LAKELAND, Fla. -- Tigers chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch made his way around Detroit’s clubhouse at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium on Friday morning, crisscrossing the room at times as he traversed the different groups. He shook hands and talked with familiar faces Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris and Jordan Zimmermann at the veteran starters’ wing. He said hello to Detroit’s top prospects Matt Manning (No. 2) and Casey Mize (No. 1) at one end. He waited for a reporter to finish talking with Niko Goodrum to see how the shortstop was doing. He greeted Miguel Cabrera to check in on the slugger.
• Here are the Tigers’ 2020 Top 30 Prospects
Ilitch walked into Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire’s office and, with the skipper’s encouragement, asked Detroit general manager Al Avila if he’d be seeing Riley Greene, Detroit’s No. 3 prospect. Soon after, Greene was added to the list of players called over from Minor League camp as extras for Friday afternoon’s game, a 5-4 loss to the Blue Jays.
Ilitch stood behind the cage during batting practice to watch the retinkered lineup. He sat behind home plate as Mize threw a 1-2-3 eighth inning in his second appearance of the spring. Through all the stops, Ilitch caught the intersection of present and future. The short-term outlook appears to be better than it was last year, when the Tigers lost 114 games. The long-term plan looks to be on track, but the future can’t get here soon enough.
“I believe in the process,” Ilitch said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but we will get there. We know how to win. We have rebuilt the Tigers successfully before, and we're going to do it again. We're going to do whatever it takes to do it again. And I think having lived through it before, having lived through it in a different sport [via his his ownership of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings], these things are on their own timetable sometimes. A lot of factors, as you know, go into it.
“Al and I were just watching batting practice and we were commenting, ‘This guy’s filled out. This guy’s got more power than last year.’ And it's just exciting to see the development of our young prospects and where it’s all headed.”
If all goes as intended, the Tigers are headed for a time when they’ll have a young core on a club that is ready to contend. And when that core is ready, Ilitch said, Detroit will be prepared to spend for free agents to complement them.
"We talk short-term plan, long-term plan,” Ilitch said. “When Al and I feel the time is right, Al is going to have the resources to go out and sign the free agents that he needs to add around our homegrown base and core of talent. That day will come and we'll be ready for it."
Other topics addressed by Ilitch in his 20-minute media session:
Supporting the scouts
Two years ago, when the Tigers last had the top pick in the MLB Draft, Ilitch sat in on scouting meetings in Lakeland, Fla., and attended one of Mize’s starts when the right-hander’s Auburn squad faced Florida in Gainesville. This time around, Ilitch again plans to take an active interest.
“I'll never forget it. One of the older scouts on our staff came up to me after [the Draft meetings]. He said, you know, I've been in baseball 35 years. Never have I seen ownership in any of these meetings,’” Ilitch said.
“He says, ‘Why are you here?’ And I said, ‘You know, I'm here because you guys have the most important jobs in the entire organization to build long-term sustainable success.’ We don't want to be good once. We want to be good year after year. And we're going to need waves of prospects coming up and fighting for positions as Major Leaguers over the course of time.”
The value of homegrown stars
Ilitch watched the Tigers on a day when budding Blue Jays star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made the trip from Dunedin, and a question followed: Do the Tigers need a young, homegrown star to emerge for fans to latch onto?
“There's no doubt about it. I think the fans, they want to see stars, and even better when they're homegrown stars,” Ilitch said. “And so, if we can see some of our young prospects develop into stars, it's going to be very, very exciting.
“Fans want to see stars. It's great if we can continue to grow our own stars. And then, like I said, at the right time, we'll fill in with free agents, probably add more stars, be at that avenue at the right time.”
A new TV deal?
With the Tigers’ television deal set to expire in the next couple years, Ilitch praised their relationship with Fox Sports Detroit, recently purchased by Sinclair Broadcasting, while noting the team will continue to explore the possibility of its own network for the Tigers and Red Wings.
“We've had a great relationship with Fox Sports for many years and we enjoy a good relationship with Sinclair now,” Ilitch said. “I think, as you know, we are exploring the merits of a new network and the benefits that could offer to our team and to the community and to our fans. And so, we're still studying that.
“Live television, I should say live sports, is still the most compelling programming across not only TV, but digital platforms. And so we're giving a real hard look at it. I don't have anything to report to you now, but our work's ongoing.”
Staying the course
“You know, I am a very competitive person,” Ilitch said. “My father was an exceptionally competitive person, and the apple has not fallen far from the tree. I am more inward in my reaction. You really won't see it, but the fire is burning inside. And having said that, I'm also an exceptionally disciplined person. I'm very disciplined in how I go about my business, in my career and in managing all of the businesses that I have to manage. And discipline is important. It's not always easy, though, because we all want to get there as fast as possible.
“But I think -- I don't think, I know -- we are building this the right way. And I know that because I lived it, and lived it through the Red Wings years, lived it at the beginning of this century with the Tigers. And we're trying to do it again. And you know what? We will do it again, and we're going to be successful. But we'll just keep working away at it and be patient and be disciplined, and we're going to get there. It's not easy. And I know it's not easy on our fans either. And I like I said earlier. I understand that.”
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.