I’m lucky. I’m paid to travel around the country and report on baseball games. When I arrive in each city, before I set foot in the stadium, I try to absorb the local baseball conversation — in the newspapers, over the radio airwaves, through conversations with fans.
Often, I hear the same laments:
What kind of plan does our front office have?
When are we going to make a big move?
How long will this rebuilding process take?
Does ownership care more about winning the World Series or turning a profit?
I live in Michigan. No one asks me those questions about the Detroit Tigers.
Wednesday night offered the latest illustration why. The Tigers acquired closer Joakim Soria from the Texas Rangers for two highly regarded right-handed pitching prospects: starter Jake Thompson and reliever Corey Knebel.
You may believe Thompson and Knebel represent a slight overpay for Soria’s services through the end of 2015. A number of executives with other major-league teams would agree. But if you consider the context, you will see the Tigers made an excellent trade, at the right time, in a manner that harmonizes completely with the organizational mandate to win the World Series this year.
How could you find fault with that?
Prospects are overvalued in baseball today, largely because prospects are integral to what many general managers tell their owners: Our talented minor leaguers very soon will become productive and inexpensive major leaguers, which will enable us to win games and allow you to turn millions of dollars in profits!
Sometimes, that happens. Usually, it doesn’t. And by the time the owner realizes those kids weren’t as good as the GM said, five or six years have passed with a lot of mediocrity and perhaps one postseason berth. Then someone gets fired and the process starts again.
But not in Detroit.
At least, not now.
The Tigers announced their return to relevance with an American League pennant in 2006, and virtually every significant move they’ve made since can be explained by the following sentence: Team owner Mike Ilitch is 85 years old, and he wants to win a World Series in his lifetime.
The Tigers have the largest division lead in baseball, at 6½ games, so their fourth straight AL Central title is reasonably assured. But with Max Scherzer, Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez up for free agency after this year — and Justin Verlander potentially in decline — 2014 could be Ilitch’s last, best chance at a championship. That is why the Soria trade may not be the Tigers’ last acquisition before next Thursday’s non-waiver trade deadline; they are interested in Philadelphia’s Antonio Bastardo, among other left-handed relief options, sources say.
The Tigers’ payroll — a team-record $163.6 million this year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts — is greater than Detroit’s market size suggests it should be. Why? Ilitch has a net worth of $3.6 billion, according to Forbes, and doesn’t fret over something so trivial as, you know, profitability. He just wants to hold the Commissioner’s Trophy.
Most owners speak about long-term asset building and the importance of healthy balance sheets. Ilitch simply wanted his general manager, Dave Dombrowski, to find a relief pitcher capable of securing the last out of the season, in light of Joe Nathan’s season-long struggles and the Detroit bullpen’s haunting episodes at Fenway Park in last year’s ALCS. Thus, Soria (2.70 ERA, 17 saves) is a Tiger.
The cost was two promising prospects, but the context bears repeating: Thompson is 20. Knebel is 22. Ilitch was born before the Wall Street Crash of ’29. The next time he frets over a prospect list will be the first. For Ilitch and the Tigers, October 2014 is as far into the future as they care to see.