The Detroit Tigers are in the midst of a rebuild that started in 2017. Since then, they’ve traded many of their high-priced stars — Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, and Ian Kinsler to name a few — for younger, cheaper prospects they hope will shine someday.
As they wait for their minor league stars to rise, the Tigers suffered a meteoric fall in 2019, losing 114 games out of 161. Total attendance was down from 2018 as fan interest waned. The announced attendance for 2019’s final game at Comerica Park on September 26 was 17,557. As the picture above suggests, the actual crowd appeared to be smaller. Those who did show up watched the Tigers lose for the 59th time at home this season. That tied a Major League record set by the St. Louis Browns in 1939.
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But those who stuck with the team through the bitter end hope the rebuild begins to bear fruit in 2020.
The Tigers went from bad to worse in 2019
To be fair, the Tigers weren’t supposed to be good this year. They went 64-98 each of the last two seasons. But a combination of aging veterans, major injuries, bad luck and bad play produced the second-worst season in franchise history — only slightly better than the 2003 team that lost 119 games.
Things went south early when starting pitcher Michael Fulmer, the American League Rookie of the Year in 2016, injured his elbow in spring training. He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire season. The injury bug also bit several free agents the Tigers signed before the season:
- Starting pitcher Matt Moore suffered a knee injury in his second game, and missed the rest of the season.
- Tyson Ross, another starter, appeared in seven games before an elbow injury sidelined him in May.
- Infielder Josh Harrison partially tore a hamstring in May. He was released in August.
- Infielder Jordy Mercer made two trips to the injured list in May and played a total of 74 games.
Injuries aside, rebuilds take time, and can try a fan’s patience. Eleanor DeBresser of Chatham, Ontario hopes the team gets some better players for 2020.
“They owe it to the fans, they owe it to themselves.” — Eleanor De Bresser, Tigers fan
“I was so sad to see them give away all the good [players],” De Bresser says. “I feel bad about it.”
General Manager Al Avila is trying to build a team that’s successful — and affordable — for years to come. Gone are the free-spending days of owner Mike Ilitch, who died in 2017. His son, Christopher Ilitch, is in charge now. The younger Ilitch has backed Avila’s frugal approach so far. Spotrac, a sports business website, lists the Tigers’ 2019 payroll at less than $115 million. That ranks 21st out of 30 Major League Baseball clubs. In 2017, they had the fifth-highest payroll, almost $190 million.
Bill Shea writes about the business of sports for The Athletic. He says Ilitch and Avila could sign some inexpensive free agents, but does not expect a spending spree.
“They will sign some people simply to fill out a roster,” Shea says. “But I think we’re probably looking at 2021, which is when they said they were going to do it.”
The front office plans to stick with the rebuilding plan
For now, the Shea says the Tigers will continue to develop their farm system. They’ll have the top pick in MLB’s 2020 amateur draft. They had the number one selection in 2018, drafting pitcher Casey Mize of Auburn University. This was Mize’s first full season in the minor leagues. After starting in Lakeland, Fla., he earned a promotion to Detroit’s AA team in Erie, Pa., where he threw a no-hitter in his first start.
Emily Waldon is the Tigers minor league writer for The Athletic and Baseball America. She says like all young players, the 22-year-old Mize had his growing pains, too.
“He saw a bit of fatigue,” Waldon says. “And the way he ended the year, he had a little bit of an injury, so that kind of put a damper on things.”
Mize is ranked as the Tigers’ top prospect. The next man on the list was better than Mize this year, at least statistically. 21-year-old Matt Manning led a staff that allowed the fewest hits and runs in the Eastern League, which named him its pitcher of the year.
Tiger fan Ken Funk of Brighton is eager to see how the youngsters would look in the Old English D.
“If we can get some of those Erie pitchers up here, at least in the second half of the season,” Funk says. “I want to see Mize and Manning.”
Other fans, like Rob Vermette of Southgate, take a more cautious view.
“You don’t want to push these kids into coming up too soon.” — Rob Vermette, Tigers fan
The Athletic’s Emily Waldon says there’s no reason to rush the young players to the majors, but some might move up to the Tigers’ AAA team, the Toledo Mud Hens.
“I always say let these guys get their feet under them, and let them continue to develop as they should,” Waldon says.
While those future Tigers earn their stripes, fan Hubert Carter of Ypsilanti hopes the off-season will give the big leaguers time to heal.
Longtime fan Hubert Carter of Ypsilanti hopes those injuries don’t deter the Tigers from signing players for next season. He’d also like to see other players heal in time for spring training.
“I’d like to see JaCoby Jones come back,” Carter says. “I thought he was doing pretty well before he got hurt.”
Jones was the Tigers’ regular center fielder until he was hit by a pitch in a game on August 8. He missed the rest of the season with a broken wrist. His recovery, along with Fulmer’s, could allow the Tigers to keep their prospects on the farm a little longer in 2020. A healthier roster might also make it easier for fans to watch a team that hit rock bottom in 2019 and has nowhere to go but up.