When the Detroit Tigers lost 119 games in 2003, owner Mike Ilitch went on a spending spree to make the team better.
Big-name free agents signed expensive contracts. Trades brought marquee players for minor league prospects. The Tigers won two American League pennants in 2006 and 2012, but never fulfilled Ilitch’s dream of winning the World Series. Before he died in 2017, the Tigers had already started fading — weighed down by a huge payroll, an aging roster, and a fallow farm system.
It was time to rebuild.
“It’s time to win.” — Ron Gardenhire, Tigers Manager
The process has been painful. The Tigers went 47-114 in 2019.
But as spring training approaches, team executives hope the seeds they’ve sown over the last three years begin to bear fruit in 2020.
Click on the player above to hear the Tiger’s strategy to win.
One reason for optimism this season is the addition of several veteran free agents — minus the big contracts. First baseman C.J. Cron signed a one-year deal in December worth about $6 million.
Last season, Cron hit 25 home runs for the Minnesota Twins. That’s 10 more than the Tigers’ 2019 leader, Brandon Dixon, who’s been demoted to the minor leagues. Cron hopes to add some power to a lineup that scored the fewest runs in the majors last year.
“They say hitting is contagious, and it absolutely is,” Cron says. “It’s something that I hope I can bring here.”
Rebuilding has its ups and downs
Cron’s signing — and that of his former Twins teammate Jonathon Schoop — follow a pattern set by General Manager Al Avila when the rebuild began: offering short-term, affordable contracts to veterans who could be traded for younger prospects mid-season.
It hasn’t always worked.
Last year, Avila signed infielders Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer, who had played together in Pittsburgh in 2018. Both got hurt and spent much of last year on the disabled list. Avila says that’s one of the pitfalls of rebuilding.
“Everything that you do, every move you make is going to be scrutinized,” Avila says. “We also knew that every move we were going to make was not going to work out, we were going to make some mistakes along the way.”
Young Tigers need to earn their stripes
Rebuilding is risky, but comes with rewards for losing — such as high draft picks.
For the second time in three years, the Tigers will have the top pick in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft in June. Two years ago, they selected Auburn University pitcher Casey Mize at number one. Mize is one of five future Tigers on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list for 2020. Three are pitchers. None are expected to start the year in Detroit.
That suits Al Avila just fine.
He’d rather not rush any of them to the Majors before they’re ready. That’s what happened last year when injuries forced him to call up catcher Jake Rogers — who batted just .125 in 35 big league games.
Staying Healthy is Key
It’ll help if the Tigers can avoid major injuries that plagued them in 2019.
“Knowing that I can be 100% again and give it everything I have is going to be awesome.” — Michael Fulmer, Tigers pitcher
Starting pitcher Michael Fulmer missed the entire season after an elbow injury in March that required Tommy John surgery. The 2016 American League Rookie of the Year is still recovering and says he won’t return to action until he feels 100 percent ready.
“It’s tough getting through a long season like that,” Fulmer says. “You know, obviously I’ll do my best every single time I go out there, I want to stay on the field as much as possible. But just that mental state of knowing that I can be 100% again and give it everything I have is going to be awesome.”
Time to Go to Work
While Fulmer continues to mend, newly-signed pitcher Ivan Nova is expected to shore up the Tigers rotation. Nova started 34 games for the Chicago White Sox last season. Manager Ron Gardenhire says he hopes the off-season moves will make the Tigers more competitive with opposing teams and with themselves.
“We went out and made some good signings, brought in some veterans that can help our lineup out,” Gardenhire says. “We’re still adding pitching, adding more people, but we want competition. It’s time to win and show our fans the right direction of where we’re trying to go here, and it starts this year.”
The competition for Opening Day jobs begins when the players report to Lakeland, Florida for spring training. The first full squad workout is February 17.