Once Upon A Time, Harper, Machado Could Have Been Tigers

For now, Mercer and Harrison will have to do.

Jamie and Stoney
March 01, 2019 - 3:40 pm

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To no one's surprise, the Tigers were bystanders in the bidding wars for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The organization is rebuilding and its free-spending ways are a thing of the past. 

While the Padres handed $300 million to Manny Machado and the Phillies gave $330 million to Bryce Harper, Al Avila and the Tigers invested a combined ... $7.25 million in Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison. In Detroit, big game hunting has become bargain hunting. 

Avila made it clear the organization was headed in this direction in the 2016-17 offseason. The Tigers couldn't continue to spend above their means. They had to pare payroll and restock their farm system. When owner Mike Ilitch passed away that winter, it all became real.

Two years later, here we are. 

Were Ilitch still around, there's a good chance things would look mighty different. Harper or Machado on the Tigers? It's certainly possible. 

"I think at least the Tigers would have been involved in the bidding in a pretty serious way," MLB insider Jon Morosi told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket. 

"Of course, I think the other part of that sentence, and it’s maybe understood as being part of the context, is that maybe if Mr. I were still alive they would have made different decisions in the last year or so," Morosi added. "Maybe they would have continued with a lot of the investing in free agents and they would be closer to being able to win now than they are at the moment." 

Every year from 2007-17, the Tigers had one of the 10 highest payrolls in baseball, via USA Today. They ranked within the top five every year from 2012-17. Ilitch spent lavishly in free agency, scoffing at the luxury tax as he splurged for the likes of Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton. 

“It might sound silly,” Ilitch said after the Zimmermann signing in 2015, “but I don’t care about spending money. I want to get as many good players out there as possible." 

And remember what he said the same day about that big, bad luxury tax? 

"I'm supposed to be a good boy and not go over it, but if I think there are certain players that could help us a lot, I'll go over it. Oops, I shouldn't have said that." 

Talk about different times. 

"The Tigers were really a unique team in the game," Morosi said. "They operated out of their own weight class, if you will, because of what Mr. I wanted to do and his commitment to the city. I still think when the time is right they’ll spend again.

"But Mike Ilitch was a special owner in the history of sports in our country -- not just our city, but our country. And I do believe that if the Tigers were still being guided by his quest to win a World Series and his demonstrated desire to spend well beyond what the market suggests, they may well have been involved there in the bidding for Harper and Machado." 

So, when might the Tigers dip back into their pockets? Avila said earlier this offseason that 2021 makes sense.  It's when Zimmermann's contract comes off the books and when several young players should be ready to make an impact at the big-league level. Avila said his new boss, Chris Ilitch, is already on board. 

(In case you're curious, here are 10 free agents the Tigers could target.)

"I do believe under Chris Ilitch the Tigers will spend in a big way, just maybe a bit more strategically than what was the case under his father," said Morosi. "The Tigers, right now, are certainly assembling draft picks and approaching things that way. I think when the time is right to spend, they’ll spend. We’ve seen that even the last couple years.

"I think that they'll be a competitive team this year, but the playoffs probably around 2021 is a more realistic timeline." 

If that timeline holds up, free agency might feel a bit like the old days. Unfortunately, there probably won't be a talent like Harper or Machado on the market.