Ilitch willing to spend to get best players
DETROIT -- The placard on the podium at the Tiger Club was the first sign of Mike Ilitch's presence Monday, denoting the spot for the Tigers owner as right-handed pitcher Jordan Zimmermann was introduced.
By the end of Monday's news conference announcing Zimmermann's five-year, $110 million contract, the placard was unnecessary. It was Zimmermann's welcome to Detroit, but it was also Ilitch's return to center stage. From Monday's signing to the rest of the Tigers' already busy offseason, Ilitch's point was clear: At age 86, he still wants to win, and he's still pushing to do it.
"That's all I think about," Ilitch said. "It's something that I really want. I want it bad. We're doing everything we can to make sure we get as many of the best ballplayers out there."
According to Tigers general manager Al Avila, Ilitch was aware of the club's interest in Zimmermann from the outset. He dropped in on the season-ending organizational meetings with scouts, advisors and analysts, and saw the names of free-agent pitchers listed on their board. Zimmermann, Avila said, was the Tigers' top target.
"It's very rare when you say to the owner, 'This is the guy we're trying to get,' and then you end up getting him," Avila said. "It's a pretty good feeling. Thanks to Mr. Ilitch, we were able to do that."
Zimmermann became the latest example of Ilitch investing big-market dollars, from last November's contract extension for Victor Martinez to previous extensions for Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. Zimmermann marks the Tigers' largest contract to bring in a free agent since Detroit signed Prince Fielder in 2012 (nine years, $214 million).
Each of those deals came with heavy involvement from Ilitch.
"I've been in baseball for a lot of years, and I don't care about spending money," said Ilitch. "They get the players, and I spend and I don't worry about it, because they have good judgment. We've had good teams over the years, and it's a lot of fun for me."
After a last-place finish in 2015, which Ilitch called a "goofy year," the push continues. The Zimmermann deal pushed the Tigers' payroll over the $140 million mark, with more offseason dealings and arbitration cases to go.
"This year, I like the way Al and [manager Brad Ausmus] are going after everything," Ilitch said. "I'm telling them, 'You have to go out and get me the best players. I don't care about the money. I want the best players, and that's it.'
"Al works real, real hard. He's got a good reputation, he's well-liked, he has a lot of contacts in baseball [after] 25 years in the game. He's digging all the time. There are some things that I want to see after, let's say, this meeting right here. Where are we at right now? Who are we after now?"
Though Ilitch suggested he'd be willing to enter luxury tax territory -- a mark they reached in 2008 -- if that's what it takes to get the players they want, Avila made it clear he won't spend endlessly. They'll look to add another starting pitcher, but more of a back-end option at a lower contract, along with a reliever.
"Mr. Ilitch has been informed and is on board with pretty much the whole process," Avila said. "And at the end of the day, before we make a trade, before we sign a free-agent pitcher like Jordan, [Mr. Ilitch is] the one that gives the final approval to move forward."
Avila took over as general manager in August, replacing Dave Dombrowski. Monday marked Ilitch's first media availability since that move and, aside from a statement at the time, his first public comments on why he decided to part ways with Dombrowski after 14 years.
Dombrowski's contract was set to expire at season's end. It was clear to both sides, Ilitch suggested, that it would not be renewed.
"He knew he wasn't getting a contract," Ilitch said. "That's all there was to it, because I didn't win with him. We were close. He's a great guy. But you know, there's times you've got to change. If you're not winning, you've got to change. So I made up my mind: I've got to change. So I called him and I told him like a gentleman."
Dombrowski was hired two weeks later by the Red Sox as the club's president of baseball operations.