The Detroit Tigers begin reporting for spring training in Lakeland, Florida on Feb. 12, 2019. Some of the players have already been working out there this winter, with a few recovering from off-season surgery. As the athletes get themselves in physical shape the front office is in the midst of a financial makeover.
For years, the Tigers ranked near the top of Major League Baseball’s payroll list, maxing out at an estimated $200 million in 2016. That team was built to win a World Series. It didn’t even make the playoffs. Owner Mike Ilitch died the following February, and by the middle of 2017, the front office began dismantling the roster—trading some of its biggest and highest-paid stars for minor league prospects. The rebuilding had begun. And, after losing 98 games each of the last two seasons, General Manager Al Avila doesn’t sugar-coat reality.
“We did everything in our power to try to win. And now we’re doing everything in our power to turn this around and make us winners again.”—Tigers GM Al Avila.
The first step toward that turnaround this season is to put a healthy team on the field. Injuries ravaged the starting pitching staff in 2018. Michael Fulmer, the American League rookie of the year in 2016, missed a month with an oblique injury and suffered a season-ending knee injury in September. Fulmer says he feels good after surgery, and is ready to show his stand-out rookie season was no fluke.
“I’ve got to go out and prove to myself that I can be as good as I was in 2016 and ’17,” Fulmer says. “I know last year was an off-year for me, but I think when I’m fully healthy, I know what I can do for this team, and hopefully put up the numbers to show it.”
Another young pitcher with much to prove is Daniel Norris, who missed four months in 2018 with a groin injury. He’s the same age as Fulmer (25), and joined the team at the same time. Both were acquired via trades in 2015. Norris has spent more time on the disabled list than Fulmer. That has slowed his development, but not his determination.
“There’s no better teacher than experience,” Norris says. “I just want to continue to go out there and just be healthy while I’m doing it.”
Injuries have also plagued 32-year-old starter Jordan Zimmerman since he signed a big free agent contract in 2015. Despite spending a month on the disabled list last year, Zimmerman put up some of his best numbers as a Tiger, nearly doubling his strikeout-to-walk ratio, while giving up fewer walks and hits per inning pitched. Zimmerman hopes to build on that progress this season.
“You know, you can’t predict injuries, you don’t know when they’re going to happen. It just happened that in the last three years, I had a bunch of them. Hopefully, that’s all behind me. My neck and everything’s been feeling good, so I’m excited to get out there and show everybody I’ve still got a lot left.”
Zimmerman is due to make $25 million this season. That’s about a quarter of the entire team’s projected payroll. Only one Tiger gets more money—Miguel Cabrera. He’s got five years left on a $248 million contract extension he signed in 2014. But at age 35, there are serious concerns about his health and longevity—especially after last season. He played just 38 games before tearing a tendon in his left arm while swinging at a pitch during a game in June. Cabrera says he feels good heading into spring training, and is ready to show he can still be one of the game’s best hitters.
“I want to do anything I can to be in the field, be healthy, and try to put (up) some numbers.”—Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera
The question is whether Cabrera can still play first base every day. Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire says he’ll get the chance.
“It depends on how he feels,” Gardenhire says. ”You know, we’re going to go day-by-day with him in spring training, and we’re just going to get him through spring training. Then we’ll see when we start the season, see how he’s feeling, and our job is to keep him healthy. And whatever that takes, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Gardenhire’s other option is making Cabrera a full-time designated hitter. That would open up a competition at first base. Young players are already competing for jobs at shortstop and catcher, after the Tigers decided not to re-sign free agents Jose Iglesias and James McCann. Grayson Greiner hopes to start behind the plate after making his Major League debut last season. He knows he’ll have to earn the trust of his manager and his pitching staff first.
“You know, if those guys on the mound don’t trust you, it doesn’t do you a whole lot of good,” Greiner says. ”So, (I’m) trying to catch as many bullpens and get as much work and learn these guys on and off the field as well as I can, so they trust me back there to put down the right fingers, to block balls in the dirt for them, to manage the game.”
The Tigers are giving youngsters like Greiner a shot to start because they’re not signing veteran free agents to long, expensive contracts anymore. And even though the payroll is about half what it was three years ago, General Manager Al Avila says he plans to keep a lid on salaries.
“At the same time though, have enough invested in your infrastructure where you can keep on producing,” Avila says. “And then keep yourself lean financially from a payroll perspective, so you can be flexible and then go after guys when you need to.”
Avila never says when the Tigers will be World Series contenders again. But with a roster that’s not much different than last season’s, pundits and odds makers say 2019 probably won’t be the year.