2017 Detroit Tigers Season Preview

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MLB opening day is almost here, and the Detroit Tigers are going to play some baseball. For the third consecutive season, Mark Sands, my Banished to the Pen colleague, and I have prepared a Tigers season preview, which is available right now on that site. Shifting away from the more formal structure we’ve used in the past, this year’s preview is a by-the-numbers countdown to opening day. The 2017 season promises to be one of the most wide-open seasons for Detroit in recent memory. This preview is as good a way as I’ve found to get yourself geared up to enjoy it, and I guarantee it’s the only one to incorporate never-before-published original photography by this author of the final game of the Tigers’ 2016 season.

The full post is available here.

The best of his kind: Farewell to Mr. I

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On Friday afternoon, Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, died at the age of eighty-seven. He was a Marine, a minor-league baseball player, and the founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain. In 1987, he bought the Red Wings, and he took over the Tigers (from pizza rival Tom Monaghan, of Domino’s) in 1993. He also rejuvenated the city’s Fox Theater and, much more quietly, paid for Rosa Parks’ housing for the last ten years of her life.

With the Wings and Tigers, Ilitch took over teams with great legacies that had fallen on hard times and built them into championship contenders by doing exactly what every fan hopes the owner of his or her favorite team would do: invest in the team with the goal of winning as much as possible as soon as possible. The results at Joe Louis Arena were unambiguous: four Stanley Cups and some of the best hockey teams ever assembled. While the Tigers couldn’t quite make it to the mountaintop, they have enjoyed a decade or more of top-tier competitiveness that included two World Series appearances, the first of which, in 2006, came just three years after the team lost 119 games.

Ilitch remained committed to his teams, and to his city, through thick and thin. Neil over at New English D recalls one of the more memorable examples of that commitment:

The defining moment will always be the beginning of the 2009 season. The Great Recession had rocked the auto industry and two of the city’s Big Three automakers had to be bailed out by the federal government to survive. General Motors had previously sponsored the center field fountain at Comerica Park but were in no position to spend a couple million dollars on advertising. Rather than selling the space to another company in some other industry, Ilitch put all three logos on the fountain with the message “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”

Things were dire around the country but especially in Detroit. The Tigers themselves were feeling squeezed due to decreased ticket sales and surely could have used the capital. In fact, that offseason they traded Curtis Granderson in part because they needed to trim payroll. A city that was once the engine of the American Century was teetering on the brink, but in that moment, Ilitch wasn’t thinking about the ad space. He was thinking about the organization’s role in the community. It’s responsibility to the community, even.
. . .
I have no idea if the free space actually helped the industry recover, but symbolism mattered. Mike Ilitch did right by his city not just when it was easy and when it made him wealthy, but also when things were tough.

As Mike Ilitch’s health waned in recent years, indications have emerged that his son, Chris, was taking on a larger role in the teams’ ownership, and there was some suggestion that Chris might have been behind the Tigers’ moves toward austerity that began with the unceremonious midseason departure of former GM Dave Dombrowski in 2015. It seems unlikely that Chris will continue his father’s free-spending ways, but, beyond that, there’s little public information to inform a prediction about the leadership style of the younger Ilitch.

Maybe it was because he was a self-made man, rather than an inheritor of wealth. Maybe it didn’t matter how he came to be in a position to own two professional sports franchises. From the fans’ perspective, it didn’t matter. What did matter was that Mike Ilitch loved his teams and his city and sought to do right by both by being the ideal team owner, someone who owned teams and financed them for success because sports are supposed to be fun. Today, teams are owned by conglomerates, publicly traded companies, and Wall Street ownership groups that, as often as not, seem to have priorities other than winning. To the extent he was of a kind, Ilitch may be one of the last of that kind, and his generosity will be missed.

Statements both obvious and only slightly less obvious about the Detroit Tigers’ finances

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By now, everyone knows The Narrative governing all things Detroit Tigers baseball: the team needs to Win Now because they have lots of money locked up in a few long-term player contracts, and, as those players age, the team’s Window Is Closing. And it’s true: the team has some expensive contracts on the books. Here’s a rough visual, created from the data available on Baseball-Reference:

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(Click here for an expanded view.) Besides noticing that I have not recently viewed Anibal Sanchez’s player page, you can see that a number of today’s already-very-familiar Detroit baseball faces are likely to remain as such for a number of additional seasons, and at significant cost to the team. This is known and obvious. That this aggregated fact has real and, on balance, probably adverse consequences for the team’s future– the ability to re-sign J.D. Martinez comes to mind– also is, if less precisely quantifiable, known and obvious.   Continue reading

Mike Ilitch’s baseball bona fides

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Everyone knows Mike Ilitch as the wealthy pizza baron who owns the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, but when new Tigers General Manager Al Avila appeared on Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo’s television show today, he revealed something about Mr. I that most folks probably don’t know: Ilitch is a former professional baseball player.

Ilitch played four seasons of minor-league ball in the mid-1950s. He split the 1952 season between the Jamestown, NY Falcons, a Tigers affiliate, as chance would have it, and the unaffiliated Hot Springs, AR Bathers. He spent the entirety of the 1953 season with the unaffiliated Tampa, FL Smokers, where he was the starting second baseman and his .310 batting average was second-best on the team. In 1954, Ilitch divided his time between the Smokers and the unaffiliated Miami Beach/Greater Miami Flamingos in what would prove to be the Flamingos’ final season of existence. He continued to demonstrate an ability to hit for average, if not power (his sole home run of the season was just the second of his career to that point), finishing 1954 with a .324/.375/.400 line, the best of his career. 1955 was Ilitch’s final year as a professional baseball player. He appeared in just sixty-two games while playing for three different teams: the unaffiliated St. Petersburg, FL Saints, the Norfolk, VA Tars (Yankees), and the Charlotte, NC Hornets (Senators). Ilitch’s offense slipped in his final season, in which he hit his third career home run and batted .255/.328/.273 for the Tars (incomplete records from the other teams suggest this line is representative of his performance for the Saints and Hornets as well).

The knee injury that ended Ilitch’s playing career in 1955 probably explains the decline in his offensive production. Four years later, he and his wife opened the first Little Caesars Pizza restaurant. They bought the Red Wings in 1982 and the Tigers– from Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan– in 1992.

2016 Detroit Tigers still in search of man out standing in (left) field

After a disappointing 2015 season, which included some odd maneuvering at the trade deadline, the Detroit Tigers entered the offseason with a significant to-do list. They’ve already made acquisitions designed to address needs in the bullpen and starting pitching rotation, but, with three months until opening day, the team still has one major hole to fill.   Continue reading

Window Shopping: Step Back From the Window, or, Thank You Very Much, Mr. Rebooto

The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline was an especially active period for the Detroit Tigers franchise, which made big moves both with player and front-office personnel.

Detroit traded three of the best players on its 2015 roster in the days and minutes prior to the trade deadline. The team’s biggest move, and arguably the biggest of one of the most active trade-deadline periods ever, was their decision to trade number-one starter David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays. They also sent closer Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh, and, in the final moments before the deadline, Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets.

The basic logic behind each of these moves is that, even prior to these trades, each of these players was, for all practical purposes, not going to be a member of the Detroit Tigers in 2016. That’s because each is in the final year of his current contract, meaning that each becomes a free agent at the end of this season. The Tigers would have no special ability to keep Price, Cespedes, or Soria in Detroit after the end of the 2015 season, and, given their individual successes, each is likely to fetch contract offers on the free market too rich even for Mike Ilitch’s blood. Rather than keep Price, Cespedes, and Soria for August and September on a team that’s unlikely to even make the playoffs, only to watch them walk away in the winter, the Tigers, with an eye on the post-2015 future, decided to cash in some of the value of these assets by trading them now. In doing so, Detroit converted these three expiring assets into six prospects, including five pitchers and one infielder.

Baseball analysts widely praised these transactions as beneficial to the Tigers, who, general manager Dave Dombrowski announced were “rebooting,” selling with the goal of remaining competitive in the near term, rather than undergoing a full rebuilding. The top return for Detroit was Daniel Norris, a now-former Blue Jay who lives in a van and shaves his beard with an ax. They also received Matt Boyd from Toronto, a younger starter who, in his recent Tigers’ debut, beat Johnny Cueto and the Royals.

Of course, the only real question for Detroit was not whom to trade but whether to trade. As July 31 approached, that question divided fans and, it later would be revealed, members of the team’s front office and ownership. As for the former group, most fans recognized the Tigers’ slim playoff odds and supported selling, although a minority that included this writer held out hope that the team could make one more postseason push before initiating a rebuild. Ultimately, Dombrowski’s “rebooting” seemed to satisfy both camps: Detroit would get close-to-ready prospects in exchange for their expiring assets. No long rebuilding process– a full surrender– was in store, just a quick retooling.

Two additional notes in the context of these trades: 1) one week before the trade deadline, Toronto, the biggest buyers, and Detroit, the biggest sellers, sat four and five games out of the last American League wild card position, respectively, and 2) while it isn’t at all likely that Price, Soria, or Cespedes will return to Detroit in the offseason, the effect of an unusual clause in Cespedes’ contract is that the Tigers actually increased whatever chance they have of resigning Cespedes by trading him.

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As the Tigers and their fans were settling into life without Price, Soria, and Cespedes, and enjoying their first trial run with Norris, who had a strong start on Sunday in Baltimore, unbeknownst to them, even more action was afoot behind the scenes.    Continue reading

Flying Tigers: Closing the Book on 2013

Rock and Roll never forgets, and neither does ALDLAND. Last season, I took a look at whether the Tigers struggled to score later in games, a trend that, if shown and in combination with the team’s bullpen woes, would make comeback wins less likely. While the preliminary numbers suggested I was onto something, the trend appeared even more pronounced with one-hundred games’ worth of data. The purpose of this post is to make good on the promise implicit in that last one by completing the full season’s worth of data.

First, an aside on data collection. I previously gathered and organized these inning-by-inning run totals by hand because I didn’t realize Baseball Reference actually tracks that information. In order to maintain the same error potential, and because B-R doesn’t separate the runs/inning between wins and losses, I’ve updated (a simplified version of) my chart as I did before.

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Continue reading

Bay of Cigs: Forget what you know

This year’s Detroit Tigers are far from perfect, but they’re off to a good start on the strength of their starting pitching and the bats of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, Torii Hunter, Omar Infante, (increasingly) Victor Martinez, and (once again) Austin Jackson.

The weak link– the bullpen– has been both very obvious and very weak. Hoping for some addition by subtraction, the club sent onetime-closer Jose Valverde down to the minors, and a more focused “closer-by-committee” approach has emerged, centering around Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly, with an emphasis on not misusing Phil Coke.

One of the criticisms of manager Jim Leyland is that he likes to have go-to players to fill defined roles, and nowhere is this more applicable than in his handling of relief pitching. In short, Leyland wants to have one guy be his guy when it comes to closing out games in the ninth inning. His unwillingness to deviate from that approach has had exceedingly frustrating consequences when The Closer is someone less effective than the likes of a Craig Kimbrel or, say, a 2011-vintage Valverde. (This is especially true because the Tigers have trouble scoring late in games. If the bullpen blows a lead late, this team is unlikely to mount a comeback.) Even though fans would like to see Leyland be a bit more nimble with the way he utilizes his personnel, some of his attitude surely has rubbed off on them. The fans want to have someone who can be The Closer too.

Buster Olney launched a thousand blog posts with his suggestion that current Philadelphia Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon might make a good fit in Detroit. Papelbon has a great reputation as a closer, and, as Buster writes, “there are no questions about whether he could handle October,” which is where the Tigers’ expectations reside.

Team owner Mike Ilitch has shown little resistance to spending money on this iteration of the team, which means that the large contract that’s scaring other teams away from Papelbon is unlikely to be an issue in Detroit.

My opinion is that, if the Phillies are willing to part with Papelbon without demanding much beyond the absorption of his contract, the Tigers should get him. If his steady hand can turn these cardiac kitties into some cool cats come playoff time, it’ll be worth it.

That said, it probably is worth taking a look at how Papelbon would stack up with his new teammates if he were to catch a ride to Motor City this season.  Continue reading

Big changes afoot in Hockeytown?

The Detroit Red Wings have the longest active playoff-appearance streak– twenty-one years– in all of professional sports. With two games to go in the regular season, they barely are hanging on to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The way this season has gone, failing to make the playoffs couldn’t be called a surprise, but the end of their postseason streak would be monumental for a historically great franchise.

As big as that seems, even bigger changes may be on the horizon for Detroit. Buried at the bottom of the ESPN.com story on last night’s win over the Los Angeles Kings was this note:

Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, which owns the Red Wings, said progress is being made on a new arena for the team.

(By way of background, Chris Ilitch is the son of Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Tigers and the Little Caesar’s Pizza empire.)

I have been fortunate enough to see the Red Wings play in person three times– at Colorado, at Nashville, and at Chicago, plus the Red & White game in Grand Rapids— but never in the epicenter of Hockeytown: the legendary Joe Louis Arena.

I can’t imagine most fans will be happy to hear this news. For me, knowing that little is likely to stand in the way of the winged wheel of Progress, all I can do is redouble my efforts to make it to the Joe before time runs out.

[Cross-posted at Winging It In Motown. -Ed.]

Bay of Cigs: WSJ throws a wet newspaper on the Tigers’ 2013 chances

Sometimes the Tigers can’t win for winning. Detroit opened the 2013 season on the road in chilly Minneapolis with a 4-2 victory, a win for ace Justin Verlander, and a save for closing committee chairman Phil Coke.

So you know it isn’t just me, independent sources call Verlander “the best pitcher in baseball.” Independent sources also have a way of being wet blankets, which is what the Wall Street Journal was when Continue reading