March 15, 2017
Looking Back on Tomorrow
Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
On February 10, longtime Tigers owner Mike Ilitch passed away. The Little Caesars impresario left behind a large family, a robust history of business success, a smattering of important philanthropic works, and this Tigers team. Ilitch’s mark on the Tigers is indelible—so long after signing with the Tigers as a player back in 1952, he presided over the team’s complete inadequacy from 1992 to 2005, before bringing them back to relevance with a 2006 World Series run.
Since then, he desperately wanted to see his Tigers win a World Series, and he was willing to spend big—both in cash and prospect capital—to see that dream realized. After years of doing just that without a ring, the 2017 Tigers are bringing back an aging, expensive, and top-heavy roster, a fitting tribute to their former owner. I have a feeling we’ll look back on the 2017 Tigers and remember this team as an elegy for not just a man, but an era in Tigers baseball—the last breaths of a window of serious World Series contention.
We’ll start with PECOTA projections, where this franchise appears to be cruising for a disappointment to rival 2015, when they lost 87 games and wound up last in the AL Central after four straight division titles. This squad is currently projected for a 79-83 record, “good” enough for third place in a depleted division. That’s baseball purgatory: just bad enough to need real action in order to contend for a Wild Card, just good enough to be unlikely to earn a top-five draft pick in all but the worst scenarios.
Despite carrying three or four future Hall of Famers* on the projected 25-man roster, general manager Al Avila had a difficult choice between two paths this offseason: buy up more talent using the last of his assets and make one final crazy push for greatness, or sell the secondary pieces on the roster in the hopes of building something new and great a couple years down the line.
Shockingly, Avila did ... nothing. He dealt away Cameron Maybin and acquired Mikie Mahtook to replace him, the baseball equivalent of replacing the ugly dented side panel on your car with another, slightly newer dented side panel. (Avila also signed his son, Alex Avila, to return as the team’s backup catcher.) This Tigers team is stocked with high-priced, high-value players either in or past their primes, but also faced with a lack of depth and the hanging sword of Damocles. Some day soon, one or more of these stars will dim or suffer serious injury, and the result will be even worse than the just-about-.500 team they project to be today.
There are a few pieces to like for the future in Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and Nick Castellanos, but those players are far outnumbered by the aging, somewhat brittle veterans. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera are capable of defying time and logic and remaining elite for a few more years—after all, that’s what Hall of Famers do—but relying on Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, and Anibal Sanchez for this upcoming season might actually be relying on them for one year too many.
The great thing about the 2017 Tigers is that if all the principals stay healthy and effective, and they get a little bit of luck from Mahtook, Norris, or the bullpen, they have the ceiling of a contender. The not-so-great thing is that the former condition is getting less and less likely by the year. A stars-and-scrubs roster is great when you don’t have to play the scrubs. If this team must replace Miguel Cabrera for a month—with, I dunno, Andrew Romine?—it’s likely that they can go ahead and make vacation plans for October.
This is probably the last year in which the Tigers can thread the needle; in 2018, Sanchez’s contract runs out, but Jordan Zimmermann and Nick Castellanos will get more expensive, and J.D. Martinez can walk as a free agent. They’ll still be a high-payroll team with over $100 million wrapped up in Verlander, Cabrera, Zimmermann, and Justin Upton, and precious little room to maneuver. There’s no dynamite prospect or set of solid young talents on the way, so the team may finally be forced to sell off assets in order to rebuild with an eye on 2020.
Nothing in baseball is certain, but it appears that this franchise is following the path of the Phillies in the National League, where committing so much toward building a window and extending it forces the team into a dark bottoming-out period. If they’re not in contention by the middle of the season, you’d have to imagine that they will look to shop Martinez, Kinsler, and anyone else who might bring back a young piece in order to build a brighter future, but also to retain the twin towers of the team’s future history in Verlander and Cabrera.
An era in baseball has ended, or will end. Because everything ends.
In poetry, the elegy serves two purposes: to mourn and regret the past and to hope for the future. It is of sorrow and longing and, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it: “Elegy presents every thing as lost and gone or absent and future.”
This sounds like a fitting metaphor for a Tigers season that’s unlikely to find sufficient value in the present and will reflect the owner who was, the former peaks of their players, and the longing desire to see a contender rise again. Mike Ilitch did many things, was many things, succeeded in many things. He also wanted to build a World Series winner, but didn’t. We can howl and lament over the reality that wasn’t. Perhaps he’ll eventually see his Tigers take a championship home—if so, from a much different viewpoint—but it probably won’t be for a while, and it probably won’t be with most of these players on the team.