Henning: Tigers can win back an irked fan base, but it all hinges on slew of moves

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Pick your year, and maybe begin with 2002, early in April, when Randy Smith and Phil Garner were fired, clearing the way for Dave Dombrowski to steer the Tigers front office, solo.

Or, if one’s stomach can take it, think about that six months and 162 games of Detroit baseball infamy in 2003 when a miserable Tigers team had to rally on the last day of the season to avoid losing 120 games.

Worth considering, also, are 2001, or 2004, given that both were bleak years from a grim 12-year stretch when the Tigers had not a single winning season.

Baseball was so bad in Detroit for so long that people steeped in Tigers culture and history honestly wondered as late as 2005 if a 100-year-old franchise had forfeited its roots and its lifeblood — its generational fan base.

Here’s what happened:

The Tigers went to the World Series in 2006 and a town was in delirium.

The Tigers proceeded, in 2007, to draw 3 million fans — obliterating old attendance highs from the Tiger Stadium era. They hit 3 million three more times in the next six years.

Tigers TV and radio broadcasts were so hot advertisers waited in line. Audience ratings were, per capita, either the best or among the best in all of baseball.

Seems the Tigers hadn’t been as close to extinction as some thought.

This is worth mulling, these sweet-and-sour timelines, as pallbearers volunteer to carry the Tigers’ baseball corpse to its place of unrest, with another bad year of ball definitely in the forecast following three consecutive ordeals during which Detroit has failed to win at even a .400 clip.

Think, also, as that last shovelful of loam is dumped onto the deceased, about certain likelihoods that probably are closer to certainties:

► 1. You can expect to see legitimate baseball life — interest, enthusiasm, reasons to buy a Comerica Park ticket, etc. — return in 2022. It’s a matter of young talent graduating to the big leagues and the inevitability of a box-office free agent or two being signed during the coming offseason, which will happen. Players that fans will pay to see play baseball, in the flesh, will have been begun to arrive in some quantity. A playoff team? Probably, almost assuredly, not. An interesting team, destined to get more intriguing? That’s a sage wager.

► 2. The town, the state, the overall Tigers galaxy, is as big if not bigger than it was 20 years ago. Detroit’s camp is resting uncomfortably, in something approaching angry hibernation, but about ready to stir. That should be obvious as soon as a pandemic and a revived roster unleash appetites common to one of the three best baseball towns in America.

Which brings us to some prickly questions that also must be asked:

► A. Does this baseball rebirth come with a playoff ticket — soon, and preferably one you can use at the World Series?

► B. Put another way, will this rebuild that is now, officially, four years old, be more than “interesting” — that is, “worth watching?” Winning more than losing, with a steady uptick in talent, is how you hold people’s attention, and faith. It was a bargain Tigers fans struck during earlier rebuilds. But patience needs at some point to meet progress.

► C. Is this a pursuit, this pledge to win, that can match all the good things going on in coming years with the Tigers’ divisional mates, the White Sox, especially? Can Detroit then hang with, or overtake, the Twins, Indians, and even Royals in what looks to be a devil of a cast forming in the American League Central? Big question there. More like a terrifying question when the White Sox look as if they could come within spitting distance of that hoary word “dynasty.”

► D. Finally, is this a mission that can be entrusted to current owner-in-effect Chris Ilitch, or to his front office that since 2015 has been run by Al Avila?

Ilitch and Avila can be happy these matters aren’t decided at a voting booth, in the style of American elections, or today we would be looking at some incumbents who just got dumped in landslides.

These points, which get to the heart of why the Tigers have been both good and bad for long stretches, are worth dissecting in segmented fashion, which is how this whole gnarly discussion today is being tackled.

In order:

Hasn’t the Tigers Rebuild Lasted Long Enough? You bet. And anyone surprised by this marathon wasn’t paying attention to warnings shouted five years ago. By delaying their tear-down and roster re-seeding, all in late owner Mike Ilitch’s quest to win a World Series, the Tigers were walking into an ambush. Ilitch bypassed views that were less comfortable, including those from his front office. He instead pressed on, dreaming of a Woodward Avenue parade. Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton — big, expensive, and cumbersome free-agent contracts were added at the very point the Tigers should have been unloading stars who still had value in what then was a looser MLB trade market.

Important side note here: A year after the Tigers had taken on Zimmermann and Upton, the White Sox were unloading Chris Sale, and a few months later Jose Quintana, for bundles of young studs who now factor into what could be a division choke-hold. One team got it early in 2016, one didn’t.

Why Is 2021 a Goner and Why Believe Anything Will Change in 2022? You need a quorum of fresh talent — pitchers and hitters — before a bad team begins to rebrand itself. A few of the Tigers’ paradigm-shifting pitchers have begun to settle in: Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, and Spencer Turnbull, with Matt Manning and Joey Wentz probably joining the show either later this year or in 2022. That side is taking shape nicely.

Hitters are tougher to assemble, as if the Tigers haven’t confirmed as much. But the 2022 season is a reasonable ETA for two prizes, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson, which figure to be two of those day-to-day talents that spur one to buy a Comerica seat, or to watch a FSD telecast rather than Tom Hanks’ newest two-hour portrayal of some guy’s life.

Plug in, this year or next, Isaac Paredes (second base?), with another outfielder or two (Daniel Cabrera, Parker Meadows, Bryant Packard) at least making a case for a call-up in 2022, and a roster’s complexion probably changes, especially when Carlos Correa or some such billboard free agent signs with Detroit, which is going to happen. But more on that later.

This year? Those in Detroit weary of waiting will wait some more. There’s no vaccine for this bug. To repeat, some of us were loud and clear in 2016 when too many people, including an owner, were stuck in the win-now mode. Postpone this rebuild, it was said, and you’re going to pay longer and later for a restoration. There are no shortcuts on a process prolonged.

Why Should Fans Believe the Tigers Will Spend Money on Free Agents? Think of a decision made 100 or so days ago. The Tigers signed a new manager, a hotshot as big-league skippers go, AJ Hinch, who was in position to pick now, or later if he preferred, a plum job somewhere in the ever-shifting circuit of MLB skippers.

He chose Detroit. He did it for a couple of primary reasons. He liked the new brood of farm talent just beginning to hatch. And, with assurances that aren’t made lightly when they come straight from ownership, Hinch knew the Tigers were a year away from investing in serious free-agent help.

He understood the timeline: Pandemic finances were part of the picture, a big part, as they have been for all but a handful of teams. He also bought into thoughts that heavy free agents can best help a team that is now a contender, or — in Detroit’s case — a team that’s just beginning to brings its thoroughbreds to the big leagues.

So, unless the Tigers pulled one of the dirtiest tricks, and one of the all-time most deceitful bait-and-switches on one of baseball’s shrewder young skippers, a team is probably nine or 10 months from making the kind of free-agent splash it did during an earlier era of Ilitch governance.

Guys like Correa, or Trevor Story from the Rockies — both set for free agency this autumn — are good examples of the range in which the Tigers will shop and expect to add help next autumn/winter. Not coincidental is the fact those two gents play shortstop, which is a position the Tigers will need to anchor with a battleship-grade talent if they expect to sniff playoff baseball in coming years.

The I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it doubters are cynical, firmly so, but Chris Ilitch wasn’t lying to Hinch. This team had enough red ink to fill a couple of Great Lakes tributaries dating to the old, blank-check days. The books, once COVID-19 is history, will be in good enough shape to take on another megaton deal, especially with Miguel Cabrera disappearing after 2023.

A move on the level of one set for next autumn or winter will have the same effect on Tigers jersey-shoppers as the Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez signings had in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Some form of celebrity signing is a given ahead of 2022. It might not be Correa or Story, but that’s the aisle the Tigers likely will shop.

What About Trades? What About Avila’s Chances There? Good question, because it has been said here plenty that the Tigers can’t get this roster anywhere close to ship-shape without a significant deal. They can’t do it by the draft and free agency, alone. They’ll need to make a blockbuster swap, probably parting with one of their young starters, if they care to pack this day-to-day lineup with enough thunder to contend.

Avila has shown, when he has leverage, that he can trade. He got Jeimer Candelario and Paredes in a deal for Justin Wilson and Alex Avila. He got Wentz, who is going to be a quality left-handed rotation piece, in the Shane Greene exchange. If he has multiple interested teams, he does fine.

If there are no shoppers, he’s at the mercy of a market, something fans don’t care to acknowledge. They blamed Avila rather than 29 other teams for there being no serious interest four years ago in J.D. Martinez. One team showed up — one. That was a lot of contenders being stubborn and stupid.

Same with a guy named Justin Verlander. No one ahead of draft-deadline in 2017 was asking about a pitcher who sat there waiting to help a good team get to the World Series. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow finally was prodded (it seems Hinch and ownership might have been involved there when Hinch was piloting the Astros) into bidding for Verlander a couple of hours before MLB’s Deadline Store closed. Houston promptly won a championship.

The Tigers, frankly, did better on the Verlander deal than was imagined: three then-very good prospects and half a contract absorbed. The Tigers GM can trade when he has serious shoppers.

It’s a bit analogous, this leverage point, to last weekend’s Lions deal that sent quarterback Matthew Stafford to L.A. A third of the NFL was interested. Three teams made high-stakes offers. The Lions did fine, all because they had a market, which a GM can’t by himself create.

There will be an opportunity, probably within the next 18 months, to grab a crackerjack outfielder, a first baseman with 40 home runs waiting to be hit, a catcher, whatever, as the Tigers find they have a tradeable star arm, and maybe another player or two (Candelario?) who can be part of a mega-deal.

That’s part of the formula and always has been. Absent a major trade, this Tigers roster restructuring has little chance to work in a division that’s going to be unforgiving. The Tigers have too many needs at too many places.

But make that deal, deliver that piece, and you’ve put yourself in better position to grow a roster in talent and maturity and take on the big boys. Which is one more way to craft a contender and restore a fan base’s verve.

Prospects of Ownership and Front Office Changes: Boom. This would be a thousand-volt jolt for the Comerica crowd.

It’s a possible, and even essential, turnover if things don’t soon click.

The Ilitches will remain Tigers owners for the short haul, anyway. It’s after Marian Ilitch passes on that things could change, when the siblings, with Chris holding one of six votes, might well decide to cash in the club for $2 billion or whatever a MLB franchise in Detroit is then worth.

You have to deal with realities. And a club-sale once ownership is solely in the kids’ hands is such a reality.

If it happens, a new owner is all but certain to want his/her own folks in charge. That would mean the Tigers would join the Lions, Pistons, and Red Wings in having transformed in recent years and months the GM office and its attachments.

Another way you change out your front office is if a rebuild that was in their collective hands for five or six years, or more, doesn’t click and turns into a Second Rebuild. You don’t get multiple shots in this business. You eventually get pink slips.

So, let’s focus on a process still unfurling.

By next year, some old Tigers fever will begin to burn at Comerica Park. This year’s draft, with a third-overall pick who should be a jewel, will add bricks to a reconstruction that’s still underway and, viewed fairly, was going to be a long and dirty job.  

Don’t go by what happens this year. It doesn’t count, not significantly, as Hinch knew when he agreed to come aboard in October.

Think about 2022, and beyond. Because by next year, it won’t be only a manager who figures to see pleasing things rolling over Comerica Park’s horizon.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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