Why Detroit Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch says team has ‘win-now mentality’

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Three years ago, Detroit Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch gazed into the stands at Joker Marchant Stadium while fielding questions about the future of the franchise. At the time, the franchise’s rebuild was in its earliest stage.

His message then: “We’re really focused on, and my vision is to ensure, that we build a franchise and a team that’s going to win over the long term and be contenders for World Series championships in the future.”

Two years ago, in 2019, Ilitch made another spring training stop. He preached patience and discipline, rather than spending for top-tier free agents, in pursuit of sustainability. The Tigers went on to lose 114 games, the second-most in team history.

One year ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to 2020’s camp, Ilitch tried to resonate with the fans during his annual stay in Lakeland. He explained that he understood the “frustration” but would not open his checkbook to make an expensive move until “the time is right.”

And in 2021?

“Our organization is moving forward with a win-now mentality,” Ilitch said Tuesday, leading up to the 2021 season. “It’s exciting that a lot of our top prospects are on the cusp. Obviously, there is development that needs to occur. But it doesn’t feel like it’s very far away. It’s getting closer every day.”

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In late October, Ilitch and general manager Al Avila hired AJ Hinch as manager. Simply put, Hinch wasn’t hired to sit out the playoffs in Detroit — not with four postseason appearances, two World Series berths and one championship on his resume.

There must have been a promise, or at least a concrete plan, shared between Ilitch and Hinch.

“Absolutely,” Ilitch said. “Al and myself were very clear and upfront with AJ. (We) laid out the plan, which is essentially to build up a young core of homegrown talent. Then, we will fill in and supplement through free agency as we need to. AJ understands that (and) is completely on board.

“We know this plan that can work. We’ve done it in the past in terms of rebuilding the Tigers. And we’re going to do everything that’s required to do it again.”

Still, there’s no definitive timetable for spending.

That’s somewhat understandable, considering the Tigers have plenty to figure out in 2021, with questions surrounding young players such as Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Isaac Paredes, Jake Rogers, Daz Cameron, Willi Castro and Jeimer Candelario. Likewise, the Tigers need to discover the long-term potential of Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene through minor league observations.

“They’re the future of our organization,” Ilitch said. “Al and his team have done excellent work to stockpile and develop a lot of young talent. And it makes me very, very confident that we have a tremendous future.”

[ Predictions for 2021 Tigers: Miguel Cabrera, prospect debuts and clarity on future ]

Ilitch also needs to see signs of Hinch’s winning culture. Hinch believes winning each day — not weeks, months or years — is of the utmost importance. Once the new values are implemented, Ilitch will feel more confident about spending big.

“Oftentimes, people will think that only exists in the clubhouse or amongst the players,” Ilitch said. “But really, that winning culture needs to permeate every person, every square inch of our organization. Only then will we be able to win on the field consistently.”

This offseason, the Tigers signed outfielder Robbie Grossman to a two-year, $10 million contract. It was the first multi-year signing by the Tigers since the 2015-16 offseason, when they inked Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe and Justin Upton.

Since then, the organization has opted for short-term solutions amid the rebuild.

[ What the Tigers are telling us about the future with the Robbie Grossman signing ]

Even so, Ilitch spent a mere $16.25 million on five players — Grossman, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, right-hander Jose Urena, catcher Wilson Ramos and outfielder Nomar Mazara — for the 2021 season to upgrade the team.

To compare, outfielder Michael Brantley got a two-year, $32 million contract from the Houston Astros, with $16 million coming in 2021. The Tigers, operating on a tight budget, didn’t think about paying a player that much for one season.

“I look at it as being disciplined this year and resisting an urge to really try to step up,” Avila said Dec. 13 outside The Corner Ballpark, the old site of Tiger Stadium. “The last thing we want to do is go out and spend some money that we’re trying to get rid of next year or the year after that.”

So, what happens next?

In a perfect world, the Tigers will place all seven of their top prospects, by MLB Pipeline‘s rankings, in the majors for 2022: Torkelson, Mize, Manning, Greene, Skubal, Paredes and Cameron.

If the plan is to round off the roster with prized free agents, there likely won’s be a better time than the upcoming winter to jumpstart the process. A slew of esteemed shortstops (Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez) are scheduled to enter the market, along with former Detroit pitchers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

Ilitch won’t say when the Tigers are going to spend.

But he promises the time to do so is coming soon.

“The future is bright,” Ilitch said.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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