Spring training optimism? 9 years into rebuild, Detroit Tigers fans left hanging again

After 96-loss season, Tigers’ biggest offseason changes were outfield fence, LED lights

Jonathan Schoop #7 of the Detroit Tigers heads to the dugout after striking out against the Toronto Blue Jays at Comerica Park on June 11, 2022, in Detroit, Michigan. (Duane Burleson, 2022 Getty Images)

DETROIT – Ahh, spring training. The Detroit Tigers’ pitchers and catchers are reporting to Lakeland, the snow is melting (for now), the days are getting longer, and... wait -- something’s missing.

Is it the new bases? No, no, they’re right here. What about that Chafin guy -- he’s always running off. Oh, he’s with Arizona now? Maybe it’s Paws? Nope, there he is chasing a deer around left field.

Oh no. It’s the optimism. How did we forget to bring the optimism again?

You’ll hear the cliche a hundred times over the next six weeks: “Everybody thinks they have a chance in the spring.” And it’s true. One of the many great things about baseball is that all 30 fan bases can find reasons for hope during spring training.

That’s especially true now that MLB has expanded its postseason to include 12 teams. The playoffs have never been more accessible.

But for most Tigers fans, the whole “spring optimism” angle has run dry. Like, stranded in the middle of the Atacama Desert dry.

Fans were patient and understanding as the Tigers tore down their roster, waited out bad contracts, and tanked their way to high draft picks from 2015-2020. The team was so fun from 2006-2014 and had earned the benefit of the doubt.

That reservoir of goodwill has dried up, though. Detroit finally gave fans a small taste of success in 2021 and declared the rebuild “over,” which made sense because six years is more than enough time to effectively overhaul an MLB roster. It looked like the Tigers were on schedule.

But all of that momentum came crashing down last season. It started when the Tigers went bargain bin shopping in the offseason, signing the worst of the high-profile free agent shortstops and settling for a good-not-great starting pitcher. After nearly a decade without spending on the Tigers, it was a sneaky way for Chris Ilitch to technically fulfill his promise to open the checkbook “when the time was right” while also keeping the payroll down.

Javier Baez #28 of the Detroit Tigers strikes out against the Seattle Mariners during the ninth inning to end the game at Comerica Park on August 31, 2022, in Detroit, Michigan. (2022 Getty Images)

Predictably, it came back to bite the Tigers. They were the sixth-worst team in all of baseball and finished dead last in runs scored, home runs, walks -- you name it. In a year that began with fans craving a long-awaited playoff push, the Tigers narrowly avoided 100 losses.

Candidly, it wasn’t an acceptable outcome, and that’s why general manager Al Avila lost his job.

Avila made enough mistakes to warrant a change, but fans might soon learn that he wasn’t the only Tigers executive handicapping the team.

What was the most impactful move the Tigers made this offseason to address an offense that finished a full 17 home runs behind the second-worst power team in the league? It wasn’t a trade. It wasn’t a free agent signing.

They made the walls shorter.

No, seriously, that’s all they did. While other teams were signing free agents to improve their rosters, the Tigers were poring over construction blueprints. Hey, did you know the center field wall at Comerica Park was actually 422 feet away from home plate all this time? How neat!

Nobody expected the Tigers to steal Aaron Judge from the New York Yankees or land Trea Turner a year after committing to Javier Baez, but they could have done something. Anything.

Shortstop Dansby Swanson sure would have looked nice in the heart of the Tigers’ order, and maybe a move to second base would solve Baez’s alarming throwing woes (he led the league with 26 errors last season. Twenty-six!).

Too expensive to ask for Swanson (it’s not)? OK, fine. How about Brandon Nimmo, an on-base machine with a bit of power? The Tigers desperately need a leadoff hitter -- it would be perfect.

Nope, not even mentioned among the teams in contention.

Andrew Benintendi? No. Michael Conforto? Negative. Cody Bellinger? Joc Pederson? Mitch Haniger? Forget about it.

The biggest free agent acquisition the Tigers made this offseason: new LED lights for Comerica Park. You can even check out part of the installation process below -- bookmark this link so you have something to watch every time the Tigers are down 4-0 in the seventh inning this season!

This might seem like a very cynical tone for mid-February, when optimism is supposed to reign, but Tigers fans deserve a winning team -- or, at the very least, a front office that tries to build one.

Since the Tigers last made the playoffs and got swept by the Baltimore Orioles in 2014, those same Orioles have gone from playoff team, to losing 108+ games three (non-COVID) seasons in a row, to competing for a playoff spot and finishing with a winning record last season.

Baltimore isn’t the only team to complete an entire rebuild cycle while the Tigers flounder. The Toronto Blue Jays, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and others have gone from competitive to awful to competitive again in the time the Tigers have been losing.

All three of those teams have had a season of 90+ losses in the past four years, but their fan bases are going into the spring with World Series aspirations.

Meanwhile, the only drama in Lakeland will be which light-hitting minor-league caliber player wins the third base job.

The Tigers have a difficult April schedule, so the record is likely to get ugly quick for the third season in a row. When Ilitch or new general manager Scott Harris try to preach that spending money in the offseason would have been bad for the organization’s long-term health, fans won’t be fooled.

Take a look at the teams with the highest payrolls in baseball:

  1. New York Mets -- 101 wins, playoff team last season
  2. New York Yankees -- division winner, 99 wins, playoff team
  3. San Diego Padres -- National League Championship Series
  4. Philadelphia Phillies -- World Series
  5. Los Angeles Dodgers -- division winner, 111 wins, playoff team
  6. Toronto Blue Jays -- playoff team
  7. Atlanta Braves -- division winner, 101 wins, playoff team
  8. Houston Astros -- division winner, 106 wins, World Series champion

That’s right: The eight highest-paying teams in the league right now were also eight of the best teams last season. Not surprising, right?

As much as ownership wants to frame the 2021-2022 offseason as one of incredible spending and investment, the Tigers are only 19th out of 30 teams in total payroll, and if you took out the Miguel Cabrera contract Mike Ilitch signed back in 2014, they would be 25th.

This is not a small market team, even though fans tolerated it acting like one during the rebuild. From 2017-2021, the largest free agent contract handed out by Chris Ilitch was worth $6.1 million. He was raking in profits -- because MLB franchises are extremely lucrative -- without investing in the team financially for five years.

Would the Tigers like to win? Sure, that’d be nice. But they don’t care enough to put their money where their mouth is. That’s why Chris Ilitch hired a general manager who would rather try to squeeze something out of old fan favorite Matt Boyd and trade his All-Star closer for utility men than pay up for dependable big league talent.

By hiring a new general manager, especially one who’s so young and inexperienced, the Tigers found a way to justify another few years of rebuilding and not spending.

Who pays the price? Fans who’ve been waiting nine years (and counting) for competitive baseball.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.