HAMTRAMCK, Mich. -- Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch was at historic Hamtramck Stadium on Tuesday morning to celebrate baseball’s history in Detroit as part of a ceremony to begin the renovation of the historic Negro Leagues ballpark. But he was also excited about the future of baseball in Detroit, one that could include the Tigers taking the next step in their rebuilding process and adding talent via free agency or trades, with a goal of contending.
“Obviously, [general manager] Al [Avila] and I talk on a frequent basis, and I think Al on a high level has provided me his vision and his feelings,” Ilitch said. “Al and his team are very focused on continuing to improve our team. Now we see the long-term efforts that are put forth by his team, and we see the emergence of a young core. And I think Al feels like we need to continue to improve our ballclub in a high-impact way, and I fully support that.”
Could that happen as soon as this coming offseason?
“Undoubtedly, that could happen this winter,” Ilitch continued. “Al has been the architect of our vision. He and his staff have done all the hard work. Our fans have been incredibly patient through this process, and I think Al’s vision is very much aligned with my vision and our fans’ vision, which is, we want not only a highly competitive team, but we want to be a playoff contender and ultimately we want to compete for championships. We want to do it on a long-term, sustainable basis. And to do that, I am very much supportive of the approach that he and his team have taken of building a young core of talent, and now having the desire to bring in high-impact players to fill that out. I’m very supportive of that.”
The Tigers have dabbled conservatively in free agency during their rebuild over the last few years, generally seeking short-term deals with rebound candidates or undervalued players while trying to build payroll flexibility. Their two-year contract with Robbie Grossman was their first multiyear deal with a free agent since Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton following the 2015 season.
Grossman and Miguel Cabrera are the only Tigers on multiyear contracts, and the only Tigers with guaranteed contracts for next season.
Avila has talked for a few years about getting payroll flexibility so that the Tigers can make moves to add talent to a young core when the time is right. Ilitch’s comments about the desire to bring in high-impact players suggest that time is near.
They also come as the Tigers continue to look for a long-term plan at shortstop. Barring a flurry of contract extensions, this offseason is expected to feature one of the deepest free-agent shortstop markets in years. Among the All-Stars with expiring contracts are Houston’s Carlos Correa, the Dodgers’ Corey Seager, Colorado’s Trevor Story, San Francisco’s Brandon Crawford and Toronto’s Marcus Semien, who’s currently playing second base for the Blue Jays.
Ilitch is leaving those decisions to the baseball people.
“We all know that you have to be strong up the middle to succeed in this sport,” he said. “That is not lost on anybody in our organization, including Al Avila and his staff and [manager] A.J. [Hinch] and his staff. The team knows what we need to have to be successful, and I know Al and his team are focused on making sure that we have that.”
Ilitch also gave a vote of confidence to Avila.
“One thing we have to appreciate is [that] one of the most difficult things to do in the entire baseball industry is a complete rebuild. That’s what Al and his team have done,” he said. “It takes a long period of time. It takes a lot of patience, not only on the part of our front office but also of our manager, A.J. Hinch, who’s just done a tremendous job with our ballclub and has them playing competitively night in and night out, and our players, and most importantly, our fans. The patience they have exhibited has been great. We’re starting to see the long-term work manifest with this young core of players. And so, Al’s done a wonderful job, he really has.
“The future is not only promising in and around the Major League level, but at all levels of our Minor League system. This last Draft, we added to it in a great way. I think Al has done a great job, and he’ll continue to execute his vision. I think we all realize that we’re in a performance-based business. We need to continue seeing progress. He acknowledges that. I acknowledge that. Our players, our manager, we all do, and we’re seeing great progress, and we’re excited about it.”
More on Hamtramck Stadium
Tuesday’s ceremony was the culmination of a long process to save one of just a handful of Negro League ballparks still standing. As many as 17 future Hall of Famers played at the park, including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Turkey Stearnes, whose children were at the ceremony. The park opened in 1930 but has gone largely unused since the late 1990s.
“Restoring this historic ballpark is about restoring hope,” Ilitch said. “It’s a commitment we are making to the young players in this community, that this is a game that is accessible to all, and a commitment to those that played before us that their history and contributions to the game of baseball matter and will never be forgotten. Beyond restoring the grandstand, the roof, concrete, steel, we will expand our recognition of the Negro Leagues as well as support youth clinics and camps at this site. We look forward to bringing Tigers players, coaches and colleagues here to inspire and teach young players.”
The $2.6 million restoration project includes the renovation of the stadium grandstands. Work is expected to be completed this year. In addition to an $850,000 grant from the Wayne County Commission, the project includes funding from the Detroit Tigers Foundation, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, Michigan Municipal League Foundation, the Hamtramck Parks Conservancy and an African-American Civil Rights grant administered by the National Park Service.