Detroit Tigers’ Christopher Ilitch: Spending more in free agency ‘could happen this winter’

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch stood behind a lectern at Historic Hamtramck Stadium, where the Negro National League’s Detroit Stars used to play, to discuss the ballpark’s $2.6 million renovation and community impact.

As Hamtramck Stadium gets a much-needed makeover, the Tigers are continuing their building process. General manager Al Avila recently stated the rebuild — four years of losing seasons — is over. He is focused on winning games, graduating top prospects to the big leagues and spending enough money in free agency to add top-tier talent.

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For years, Ilitch spoke about spending big when the time is right.

Finally, the right time is just around the corner.

“Undoubtedly that could happen this winter,” Ilitch said. “Al has been the architect of our vision. He and his staff have done all the hard work. Our fans have been incredibly patient through this process. I think Al’s vision is very much aligned with my vision and our fans’ vision.”

As the Tigers commit to adding prized players, Ilitch believes those acquisitions could occur as soon as free agency this offseason. The franchise has money to spend, a championship manager in AJ Hinch and a young core — headlined by Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Akil Baddoo — to build around, along with prospects Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and Dillon Dinger climbing the farm system.

The next step is spending for All-Star-caliber players.

“Obviously Al Avila and I talk on a frequent basis, and I think Al on a high level has provided me his vision and his feelings,” Ilitch said Tuesday. “Al and his team are very focused on continuing to improve our team. Now we see the long-term efforts that are put forth by his team, and we see the emergence of a young core. I think Al feels like we need to continue to improve our ballclub in a high-impact way, and I fully support that.”

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The combination of Hinch’s winning mindset, young players already thriving in the majors, prospects coming soon and premier players from the free-agent market should, in theory, push the Tigers to legitimate postseason contention, possibly as soon as 2022.

And then the front office wants to keep winning.

“We want not only a highly competitive team, but we want to be a playoff contender and ultimately compete for championships,” Ilitch said. “We want to do it on a long-term, sustainable basis. To do that, I am very much supportive of approach that (Avila) and his team have taken of building a young core of talent and now having the desire to bring in high-impact players to fill that out. I’m very supportive of that.”

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The free-agent market is expected to feature four coveted shortstops: Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Javier Baez. Correa has spent seven years with the Houston Astros, including five with Hinch from 2015-19.

With a glaring hole at shortstop, the Tigers would greatly benefit from one of those players. The price, though, will be steep, and the bidding war should include many teams. (Fernando Tatis Jr. got a 14-year, $330 million contract from the San Diego Padres in February, and Francisco Lindor picked up a 10-year, $341 million deal from the New York Mets in April.)

If the Tigers can’t ink a deal with one of these shortstops, they could be forced to settle with Andrelton Simmons, who is a reliable defender but not as elite with his bat.

Regardless, Ilitch knows the Tigers need a shortstop.

“We all know you have to be strong up the middle to succeed in this sport and to have success,” Ilitch said. “That is not lost on anybody at our organization, including Al Avila and his staff and AJ and his staff. The team knows what we need to have to be successful, and I know Al and his team are focused on making sure we have that to achieve the success that we’re looking to achieve.”

The next step in the building process requires more than just a shortstop, but that might be the first order of business. Former MVP and two-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who pitched for the Tigers from 2005-17, will be available and has expressed interest in returning to Detroit. Infielder Jonathan Schoop is hitting .283 with 17 home runs over 103 games this season. His one-year contract expires after this season, but he wants to stick around into the future.

For getting to this stage, Ilitch praised Avila’s work behind the scenes.

“Al’s done a tremendous job,” Ilitch said. “One thing we all have to appreciate is one of the most difficult things to do in the entire baseball industry is a complete rebuild. That’s what Al and his team have done. It takes a long period of time. It takes a lot of patience. … He’ll continue to execute his vision. We all realize that we’re in a performance-based business. We need to continue seeing progress.”

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The Tigers have a 51-57 record and remain unlikely to make the playoffs in 2021, but they’re 42-33 since May 8 and 11-6 since the All-Star break. They produced winning months in May, June and July, helping them occupy third place in the American League Central.

After commending Avila, Ilitch expressed his appreciation for the way the Tigers are playing and winning during Hinch’s first season as manager. Without a postseason appearance since 2014, Ilitch believes Hinch can get the Tigers back into contention.

“AJ Hinch has had a profound effect on our ballclub,” Ilitch said. “He has them playing competitive, night in and night out for 27 outs. We’ve seen so many games, where late in the game, our team is not throwing in the towel. They’ve had some incredible comebacks as a result.

“He’s been a great addition. He’s clearly in control. Our players are responding to him. I think the future of the Detroit Tigers is very bright with AJ Hinch leading and the supporting role that his coaching staff plays.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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