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Ilitch likes Tigers' plan: 'A year of growth'

Gardenhire, GM Avila endorsed by owner in Spring Training visit
@beckjason
March 2, 2019

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Tigers chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch made his annual Spring Training visit on Saturday and noted the progress he saw, from the structure at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium and TigerTown to the players who were using it. He also gave votes of confidence to the

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Tigers chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch made his annual Spring Training visit on Saturday and noted the progress he saw, from the structure at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium and TigerTown to the players who were using it. He also gave votes of confidence to the general manager and manager.

"I want to see our team be a great team, a playoff team and ultimately a championship team," Ilitch said. "And I think the key for all of us is to make sure we're very disciplined and following the right path to that success. And I think we're doing exactly that. ... I'm optimistic and excited for this season. I think it's going to be a year of growth."

That sentiment would seem to bode well for Tigers GM Al Avila and manager Ron Gardenhire, both of whom are under contract through next season. While Ilitch said he has not talked with Avila about a contract extension, he indicated that conversation is coming.

"I feel Al's doing an excellent job," Ilitch said. "He has painted a vision and he is executing on that vision, executing that plan despite what I would say is a more challenging environment than maybe 10 or 15 years ago trying to do this same type of thing, based on the dynamics within the league. Al's doing a great job. I'm thrilled with the job he's doing."

Of an Avila extension, Ilitch said, "We haven't had that discussion. We will at some point. I'm not concerned about it. I don't think he's concerned about it. We have an excellent working relationship. We'll have that at some point."

Within that same discussion, Ilitch pivoted to praise for Gardenhire while hinting he'd like the veteran manager to see the rebuild through.

"I have a lot of respect for the work he's done," Ilitch said. "It's very hard work, but I told him this morning I really appreciate his passion for teaching and making sure that our team plays fundamentally sound, and that is so important in the future for our organization. He's very committed to it. He's very passionate about it. And I'm excited that we're starting to see progress throughout our entire organization.

"Gardy and Al and I all spoke this morning, and we agree there's forward and upward momentum," Ilitch said. "I'm excited for him, because it's hard work and I think ultimately it's going to pay dividends. I'd be very excited for him to lead a highly competitive team, a playoff caliber team, a championship caliber team at some point in the future."

Ilitch addressed a wide range of topics in a 15-minute session with reporters. Among them:

• Ilitch said the organization is still exploring the launch of a regional sports network for the Tigers and Red Wings while noting they're tracking the status of Fox Sports Detroit, currently up for sale. "We're doing a lot of legwork on that front," he said, "and I think that picture will become even clearer as Disney proceeds through the sale of all of the RSNs that they're in the process of selling. So we're wired in. We're working it. And I think it'll be very insightful once we see how Disney proceeds with the sale."

• Ilitch hinted the Tigers could re-enter the free-agent market as the Tigers get closer to contention with a young core: "First and foremost, we're laser-focused on building a young solid core. And we have invested heavily in analytics and in scouting and in player development. And I think we're all starting to see that starting to pay dividends. You can start to see signs of that at every level of the organization and demonstrated progress. And certainly as we feel we've assembled that young core, we'll continue to bring the resources that we need to into this ballclub and this organization to successfully execute our plan. So I'm excited and optimistic about the direction that this ballclub is headed."

• Asked whether the Tigers could increase payroll in that process, Ilitch said, "The best way I can answer that question is by telling you and our fans that we're going to do exactly what we've continued to do. We're going to bring the resources to our ballclub that we need to successfully compete and accomplish the goals that we set for ourselves, which is to be not only a playoff team, but we want to build a championship club. I'll leave it at that."

• Ilitch said no changes to Comerica Park are imminent as the ballpark enters its 20th season as the Tigers' home. "I think it's like any of our venues," he said. "We're always thinking about what we can do to enhance the environment of the venue for the fans as well as for our players. You look at this complex, this venue, I think it's a great example of doing really thoughtful planning, developing a great plan and then executing the plan and the impact it has, not only on fans but on all the stakeholders who use the facility -- our players, our staff, everyone involved. We're really doing the same thing at Comerica Park. There's no timetable."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.