The Detroit Tigers and their slippery slope

The Detroit Tigers will embark upon the 2013 season with their highest team payroll in club history. The 2008 Tigers previously topped that list at a little over $137M. In ’13, once the offseason arbitration dust settles on several players, Owner Mike Ilitch will pony up somewhere in the neighborhood of $160M for this year’s version of the Tigers.

Additions in recent years such as Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, and others have indicated a clear pattern of a win-at-any cost mentality from the Tigers’ front office.

How long can this go on?

Detroit Tigers, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder

These guys are really expensive

The most obvious answer is probably just as long as Mike Ilitch’s vitals remain in good working order. Ilitch will turn 84 this coming July and if his appearance on the AL Championship podium last October was any indication, he is clearly wearing down. Will Detroit’s run at championships eventually crumble? Or maybe more to the point, can they get to the goal before it does?

The notion of a ‘fire sale’ in baseball is a scary one and generally reserved for the Miami Marlins. But what happens when Ilitch either sells the team or passes away and his heirs decide not to keep the team in the family? New ownership might not be so eager to fork out endless streams of cash after paying north of $500M for the privilege of owning the storied franchise.

Lately, it seems the Tigers have more cash than they know what to do with. Recent rumors have the Tigers potentially looking to move either Rick Porcello or Drew Smyly and considering the idea of adding free agent starting pitcher Kyle Lohse. Lohse will command an 8-figure salary from his next employer. Do you really doubt the Tigers might pull that trigger at this point?

Nothing surprises Tigers fans anymore. And the one common denominator behind every move GM Dave Dombrowski has been making of late has simply been: get Ilitch a championship before he expires.

You have to admire the tenacity with which Dombrowski and Ilitch are chasing this championship. And it’s certainly possible that they will indeed get one with the collection of talent that will be buttoning up baseball’s most beautiful uniform for the next few seasons.

What we don’t know is what happens when Ilitch gets his ring. Will it be enough to quench his thirst? Will he lose interest and force Detroit to finally become the ‘mid-market’ team that people keep claiming them to be?

Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander

Another $20M/year player

Make no mistake; Mike Ilitch is rich beyond most people’s wildest dreams. He can afford his title-induced spending spree with little concern of over-extending the budget. But once the ultimate goal has been realized, or if he passes away without it ever happening, things could change in a hurry.

Consider this: from 2000-2005, a span of 6 seasons in which Ilitch was the Owner, the Tigers’ annual payroll averaged just $55M. Sure there’s inflation, but hello Kansas City! The Marlins have won 2 World Series championships only to shed payroll and talent immediately thereafter. Heck, they even did it again this offseason without winning a title.

Detroit has been operating like a big market team without the actual luxury of being located in a big market since probably 2007. All of that credit goes to Ilitch, his wallet, and a steady swarm of passionate fans. When he is no longer here, Detroit could quickly retreat into the comfy parameters of a mid-market label and spend accordingly. Will 3 million fans still show up to see a mid-market team play?

If the Tigers did unload the bus they would certainly have some pieces to move. The core of Detroit’s team is still almost entirely in its prime. Imagine if the Tigers did ship off their top-tier talent on the trade market. They would be able to stockpile a warehouse of burgeoning minor league talent for years to come, something Dombrowski has been unable to do since coming to the Tigers. They would in theory become the Tampa Bay Ray of the north. This wouldn’t be a terrible end result.

GM Dave Dombrowski, the former Marlins GM, got to see this very same business model up close and personal down in Florida. If nothing else, that’s an interesting little side note.

The city of Detroit is starved for their first World Series crown since 1984. Ownership wants it. The players want it. The pieces are in place and arguably have been for a few years now.

The problem from a fan perspective is that Detroit has been building toward this since 2006, buying the players they see fit, spending the money, etc. Rabid fans from a great baseball city are getting used to the good life of a spendy owner.

It’s a slippery slope. Just as quickly as the euphoria of a championship can set in, so can the sense of abandonment due to ownership stripping the team down to a more affordable product.

10 years from now fans of the Tigers might look back at this era and wonder how it ever came to be. One rich and title-driven owner brought this all on. He won’t be here forever and things could very well change in the blink of an eye once he’s gone. Let’s hope the ring comes first.

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  • J & D Fuller

    Compelling article. Makes a lot of sense. Tigers baseball gives the state of Michigan hope, excitement, and a much more interesting topic to discuss at BBQ then unemployment rates and fiscal cliffs. What I heard in this article is there is an owner to thank and he deserves the ring for his efforts.

  • Joe White

    Ha. That’s good stuff “itsfun”. Just covering something that not a lot of people want to talk about. I hope Ilitch lives to be 200 years old and Dombrowski can keep buying any player he so chooses. Actually I don’t. I hate that business model. Hopefully 2013 is the year they get it done.

  • itsfun

    Talk about a such a morbid subject is terrible. Are you hoping Mr Ilitch passes away soon? I’ll bet this writer is a ball at a party. Tell me: do you kick crutches away from people using them?

    • Roy Reinsmith

      Yes, this is one article I wish I had not read. Is this guy waiting for the wheels to fall off or pulling them off. Let’s hope the when or if a new owner takes over they will put the team before profit. Yes you need to make your money back but not overnight.

  • Dennis Moss

    I don’t buy big market or small with this team, Dombrowski has put together. If they play up to their expectations, media and sponsors will stand in line to get a piece of this guggernaut.

  • BobWhite

    Great article Joe.

  • Joe

    Best looking uniforms? I don’t think so.

    • Joe White

      That’s obviously a matter of personal preference. Other favorites of mine: Angels, Dodgers, Royals.

  • Roy Reinsmith

    I watched the Pistons go throught the same thing a few years ago. They went from 280 plus sell outs games straight to very small crowds just as fast as the budget dropped. Do you think the Tigers are operating in the red? I, as a fan, love having a team others chase. It is nice watching a team you can expect to win.

  • Joe White

    JV is only signed through 2014 Rob. Imagine the contract he’ll receive as he’ll only be 31 I think. Factor that and the need to lock up Jackson, Fister and Scherzer and the price just keeps going up.

  • Rob White

    Very interesting Joe. I hadn’t thought about that at all. How long is Verlander under contract?

  • Craig Coxen

    While I’d hate to see Verlander put on anything other than the old English D, it would be kind of fun to see the team rebuild with a deep pool of young talent…after a World Series Championship. I’m going out to buy a bag of crazy bread to support the team.