LOYALTY RUNNING ITS COURSE

By:  Kurt Snyder

Scan the news. Go ahead do it. Maybe you already have.

Maybe you, too, have been in search of an opinion or some sort of encouraging word that professes that the 2019 season will be different from the last.

But even the most enthusiastic of fans have a hard time believing that it will. They are waiting.

They are waiting for that return of the days when the signings begin. Waiting for the big blockbuster trade. The kind they have grown accustomed to over the last decade of Tiger baseball.

It’s hard to wrap your heads around it, isn’t it? That Tiger baseball has come to this. That a complete rebuild would be the only course of action.

The Ilitch family has taken the Tiger fan base on a whirlwind tour of emotions. There have been long stretches during the longest rollercoaster ride even ridden.

Upon the purchase of the Tigers in the early 90’s, Mike Ilitch did little with the team; they languished at the bottom of the league for over a decade, with fans wondering where all of this was headed.

Questions about the priority of the Tigers during a time when the Red Wings were doing so well, dominated most of our opinions.

But when you fast forward from then to now, the dynamic of the ownership of this team has taken a dramatic turn. And we have to decide if the shift we are experiencing is acceptable.

The Mike Ilitch ownership was driven by the love of competition, it just took a while to gain success. And until we sit in that driver’s seat, it’s difficult to understand why it would take someone so long to realize that a jumpstart of sorts would be required.

Why did it take so long for Mr. I to bring in someone to run his team who had proven success with another franchise? Why did he wait? Well, we learned quite a bit about Mike over the years.

He was extremely loyal and quite patient. And what we might have experienced during the first 12 years or so of his ownership was an owner searching for a map.

It was his dream to own the Tigers. He played in the minor leagues with them. Hockey had dominated everything, but baseball had a special place in his heart. Purchasing the Tigers was a dream come true.

But taking them to another title almost a decade after the last one became a difficult task. A hurdle never eclipsed.

Dave Dombrowski did come along and stabilize the ship, but only after the bank vault opened. Throwing money at the franchise became the new norm. And it worked. It was risky but it worked.

So we thought.

The ship was cruising along at breakneck speed, taking all of us along for the grand tour on the way to the pinnacle of baseball.

So we thought.

Little did we know that the ship had a slow leak that would eventually put a drag on the system until the boat could no longer stay afloat.  Though money was spent on the pretty parts, down below in the minor leagues, less and less was provided.  More and more was taken away.

For 14 seasons, Mike Ilitch rode the wave with Dave Dombrowski. An incredible stretch of loyalty and patience. And when Dave finally said the ship was in trouble, the loyalty ended. The patience? Done. Gone.

We all know this story, but it is still so important to remember how we got to where we are today. Mr. I started anew, promoting Al Avila, still giving him the freedom to continue to spend money on a ship that was still leaking – more and more all the time.

That was the Mike Ilitch ownership. A long stretch of failure, followed by a long stretch of success, only to fall short of the ultimate goal and head back down again.  So when we have been so close, experiencing teams with players who have been among the best in the game, it is difficult to have to head down this path.

The Ilitch loyalty brought us here. It offered us fun and heartbreak. But now that it is back to the drawing board, unnecessary loyalty needed to be scrubbed and examined.

When done right, the progressive steps of a rebuild can be rewarding;  the development of the stars of tomorrow and hopefully, a championship.

But, what we have gleaned from the actions of Chris Ilitch is a perception that he doesn’t have the same drive as his father. He doesn’t have the same passion to win. That is the perception. The zest for that same competitive spirit is not yet evident.

But one thing remains the same. The loyalty.

Keeping Al Avila as his first order of business was blatant and unnecessary loyalty.

We don’t have any idea how long Chris will wait. We don’t have any idea what his motives are for this franchise. We only know that this is still an Ilitch-owned baseball team.  One still yearning for that elusive championship; that taste of success realized so many times on the hockey side of the ledger.

And we will yearn, too. We will wait for some sort of realization that loyalty really isn’t the best of things. Impatience with loyalty must force its way to the top.


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TWO FOR TUESDAY

By:  Holly Horning & Kurt Snyder

Ahh, the Hot Stove League! It’s what keeps the home fires burning in the hearts of baseball fans while they wait out the winter and pray for an early spring.

But how hot will the stove actually be in Detroit this off-season? What is going to keep us excited or at least interested?

As always, our writers have not shared their responses to the topic below in the interests of offering a range of perspectives. So what will readers get today as Holly and Kurt address a question about the Hot Stove League?


Is there any reason for our 2 bloggers to be excited or interested in the moves made by the Tigers during the Hot Stove season?


HOLLY

For the first time in many years, I will be yawning at whatever moves the Tigers make because 2019 is a year in which the intent is to tread water until some farm talent develops. The Tigers just signed 15 former MLB players to fill their farm system and add depth with only 2 of those players having played for major league teams last year.

Other than a continued attempt to trade Nicholas Castellanos- which will only garner a secondary prospect in return – any new players will be stop-gaps signed for a single year.

What I will find much more interesting is watching the seismic shifts going on all over MLB that involve the increased youth movement within Front Offices, the battle over long-term expensive contracts and the increased competitiveness between top teams. This is one of the biggest times for change in baseball and we need to pay attention to what is happening.

Will Manny Machado and Bryce Harper successfully battle the emerging trend of shorter and less-expensive contracts? Will Theo Epstein once again pull a genius move to get his club back on track? Joe Maddon is in his last contract year and the team has stated they have no intent to offer a contract extension this year.

Will the Giants’ analysis of their organization finally influence the Tigers to change their ways? They stole Farhan Zaidi from the arch-rival Dodgers because they said, in an infamous quote, that they looked around the Front Office and only saw “a bunch of middle-aged white men who held old-fashioned ideas about how to build a team and had no diversity of opinion.”

It will be a very interesting off-season – just not for the Tigers.


KURT

The Hot Stove League in itself has always been very interesting until last year when players almost had to beg teams to sign them, but this year most of the intrigue will surround Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

They will command top dollar and we will find out if teams will stick to their guns and spend more rationally or will there be a team or 2 still dumb enough to offer $300-400m for one player.

From the Tiger camp, the Hot Stove League doesn’t stand to be even remotely warm, so the word ‘excitement’ will not come from my lips. Mostly it’s because of the lack of trust in our ownership and management team.

The days of putting together a package of talent and striking a deal that the Tigers actually win, are long gone, or they at least have taken an extended hiatus. Expect more of what we saw during last season’s HSL – more dumping salary, more signing of free agents to 1-year deals and preparing them for trades.

Gone are the days of cutting-edge deals and extravagant signings during the HSL for the Tigers. If nothing else, they were exciting and got you charged up for the coming season. We lived it for a long time and we knew exactly what the Tiger organization was doing – trying to win now.

The biggest difference now is that we don’t really know what they are doing. What will be interesting is trying to decipher if they know, or not.


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A WORK OF ART

Today we pause to acknowledge all who have served in the military, and respect their tremendous sacrifice. As we break, take another look at a blog from just a couple of weeks ago, about our great game and all that it offers.

Totally Tigers

By:  Kurt Snyder

The game within the game.

Those who follow baseball use the phrase more than fans of other sports.

Baseball is the only game without a clock, but time restrictions are beginning to force their way in, to speed up play, and it threatens the uniqueness of the game.

I find it interesting how fans can look at the routine of a hitter at the plate or a pitcher on the mound and determine what isn’t necessary and only prolongs the game.

How do we know?

We don’t.

I believe we are naïve to think that anything that takes extra time between pitches is unnecessary when the mental part of the game plays such a huge role.

It must. As a hitter, you have a fraction of a second to determine whether to swing or not, and it demands a strategy. You need a routine. You need time…

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CLUES TO USE

As we have recognized those who have served this country, let’s revisit an earlier blog that we can also use as a guide to help decipher the recent MLB meetings in California. Did the Tigers reveal some clues this week?

Totally Tigers

By:  Holly Horning

The 2018 season is over – for the Tigers, that is.

Or is it?

While there were few surprises this year, this off-season may prove to be the most interesting time because it will give us some clues as to where the Tigers are headed – or not. And it will be based upon the moves they make – or don’t.

How busy will they be?

Will they make any trades?

How successful will they be in trading some of the more expensive players? How will they treat the arbitration eligible players?

Will there be changes in the Front Office?

Will the analytics department continue to grow?

Will we finally see new doctors, trainers and conditioning coaches?

Or will we see the same old, same old?

Two years ago, Al Avila said the rebuild would be around 3 years. Last year, it would be more like five…

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THE SATURDAY SURVEY

 For the off-season, in the interests of mixing things up, we have introduced another way for readers to weigh in.   So here is another poll to gauge the pulse of our baseball-lovin’ peeps.

As always, we welcome your comments, so please vote and then submit your reasons for how you voted in the usual comment box.



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TWICE AS NICE

By:  Kurt Snyder & Holly Horning

Our writers address another topic today. And it is in reference to their most tradeable and talented player. Of course, his future with the team is in question and our question will address a popular topic.

As always, our writers have not shared their responses to the topic below in the interests of offering a wide range of perspectives. So what will readers get today as Kurt and Holly address a question about Nicholas Castellanos?


The Tigers have confirmed that they will not be moving Nick Castellanos to first base and will keep him in RF. Did they make the right decision?


KURT

It’s my impression, and it is shared by many, that Nick Castellanos will not survive this rebuild in Detroit. At most, 2019 will be his last season with the Tigers. So how does the team preserve his value or perhaps increase it?

Well, it does not include spending any time playing first base. On one hand, many would think the Tigers could increase his value by making him become more versatile defensively. But we are talking about a player whose defensive abilities are his biggest challenge, and having him spend any time at a new position at this juncture won’t be good for anyone.

He has improved as an outfielder since he first trotted out there, but his defensive ceiling is not high. In fact, he is just about ready to bump his head. And that translates to a slightly less than average outfielder.

Moving him around from position to position has only showed the Tigers and the league in general his continued deficiencies and his overall weakness. The best thing for him and the team is for him to become the best right fielder he can be and continue to rise among the ranks of the best hitters in the game.


HOLLY

Whether the decision is right or wrong depends upon whether the Tigers are finally going to be successful in trading Nick.

Unfortunately, when they drafted him, there was never a clear-cut strategy about how to use Nick. He started as a SS, moved to 3B, then LF when Fielder was signed, moved back to 3B and finally ended up in RF. He probably would never have developed into a strong defender, but the constant position shuffling did a certain amount of damage to his defensive development.

So now the Tigers have a choice of either trying to shore up their outfield especially if Christin Stewart is going to man LF or enhance their chances of trading Nick for some badly needed prospects. Talk about your “Sophie’s choice.”

The other fly in the ointment is the need to appease their most expensive player, Miguel Cabrera, who has stated that he dislikes the DH role and wants to play a position on a regular basis.

Moving Nick to 1B is a risky strategy considering that the learning curve will be increased. But then, the Tigers have no one who can take over in RF and would have to shop for a stop-gap player. And should he flounder at 1B, his trade value will increasingly drop.


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SINKING SHIP OR SEEKING NEW OPPORTUNITIES?

By:  Holly Horning

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the clues that would start to appear over the winter. Clues that would tell us in which direction the Tigers were headed. Clues that would tell us more about whether the team was simply tearing down, rebuilding or getting ready for a sale.


https://totallytigers.wordpress.com/2018/10/21/clues-to-use/


And less than a week after the World Series concluded, we have our first ones.

Al Avila’s top 2 lieutenants, David Chadd and Dave Littlefield are interviewing for positions with other teams.

These are the guys who are in charge of implementing Avila’s rebuilding vision and plans.

Granted, it’s always good to be ambitious and want to elevate your professional standing. But in this particular case, and during this particular time, it’s a little curious.

In MLB, a team has to grant another team permission to interview an employee. For years, both Mr. I and Dave Dombrowski refused other teams’ requests to talk employment with Tigers’ employees. But now, things have changed.

Normally, it wouldn’t be suspicious if one executive became a candidate for a position. But two of them? Two of the top 3 executives? More than likely, something is going on.

Especially when you consider that both Daves have interviewed for GM positions with two of the most dysfunctional organizations in MLB. The Mets and Orioles. Littlefield was turned down by NY, btw.

It’s one thing to seek employment. It’s another when you are willing to leave the familiar and take on the chaos and less-than-ideal working conditions of another organization.

The Orioles in particular. A once-proud team with the owner’s sons now running the business and universally described as clueless. A team in which their former GM, Dan Duqette, tried to escape his contract and flee to Toronto several years ago until the owner went to court to force him back. And his manager, Buck Showalter, also tried to find a legal way to exit.

I mean, has this ever happened with another team? It’s really bad when it comes down to this.

There has to be a compelling reason for both VPs, not just one, who are willing to jump ship into these uncertain and troubled waters.

It’s not likely that they are being pushed out given their long history, going back decades with both Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila. And they have instrumental roles in helping Al rebuild the roster. Avila would not put himself in this position at this time, jeopardizing his own job as well.

It’s probably more likely that they want to flee. The question to ask is why?

Do they simply not want to be part of the rebuilding process?

Do they see the resources and talent currently available and believe they will not be able to meet the goals of becoming competitive for quite a while?

Are they unhappy with the rebuilding plan?

Do they see Al Avila as GM-for-life with no upward career path for them?

Do they believe that Al Avila’s contract will not be renewed in less than the 2 years remaining so they are looking for new opportunities now?

Are they unhappy with the organization ever since Mr. I passed and Dave Dombrowski (their long-time boss) left?

Has Chris Ilitch asked them to make significant cuts to their departments that will make their jobs harder to do?

Or do they see signs that the team will be sold in the near future and a new owner will bring in his own people to replace them?

There has to be some compelling reason for them to find it desirable to desert one ship for another that is having visible problems.

This is the first time we have experienced anyone within the Tigers’ organization wanting to leave voluntarily. The Tigers  tend to offer lifetime employment as we painfully know.

But if you believe this is a good thing that may be happening, be careful for what you wish. Is it better to keep those veteran executives in their positions or potentially promote their underlings into jobs where their first test is the most challenging?

The Tigers rarely bring in outsiders and it is unlikely that Chris Ilitch would expend the vast amount of money it takes to find, recruit, interview, hire and train to fill these positions.

What we do know is that the entire Front Office has 1 – 1.5 years left to prove that they can show measurable progress in rebuilding the team. If that is indeed the goal.


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MAKING THINGS NEW

By:  Kurt Snyder

What do the Tigers have to offer fans in 2019? What will make them come to Comerica Park?

The team will be up against it this season. There will be no number retirements and no milestone anniversaries of past champions to celebrate. These were the highlights sprinkled amongst the rubble of a team in a deep rebuild.

The ugly part. The dismantling part. The part that will continue for another year. This makes 2019 even tougher for a franchise that will struggle to fill the seats.

Attendance should be expected to take an even deeper hit than it took in 2018. Miggy’s return could help a tad, but unless he comes in and turns back the pages to his dominant years, don’t expect one player, even if he is the franchise player, to move the needle.

It all comes down to winning. The Tiger fan base is not interested in watching the phases of a rebuild. They would rather fast forward to the winning. And I guess you could say that for all of us. We are all impatient.

On the other hand, while we wait, there is something appealing about a team that is starting over, and has made strategic moves within their ownership or front office staff. There is something appealing about an established plan, and then watching the execution. And, of course, it’s also appealing to hear of a philosophical change as part of the rebuild.

In the end, isn’t a rebuild the result of a failed philosophy? Or isn’t it at least a major part of the reason? Typically, that new philosophy would drive changes in organizational structure; new people with fresh ideas. New people not set in their ways who bring open-mindedness to the process and are not resistant to change.

Talent and roster aside, it’s what rebuild normally means. It’s what a rebuild requires.

Sorry, but none of this has happened in Detroit. There has been little restructuring and no established (or publicized) plan as they address the rebuild.

Much of what we talk about in preparation for the coming season will weigh heavily towards speculation. Because every move cannot be taken at face value. We will always have one ear to the wall of the same old people in charge of making things new.

But are they making things new? Are old resources in the executive ranks, the same who have failed to reach the ultimate goal, capable of making things new and fresh?  Reaction to changes made by those same people will be guarded, at best.

Ron Gardenhire just recently spoke out about how this team should be built. They ought to be built for their large park; the very same thing baseball fans in Detroit have been talking about since 2000. But it came from the manager during a casual conversation.

Did we hear Al Avila proclaim that finally, the philosophy will be to build the team around the park? No, sir. It was an off-the-cuff statement from the manager, speaking from experience.

We don’t know what to look forward to in 2019. We only know what hasn’t changed. We only know that there are individuals in the front office still influencing the next move. Translation: Holding the franchise back.

We can look forward to the continued development of the young players who had their first real experience playing over the course of a 162 game schedule. We will look forward to stop-gap free agents arriving to hopefully become trade pieces in July and to September to see some more new faces who have impressed in the minors all season.

Sound familiar? It’s what we did in 2018. And if that is part of the process, fine. But with no confidence in the people in charge, continued confusion and pessimism will reign.

Pessimism because the rebuild has skipped important steps. Rebuilding the organization before building the team was very critical.

If it just meant that the process will now take longer because of it, that would be putting it very simply. But it is so much more than that. Skipping that step will render the rebuild impossible.

Chris Ilitch may wake up one day and realize that there was no way of rebuilding without addressing his executive staff. And when he realizes it, things will start over.

If the proper steps are then taken, those new people will change direction, making everything they just did a complete waste of time.

From a Tiger standpoint, and the rebuilding process they have chosen, this may just be the ‘waste of time’ phase.

Give us strength.


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MANAGING THE MANAGERS

By:  Holly Horning

We are now living in an era where the game of baseball is changing and evolving more rapidly than ever. From all of the new stats that more accurately describe the value and habits of a player to the analytics departments that churn out information and strategy.

And it’s that latter group which has impacted the role of the manager. They, too, are changing before our eyes.

The older managers who worked their way up through the minor leagues are becoming extinct. Replaced by guys who are much younger and only just recently retired from playing the game. Their post-playing resumes are rather short but almost all of them have a coaching background of some kind within MLB. (Not to be confused with a certain manager who had no managing background whatsoever when he was hired the first time.)

In most cases, one would believe that these new managers should have much more extensive managing backgrounds. But some of the most successful ones this year don’t. Alex Cora – 1 year as Houston’s bench coach. Aaron Boone – no managerial or coaching experience but he comes from baseball royalty and grew up watching his dad manage in MLB.

Gabe Kapler is also one of those “new guys” who came from the Front Office, not the dugout.

It appears that everything about the managerial role is changing.

Not so long ago, the manager was the top dog in charge of everything that happened in the clubhouse, in the dugout and on the playing field. And he was paid handsomely to do so. Approximately 5 years ago, the average skipper’s salary per year was approximately $3 mill.

Today, there are only 4 out of 30 managers who make more than $1.5 mill – Bruce Bochy, Terry Francona, Joe Maddon and Don Mattingly. Two others, Mike Scioscia and Buck Showalter, were also in that group until just several weeks ago. On average, they were each making $4 – $6 million per year.

If you take those salaries away, the average managerial salary today is less than $1 million per year.

So what’s going on?

Their job description is being dumbed down in many cases.

Most MLB teams are removing much of the power and influence assigned to managers and putting it elsewhere. To be exact, the power and decision-making is shifting to the Front Office.

Manager payroll is being slashed with the savings being plugged into the analytics department for new hires, software development and hi-tech tools. Front Offices are expanding and increasingly taking over more and more of the decision-making and strategies that used to be made in the dugout.

And the manager now is expected to buy in and communicate the information and behavior suggested by the analytics department. They are more like a conduit now instead of the conductor. In other words, the manager has evolved from Patton to puppet with the Front Office pulling the strings.

Today’s new skipper has the primary role of communicating, convincing and cajoling the team to follow the Front Office’s suggestions for how to play.

Increasingly, organizations have placed a bigger emphasis on hiring managers who are great communicators and “people persons.” Guys who can foster good will and team play while inspiring players to give their best. And the decision to select someone who is young and not far removed from his playing career is intentional. He and his players can more easily identify with each other.

Out of the current 29 teams with managers, one is in his 30’s. Almost half of the skippers are in their 40’s. Nine others are in their early 50’s and the remaining 7 are in their early 60’s. Gone are the days when having a crusty curmudgeon equaled credibility.

One of the best examples of these trends is the Yankees decision to not renew Joe Girardi’s contract last year despite his formidable success record. The Front Office thought him to be too old school and not as user-friendly. His replacement, Aaron Boone, is a modern guy with one foot in the baseball world and the other in broadcasting. He was deemed to be the perfect mouthpiece for the organization in both accepting and relaying analytics while forging bonds with players.

And the youth movement is also happening within the Front Offices. General managers and Presidents of Baseball Operations are increasingly younger. Stats that show that just over half of them are in their 30’s and 40’s while most of them now do not come from the baseball world but from academia and business.

But interestingly enough, baseball fans are skewing older. Will they continue to identify with how the game is changing? Is this one of the reasons why baseball saw an overall decrease in attendance this year?

MLB has reached a solution in how to connect management and players more effectively. Now they have to work on connecting better with the fans.


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LEARNING FROM A CHAMPION

By:   Kurt Snyder

When a season ends and a champion is crowned, copycat season often begins.

In 2017, the Houston Astros put a bow on their rebuild with the final destination, a World Championship. They did it primarily through the draft and then spent when it was time,  then spending would help put them over the top. But their core had been established. They had drafted remarkably well and other teams have now made them their model for success.

But what about this year’s champion? Are the Red Sox a model for success? Can just any team look at them and decide, yes, if we follow their model, we have a shot at duplicating their success?

Well, when it comes to the Red Sox or even the Dodgers whom they defeated in the World Series, these are big time, freewheeling, free spending juggernauts of the game. They represent the cream of the crop. Big market teams with big market dollars.

And although there was still plenty of homegrown talent, much of their core was supplemented with expensive free agents. And if they weren’t free agent signings, they acquired high-end talent in exchange for high-end minor league prospects; something Boston’s Dave Dombrowski has practiced often and in doing so has made a name for himself – Trader Dave.

But, teams still searching for that championship, along with teams in the midst of a rebuild, have an obligation to look at recent champions and see what they did, how they build and what they built their team around.

There is always the emphasis on fundamentals. You build with pitching, speed and defense. On-base percentage has been a huge stat now as teams look at analytics and every potential intangible a player has that can help them gain an advantage.

But in the end, what do champions always seem to have? Well, they are relentless hard workers who give a tremendous effort. Is that enough? Well, it is a great place to start without question.

In baseball, teams can work their tails off but talent eventually shines through or the lack of it eventually drags teams down.

Teams that win championships are relentless at taking advantage. They are opportunistic, always looking for an edge; an opportunity to win the little battles.

But the icing on the cake, especially this season was quite obvious. The Red Sox were a true team. A group of guys who genuinely enjoyed each other, were excited to share in the success.  They had built a family-like atmosphere.

Do general managers consider fit when they draft, when they make trades or when they sign a free agent? Are players just expected to get along? Is it on the manager to take a group of professionals and build the bond?

It’s hard to know. It has to be difficult enough for a  GM and his scouts to find talent that will fit the park they are going to play in and fill the needs where the team may be lacking. But can they possibly make a decision based on their potential fit with the other players?

To me, it’s not possible, or at least very difficult.   You can check a player’s background for any previous behavioral issues, but that’s about it.

That’s where the manager has to perform his magic. It’s when a team finds out what they have in a leader. Can he not only build a bond with his players, but can he foster that bond between his players. Team sports are exactly that.

It is often said that a team cannot win with a bunch of individuals. They must win as one. Even losing as one builds a tighter bond for the future.

In Detroit, the Tigers appeared to have a team that was quite tight in 2018. They appeared to have a bond and genuinely enjoyed playing with and for each other. You could see it.

And much of that, if not all of it, was due to the efforts and tutelage of Ron Gardenhire. But Gardy was brought in for this type of situation. He was brought in because he had experience in getting the most out of players, maximizing potential and getting players to play for each other, especially during a rebuild.

Someday, the Tigers will gather enough talent to compete again. Players will come and go and before you know it we will have a whole new mix and a whole new core.  However, they could be very talented but with no real bond between the players.

I think we have experienced that before and it became the downfall of what was a very talented team.

So who will be our Alex Cora when it becomes time to bond the team that has been formed? That’s a question for years down the road, but it is just one more reminder that talent alone can’t win it. You need great effort and a willingness to play for each other.


Totally Tigers loves your comments!  But please remember that responses are only published if they address today’s topic, are respectful and do not exceed the maximum 3-4 sentence response length.  All rules are at:  https://totallytigers.wordpress.com/commentsrules/.