Tigers CEO Chris Ilitch: ‘We’re making great progress’

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — As the Detroit Tigers prepare for what could be another tough season, Chris Ilitch can look back on a couple success stories from the Motor City’s recent past.

“I’ve had a wonderful opportunity, having lived through building a four-time Stanley Cup champion in the Detroit Red Wings, and championship teams with the Detroit Tigers, and World Series participants,” Ilitch said. “I think as you look back on how those clubs were built, they were built in large part, exactly the way we’re building this club.”

Ilitch, the CEO of both the Tigers and Red Wings, was at spring training Saturday and took some questions from reporters in the dugout. Detroit lost 98 games in each of the past two seasons and remains in a rebuilding mode, but Ilitch said he’s optimistic about the future. He also said he understands that fans want this process to pay dividends as quickly as possible.

“I’m a fan, first and foremost. I want to see our team be a great team, a playoff team, and ultimately a championship team,” Ilitch said. “I think the key for all of us is to make sure that we’re very disciplined in following the right path to that success, and I think we’re doing exactly that.”

The Tigers were big spenders for about a decade, winning the American League pennant in 2006 and 2012 and finishing atop the AL Central four straight seasons from 2011-14. Owner Mike Ilitch, Chris’ father, added high-priced free agents like Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder in pursuit of a World Series title, but the franchise still hasn’t won one since 1984. By 2017, Detroit was stuck with an aging, expensive core — and a team that was well out of contention.

Mike Ilitch died before that 2017 season, and Chris became the team’s controlling owner. After their chances dwindled in 2017, the Tigers traded J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and Justin Verlander and began rebuilding in earnest.

Ilitch was asked Saturday if the payroll might increase in the future — if the Tigers are able to build a better foundation first with young players.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer. What will our payroll, what will our roster look like? So it’s next to impossible to answer that question,” Ilitch said. “The best way I can answer that question is by telling you and our fans that we’re going to do exactly what we’ve continued to do, which is, we’re going to bring the resources to our ballclub that we need to successfully compete and accomplish the goals that we set for ourselves, which is to be, not only a playoff team, but we want to build a championship club.”

Ilitch expressed confidence in general manager Al Avila and manager Ron Gardenhire.

“I feel we’re making great progress, and I feel like we have a great plan,” Ilitch said. “I know it’s a great plan, because we’ve lived this type of plan, and I’ve personally seen it at the professional sports level now in two different sports. So this is the right way to build a championship team. I feel we’re on the right path.”

As for that other franchise Ilitch mentioned: The Red Wings are struggling too. Ilitch said he hasn’t asked permission from the Tampa Bay Lightning to talk to Steve Yzerman about a possible role with Detroit. Yzerman, a star with Detroit as a player, stepped down last year as general manager of the Lightning, moving to a senior adviser role.

“As you know, he’s under contract,” Ilitch said. “We generally have a rule within our organization of not talking to or about executives or others that are under contract with another organization. So there’s not a lot I can say about that, other than I know his contract is expiring this summer, and we’ll leave it at that.”