teams who are currently above .500. The Tigers have positioned themselves to be firmly in the American League playoff picture — whether leading the Central or in the middle of the Wild Card chase, or both — well past the season's one-third mark.
Can you believe it? This team, a hodgepodge of anonymous Triple A journeyman and unripened prospects, contending for a playoff spot nearly halfway through the season. In a season that was supposed to be painful, yet another self-imposed flagellation of baseball futility as the franchise attempts to bite down and bear the pain of absorbing the final year of Miguel Cabrera's cumbersome contract.
Now imagine where they might be if the owner were even the least bit interested in putting a competitive product on the diamond.
The Tigers rank 19th in team payrolls this season at $123 million. That's second-worst in their division behind Kansas City, and about $40 million below the MLB average. But a miserly approach to personnel expenses is nothing new to the Tigers under Chris Ilitch, of course. Since 2018, Detroit's payroll has ranked on average 21st in the majors. That's not good enough to put a winner on the field, let alone contend.
Of the last 28 World Series champions, 25 have had payrolls ranked in the top half of the MLB. To make the top half, the Tigers would have to add about $50 million in salary (and add another $30 million to that when Miguel Cabrera retires). And to land in the Top 7, where Detroit often found itself while making runs at the World Series in the early 2010s, the club would have to add nearly $100 million in payroll.
No one expected anything close to serious contention for the Tigers in 2023. But Ilitch could have loaned the company credit card to Harris for two or three bonafide MLB players to help hasten the transition from unbearable austerity to having a legitimate major league ball club.
I'm not suggesting Detroit should have spent more than a third of a billion dollars to get Aaron Judge or anything like that. But think about how we would be viewing things now if they had added, say, Carlos Correa on a deal similar to the six-year, $200 million contract he ended up on with Minnesota. That would have made a much bigger impact that Matt Vierling.
I don't think it would have been smart for the Tigers to return Justin Verlander to Detroit on a two-year, $87 million contract. But what if they had signed a lower-echelon veteran starter, like Johnny Cueto? Miami got him for $17.5 million over two years, which sounds a lot better than the combined $18.5 million the Tigers are paying this year alone for their big offseason starting pitcher acquisition, Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen.
The point here is that what the Tigers are currently doing is surprising and fun. But make no mistake, it's fool's gold. Teams that hit .230 and whose starters have a cumulative ERA over 6 don't win, let alone contend. But 2023 could have put Detroit ahead of schedule and delivered this fanbase, that's so starved for a winner, an above-.500 team seriously challenging for a playoff spot.
That would have required minimal appetite for success and the commitment that comes with it, though, and the Tigers severely lack that in the owner's box.