- The possibility of rebuilding, or something like it, lingers in the minds of some veteran Tigers players, MLive.com’s Evan Woodbery writes. When the offseason began, the possibility that the team would trade veterans was seemingly on the table. The team kept its core of older players, but those older stars are now aware that they or their teammates could be headed elsewhere if the team doesn’t succeed. “We’ve got a chance to play one more year together,” says Miguel Cabrera. “We know we didn’t go to the playoffs the last two years, but I think if we stay together, if we stay healthy, we’ve got a chance to compete every day.” Cabrera, of course, is under contract through at least 2023. But J.D. Martinez and Francisco Rodriguez will be free agents after the season, Justin Upton can out of his deal next winter as well, Ian Kinsler only has one more year and an option left on his contract, and Victor Martinez is only signed through 2018.
Here are today’s minor transactions throughout the game:
- The Tigers have announced that they’ve signed infielder Danny Muno and corner outfielder Matt Murton to minor-league contracts. The 28-year-old Muno appeared in the high minors with three organizations in 2016, posting a line of .223/.328/.307 while mostly playing second and third. He does, however, have a career .385 minor-league OBP and a bit of big-league experience, having collected 32 plate appearances with the 2015 Mets. Murton’s name will surely be a blast from the past for some readers — the 35-year-old was once a regular with the Cubs but hasn’t appeared in the big leagues since 2009. He played with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan from 2009 through 2015 (so he has plenty of experience in a Tigers uniform, just not a Detroit Tigers uniform), and he batted .314/.349/.398 in 255 plate appearances with the Cubs’ Triple-A team in Iowa last year.
- Offseason trade rumors ended up being “just talk” and thus of no concern to Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Associated Press reports. Kinsler and several other Tigers veterans were mentioned as potential trade candidates this winter, and Kinsler praised GM Al Avila for being straight-forward about what was happening. “To be up front and honest is always the best way to act in my opinion. That’s the way that I like to approach people, and that’s the way he approached us as a whole, as a team. Was it different? Absolutely, it was different. Most GMs would not do that,” Kinsler said.
The Tigers have announced that they’ve hired former utilityman Don Kelly as a pro scout and assistant to player development. It would appear, then, that the 37-year-old Kelly, who played briefly for the Marlins in each of the last two seasons, has retired, or at least put his playing career on hold. He spent much of last season with Triple-A New Orleans, batting a modest .198/.284/.233. Kelly is best known for his six-year tenure with the Tigers from 2009 through 2014, during which he played mostly outfield, first and third while serving as one of Jim Leyland’s favored bench pieces. In nine years in the Majors, Kelly has batted .230/.294/.334. Here’s more from the AL Central divisions.
- Collin Balester took a short break from baseball last summer in the wake of a disappointing stint in South Korea, and the righty tells Anthony Fenech of the Detroit News that he is now healthy and looking forward to continuing his career in the Tigers farm system. Balester said he was at something of a low point last year and even questioned his future in the game. His spirits rose, however, after he began throwing last November without any elbow issues, and Balester then contacted the Tigers about a minor league deal (which he signed in December).
Here’s a roundup of remembrances of Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, who passed away yesterday at the age of 87.
- Former Tigers manager and current special assistant Jim Leyland was “brokenhearted” that the team couldn’t win a World Series for Ilitch, Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press writes. “I can remember how bad we wanted it,” says Leyland. “That’s the one thing we were always brokenhearted about: That we didn’t get a World Series for him because he’s the guy that we wanted it for. We just fell a little bit short.” The Tigers reached the World Series twice in seven years with Leyland as manager and Ilitch in the owner’s box, but lost both times. Ilitch, of course, spent heavily to win a championship in that period. “He never one time interfered with me trying to do my job and I always had a great appreciation for that,” says Leyland. “But you always knew who the boss was.”
- Former Tigers GM (and current Red Sox president of baseball operations) Dave Dombrowski says Ilitch was the reason he joined the organization, Fenech writes. “The reason why I joined (the Tigers) was because of him,” says Dombrowski. “He treated me well. He made me feel welcome and that part of it made me feel really good and it turned out to be a really great 14 years there.” That era ended when the Tigers parted ways with Dombrowski in August 2015, in the wake of the team’s near misses in the playoffs and World Series. “That was the thing in Detroit, that you always wanted to win a world championship for him,” Dombrowski says. “He did everything he possibly could to achieve it and we got so close. It hurt that we weren’t able to do that for him.”
- Current Tigers GM Al Avila said Friday night in a statement that Ilitch’s impact on Detroit was “immeasurable.” Said Avila, “He was always there to give us whatever we needed because he wanted greatness and happiness for all of us – especially the fans. Mr. I was truly one of the great ones. He was a friend and an inspiration and he will be deeply missed.”
- Ilitch had huge ambitions, but he was first and foremost a native of Detroit, writes Fan Rag’s Jon Heyman. Heyman points to the Tigers’ 119-loss 2003 season as a key for Ilitch and the organization. Ilitch reacted by having the Tigers add superstars Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, and the Tigers made it to the World Series in 2006. Those successful big signings encouraged Ilitch to continue investing heavily in the team, as he did for more than a decade thereafter.
- Ilitch and the city of Detroit were like an aging married couple, writes Yahoo! Sports’ Tim Brown. “[Y]ou couldn’t ever be sure which was holding up the other,” but they were “good together,” he writes. Fans of many teams view their owners with suspicion, but Ilitch was a native Detroiter who proved his commitment to winning by repeatedly stepping up financially.
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has passed away at 87 years of age, Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit Business reports on Twitter. MLBTR extends its condolences to his family and friends, as well as the entire Tigers organization.
In a press release, his son Christopher — who is the president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. — called his father “a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader.” A son of Macedonian immigrants, the elder Ilitch was born and raised in Detroit. He went on to own two of the city’s iconic sports franchises, the Tigers and the Red Wings of the NHL.
Ilitch spent five years in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school, and then joined the Tigers as an infielder. He ended up playing four seasons of minor-league ball before hanging up his spikes at 25 years of age. From there, according to the release, Ilitch worked as a door-to-door salesman to fund the opening of a pizza joint — the first Little Caesars.
After growing that small business into a massive, multi-national corporation, Ilitch expanded his business holdings. He bought the Red Wings in 1982, overseeing a golden era for that franchise, and took control of the Tigers in 1992.
While the hockey glories never quite carried over into the baseball arena, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Ilitch’s initial period of ownership was notable mostly for the Tigers’ poor play, but things began to turn around after he developed Comerica Park in a public-private partnership in advance of the 2000 season.
The tide broke in 2006, when the Tigers finally reached the postseason for the first time since 1987, advancing to the World Series (where they lost to the Cardinals). Detroit posted winning campaigns in eight of the next eleven seasons, returning to the playoffs four more times. The club made it to the Fall Classic once more in 2012, but again came up short.
Over his later years, Ilitch spared no expense to put a quality product on the field. The Tigers routinely placed among the game’s biggest spenders in player salaries, committing hundreds of millions of dollars annually to acquire and retain star-level talent.
Looking ahead for the Tigers organization, it seems that Christopher Ilitch will largely step into his father’s shoes. While there are indications that the club will look to streamline its finances, the younger Ilitch has expressed a similar passion for fielding a winning team.
Lough, 31, spent last year with the Phillies and Marlins organizations. All 79 of his major league plate appearances came with Philadelphia, which designated him for assignment June 2 after he hit .239/.342/.313 there and .270/.331/.365 in 139 PAs with its Triple-A affiliate. Lough also struggled with Miami’s Triple-A club, albeit over a mere 32 PAs, with a .200/.226/.267 line.
In 820 trips to the plate with the Royals, Orioles and Phillies, the lefty-swinging Lough has batted .254/.300/.371 while garnering time at all three outfield spots. Detroit has two proven corner outfielders in Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez, but its only center field options – Tyler Collins, Mikie Mahtook, JaCoby Jones and Anthony Gose – haven’t established themselves. Neither has corner outfield reserve Steven Moya, so Lough could perhaps find his way to the Tigers’ bench at some point this year.
Sunday’s minor moves:
- The Tigers have signed left-handed reliever Mike Zagurski to a minor league contract, tweets Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com. Th 34-year-old will now return to the States after spending the past two seasons in Japan, where he pitched to a 4.15 ERA with 9.4 K/9 against 4.9 BB/9 in combined 47 2/3 innings with Hiroshima and Yokohama. Previously, Zagurski logged 75 1/3 major league innings of 7.05 ERA ball with four teams from 2007-13. He has fared far better at the Triple-A level, having recorded a 2.86 ERA and 12.0 K/9 against 4.2 BB/9 in 238 2/3 frames.
While the Tigers’ efforts to streamline their roster may not have advanced much this offseason — a scenario that was contemplated at the outset — that doesn’t mean the plan has changed for the years to come. As Anthony Fench of the Detroit Free-Press reports, GM Al Avila says his organization will not continue its current spending levels past the 2017 season.
“Our situation, really, it’s a tough situation,” said Avila. “Everybody’s looked at our payroll, and it’s over $200 million. This will be the second year we’re going over the luxury tax; we certainly are not going to go over the luxury tax for a third year.”
As the veteran baseball executive explained, it’s not just a matter of the team spending “above its means,” as Avila put it last October. There’s also the matter of the new CBA, which would impose a 50% tax on any spending over the luxury tax line of $197MM.
All told, it’s hardly surprising to hear this stance. Detroit has signaled for some time now that a broader shift in approach is in the works, with the organization unable to continue spending near the very top of the league and the current competitive window narrowing.
Looking at the Tigers’ future commitments, there’s just over $138MM already committed for next year. Arb raises will likely occupy another big chunk, and then there’s the likely-to-be-exercised Ian Kinsler option ($10MM). But Detroit ought to have little problem dipping back under the limbo stick with big earners such as J.D. Martinez, Anibal Sanchez (who technically could be retained on a $16MM option), Mike Pelfrey, Francisco Rodriguez, and Mark Lowe hitting the market.
The biggest future payroll questions, though, are largely out of Detroit’s hands. Outfielder Justin Upton has the right to opt out of his contract following the 2017 season, but he’ll likely need to improve upon his 2016 performance quite a bit in order to pass up the $88.5MM he’d stand to earn from 2018-21. And any possible trades involving highly paid veterans Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Jordan Zimmermann would be contingent upon approval from the players, all of whom have full no-trade protection (though Zimmermann’s full protection turns to partial protection after 2018). Upton has a twenty-team no-trade clause.