The Detroit Tigers have operated with a single-minded philosophy since the franchise’s boom period began in 2006. Owner Mike Ilitch has authorized payrolls well in excess of Detroit’s market size, while president/general manager Dave Dombrowski used the generous budget to acquire stars like Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer and David Price.
The stated mission has been to win a World Series for Ilitch, who is 86. But the Tigers have yet to do that — and 2015 won’t be the year. They are 46-46 and have surrendered the most runs in the American League since the beginning of June. Even with a team-record payroll of over $170 million, the Tigers lack a postseason-caliber pitching staff.
Cabrera went more than a decade in the major leagues without spending a day on the disabled list. He’s now on the disabled list. Justin Verlander is the fourth-highest-paid pitcher in baseball history. This season, he has a 6.62 ERA and zero victories. The message from the baseball gods could not be clearer if it were beamed from atop the Renaissance Center to the sky above Comerica Park.
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In the near term, this means the Tigers should trade Price, closer Joakim Soria, and outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Rajai Davis before next Friday’s non-waiver trade deadline. But there’s a larger story that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Specifically, the Tigers may not continue doing business as they have for the past decade.
Consider the following:
● Sources say Christopher Ilitch — Mike Ilitch’s son and the president of Ilitch Holdings Inc. — recently has been exerting greater influence over the Tigers’ business operations.
● For years, Mike Ilitch dedicated vast amounts of his family’s fortune to his very personal quest to win a World Series. But the primary focus of the Ilitch sports empire has shifted to the new downtown hockey arena for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, now under construction.
● Curiously, Dombrowski does not have a contract for 2016 despite presiding over four consecutive division titles — and sources say there’s no indication that such a deal is forthcoming.
Taken together, that information suggests the era of escalating payrolls and annual October appearances may be coming to an end.
The Tigers are in the early stages of a downturn, and Dombrowski — in what may be a parting gift to Mike Ilitch — must act aggressively between now and July 31 to ensure that cycle is as brief as possible.
There’s no shame in being a deadline "seller" for one year — or even two in a row. The Boston Red Sox sold off roughly $250 million in player contracts in 2012 and won a world championship one year later. Rapid rebuilds can happen in the modern baseball industry, as long as smart front offices acknowledge the reality before them.
Contrary to the convenient narrative, the 2015 Tigers are not the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies reincarnate; those Phillies did not have young, All-Star position players like J.D. Martinez and Jose Iglesias. But the Tigers could trudge into a Phillies-style malaise if they don’t flip Price and Cespedes for the high-level prospects their farm system desperately needs.
The Los Angeles Dodgers may not surrender top prospects Corey Seager or Julio Urias for Price, but some combination of Jose De Leon, Cody Bellinger and Grant Holmes would upgrade the Tigers’ prospect depth significantly.
Similarly, the Houston Astros covet a right-handed bat like Cespedes and could part with right-hander Vincent Velasquez and/or outfielder Brett Phillips without disturbing their young core.
The Tigers can either act boldly on their own terms now or take the dubious course of chasing free agents this winter with what may well be a reduced payroll and diminished opportunity to win.
Detroit’s baseball boom is ending. But if the Tigers are honest with themselves over the next 10 days, they won’t need to wait another five or six years for the revival.