Tigers president/CEO Christopher Ilitch spoke with reporters (including Chris McCosky of The Detroit News and Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press) this afternoon. Most notably, Ilitch addressed the upcoming offseason and suggested the Tigers could pursue some bigger-ticket acquisitions as they near the end of their rebuild.
“(General manager Al Avila) and his team are very focused on continuing to improve our team. We see the long-term efforts put forth by his team and we see the emergence of a young core,” Ilitch said. “And I think Al feels we need to continue to improve our ballclub in a high, impactful way. I very much support the approach he and his team have taken — 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.”
Those comments seem to suggest ownership would be willing to sign off on a significant free agent investment, and Ilitch said that kind of move “undoubtedly … could happen this winter.” Unsurprisingly, he didn’t mention any specific targets on the upcoming market, but Ilitch did express a general desire to “be strong up the middle.”
There’s a rather straightforward line to be drawn between Ilitch’s comments and the upcoming star-studded free agent shortstop class. Each of Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story and Javier Báez is slated to hit the open market. Seager and Correa (who will each be 27 by the start of the offseason) do so as particularly young free agents, while both Story and Báez will turn 29 this winter. That youth could be appealing to a Tigers club that’ll just be entering their competitive window next season and might still be one year away from making a true push for the top of the AL Central. (It’s also particularly easy to connect Correa as a speculative candidate of the Tigers, given his overlapping time in Houston with Detroit manager A.J. Hinch).
As Ilitch alluded to, the Tigers have played fairly well after a dismal start to the year. Detroit began this season 9-24, killing any faint hopes they had at staying in contention almost immediately. But they’ve quietly gone 42-33 since bottoming out on May 7. With three months of productive play — including good work from controllable players like Casey Mize, Matthew Boyd, Akil Baddoo, Eric Haase, Jeimer Candelario and Robbie Grossman — some optimism for 2022 and beyond isn’t unwarranted. That’s particularly true with highly-touted young players like Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson all at or approaching the big league level.
From a financial perspective, the Detroit organization shouldn’t have issue being aggressive over the coming offseasons. The Tigers entered the 2021 season with just an $80.8MM payroll, in the estimation of Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Only Miguel Cabrera ($32MM) and Grossman ($5MM) have guaranteed deals on the books for next season.
Obviously, arbitration raises will add to that tally, but the fact remains that the organization should have ample spending capacity. This is a franchise that pushed payroll up near the $200MM mark at its 2016-17 peak and had spent in excess of $100MM on players every year between 2007-2020 (prior to prorating) before snapping that streak this season.
Granted, much of that spending was greenlit by Mike Ilitch, who passed away in February 2017. We have yet to see Chris Ilitch spend at his father’s level, but the franchise has been mired in a rebuild for essentially all of the younger Ilitch’s ownership tenure. It’s possible, then, that Chris Ilitch’s comparative frugality has been more a reflection of the lack of big league talent within the past few seasons than any sort of unwillingness on his part to sign off on higher than average payrolls.
If that’s the case, as Ilitch implied today, the offseason possibilities are numerous. The core of the potential next competitive Tigers team is at or near the big league level. The time to supplement that young talent with notable outside acquisitions is approaching, and it seems the Tigers could kickstart that effort in the coming months.