On a summer night downtown, Fifth Third Field carries the same place-to-be feel as ever.
“It’s like Toledo is built around baseball,” said Mud Hens first baseman Jordan Lennerton.
Last year, according to a study by Scarborough Research, 26 percent of adults in the Toledo metro area attended a Hens game — a market share surpassed in all of professional sports by only 10 major league baseball clubs. This season, some 550,000 fans are likely to visit the 8,943-seat ballpark.
Seven years after the Hens won their second straight Governors’ Cup and became kings of Triple-A, it is as if nothing has changed.
Except for one thing: the winning.
The Tigers’ rise into a World Series contender with staying power has had the opposite effect on their top affiliate.
As the Hens head toward a fourth straight losing season, their struggles offer an inside look at the temperamental cycle of a minor-league club — and why, through it all, Toledo’s partnership with Detroit remains unshaken.
The Tigers have gone for broke through trades and mega-deals to field a veteran winner, which in turn has weakened their farm system — one insider ranks it the worst in baseball — and made it difficult to sign top minor-league free agents who see little opportunity to break into the big leagues in Detroit. All the while, new limits on the bonus money teams can pay draft selections mean the Tigers can no longer offset the loss of picks with aggressive spending.
The result is a wild ride in Toledo, where the Hens this year achieved the near-mathematically impossible distinction of falling 17 games out of first place in a four-team division by May 12.
Although they have shown a burst of life lately with 12 wins in their last 16 games, the Hens remain in last place with a 32-44 record, on course to decline for the sixth straight season.
“If our fans are frustrated and we’re frustrated, you can ramp that up 10 levels for the Tigers.” Mud Hens president and general manager Joe Napoli said before the club’s recent streak.
It is among the reasons Napoli values the Hens’ enduring affiliation with Detroit.
The clubs have been together 27 years — the International League’s second-longest union behind the Pawtucket Red Sox’s 44-year run with Boston — and both sides know they have it good.
Each offseason, they sit back and watch a game of musical chairs unfold as big-league clubs and their independently owned farm teams divorce in search of greener diamonds elsewhere. The Mets, for instance, have bounced their Triple-A club over the last eight years from Norfolk, Va., to New Orleans to Buffalo to Las Vegas. Their reputation as difficult partners has left the franchise’s top prospects playing at an old desert ballpark with no indoor batting cages.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland recalled when the Pirates were affiliated with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders.
“We’d call a guy up, and you might not see him for a week and a half,” said Leyland, who managed Pittsburgh from 1986 to 1996. “And as bad as we were, he might not want to come up.”
The Mud Hens and Tigers have just the opposite: a marriage of proximity and, by all accounts, mutual respect.
The Tigers appear to be giving Toledo an honest effort. Unlike in the past — the Blade in 2001 coined the “Theory of Erie” to posit that former Tigers GM Randy Smith was stockpiling Double-A Erie to save his job — there are no whispers of sandbagging. The Hens’ roster this season has included the Tigers’ top three prospects: outfielders Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia and closer Bruce Rondon.
“I can't imagine why we would look elsewhere, really,” Napoli said.
Built to win
Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila insists this year’s Hens were put together to win.
“There's no doubt about it in my mind,” he said in a phone interview.
Avila cited four position players with major-league experience he expected to contribute immediately: third baseman Matt Tuiasosopo, shortstop Danny Worth, and outfielders Quintin Berry and Garcia.
None did. Tuiasosopo unexpectedly made the Tigers out of spring training, Worth and Garcia suffered injuries early, and Berry showed up in body only.
An out-of-nowhere success story for the Tigers last season, Berry never overcame the devastation of beginning the year in Toledo — not Detroit. The 28-year-old minor-league journeyman batted .168 in 49 games before the Tigers designated him for assignment.
Added together, the Hens flailed at the plate and lost 38 of their first 55 games, with the lack of capable replacements underscoring the Tigers’ growing struggles to sign top minor-league free agents — players who are more than six years removed from first signing with their original team and not protected on the 40-man roster.
Good Triple-A teams usually strike a balance between prospects and veteran leaders. Think Crash Davis. Or Mike Hessman, a 35-year-old slugger who anchored the Hens’ championship teams in 2005 and 2006. (Hessman, now with Louisville, is the active leader in career minor-league homers with 385.)
Although the Tigers found reliever Darin Downs and Berry on top of the free-agent heap last season and hit this year on Tuiasosopo and pitcher Jose Alvarez, they have found their pickings thinned.
“If I'm a six-year free agent first baseman with a good track record and there's multiple teams after me, I don't want to sign with Detroit,” said Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America. “Prince Fielder never misses a game.”
Heck, if you’re not a reliever, good luck.
“When you have a major league club that has been a perennial winner and playoff contender for the past several years and pretty much has solid everyday guys at every position and in the starting rotation, it's not the easiest thing in the world to convince guys to come,” Avila said. “But we have proven that when we sign certain guys that are good enough, we do bring them up. That's one thing I try to preach to future and present minor-league free agents.”
Diluted farm system
The win-now focus of a Tigers team with a $148 million payroll this season has also diluted the farm system.
In the last two years alone, the Tigers have traded five players Baseball America ranked among their top seven prospects in 2011 and 2012: pitchers Jacob Turner, Chance Ruffin, and Andy Oliver, catcher Rob Brantly, and infielder Francisco Martinez (Martinez has since been reacquired.)
Don’t expect a wave of elite prospects to replace them, either. This was the first year since 2009 the Tigers drafted in the first round. They lost their top picks as compensation for signing designated Type-A free agents Jose Valverde in 2010, Victor Martinez in 2011, and Prince Fielder in 2012.
“You balance what did you receive to lose that first-round draft pick, and that outweighs a lot,” Tigers vice president of scouting David Chadd said. “Prince Fielder or a first-round pick? Well, I’m going with Prince Fielder. It’s that simple. We’ll make it up in the draft somewhere.”
The logic is hard to argue. The entire idea, of course, is to build a winner in Detroit, not Toledo. No one is debating the merit of midseason trades to pluck starter Doug Fister from the Mariners and pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante from the Marlins.
For the Hens, though, the effect is clear. The Tigers’ farm system is now ranked last of 30 teams by Minorleagueball.com, 29th by Baseball Prospectus, 27th by Baseball America, and 25th by ESPN.
What’s more, new draft slotting rules mean the Tigers can no longer offset low or lost draft picks by simply outspending teams.
Detroit used to aggressively work the system. In 2007, for instance, Rick Porcello was billed as the top high school pitcher in the country, ahead of touted fellow prep arms Madison Bumgarner and Matt Harvey. But teams flinched at the meteoric demands of his superagent, Scott Boras. The Tigers drafted Porcello 27th and signed him to a four-year contract worth $11.1 million — the largest deal ever for a high school player.
Then in 2010, while Baseball America rated Castellanos the third-best power-hitting prospect in the draft, most figured the Florida prep star would follow through on his commitment to Miami. The Tigers drafted Castellanos 44th and gave him a $3.45 million signing bonus — then the largest for a player selected after the first round.
Now, teams are assigned a bonus pool based on their draft position and number of picks. The Tigers effectively had $6.5 million to spend on bonuses for their selections in the first 10 rounds this year. Last season, without a first-round pick, their bonus pool was the second-lowest at $2.1 million.
Teams that exceed the threshold face a stiff luxury tax.
“You can’t make up for picks by being aggressive,” Callis said. “That's just not possible.”
The show goes on
Meanwhile, the show goes on in Toledo, as popular as ever.
On the field, the Hens remain uneven but are improving. Third-year manager Phil Nevin calls them a “different team” from the one that plodded through the first two months.
Garcia and Worth are back, 36-year-old journeyman third baseman Mike Cervenak was signed as a clubhouse leader, and Castellanos has brushed off a slow start. Castellanos began Saturday batting .296 with 10 home runs and 38 RBIs.
“You don’t just lay down and take it, and say, OK, we’re losing, the team's no good, and move on,” Avila said. “You’re moving guys up, you’re moving guys down, and we've inundated — maybe too much — the Toledo club with our [roving instructors]. We’re sending them there left and right. ... That shows the players we’re not accepting this.”
Still, unlike at the big-league level, the success of the Hens is not entwined with the success of the team. A year ago, despite the Hens’ 64-80 record, 550,900 fans made Fifth Third Field among the 10 most-attended parks in minor league baseball. In fact, a higher percentage of adults in greater Toledo attended Hens games last year than fans in the Cleveland area did Indians games. (According to the Scarborough study, the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers led all pro teams by hosting 43 percent of fans in their market. The Tigers were tied for sixth at 30 percent.)
Fans continue to pour in — for a $9 seat at the 12-year-old stadium regarded as a must-stop in the minors, for the fireworks and run-the-bases days, for Star Wars Night and Jake the Diamond Dog and Scooby Doo. And the baseball.
“We have built an excellent reputation in the market of providing family friendly entertainment, and the affordability factor insulates us to some degree from the team's performance,” Napoli said. “But not entirely, because you still have 15 to 20 percent of the attendees that are coming for the baseball.
“And we do hear from them, and they do get frustrated.”