The Tigers' general manager, Al Avila, made an appearance Thursday (via phone) on MLB Network's Hot Stove program to talk about his goal and plans for the offseason. He talked about a lot of things, ranging from payroll (it will be "more restrictive" than in years past because so much money is tied up in existing contracts) to offseason strategy (more free agent signings than trades), from starting pitching (he wants two more starters) to how he plans to fix the bullpen (growing one internally is "best," but perhaps not feasible right now).
Avila said he has "a nice target list of players" that the Tigers want to acquire, but "most of them are guys that are free agents that we'll be probably trying to sign." That's probably a good thing right now. Looking at the current roster and trying to find depth at this point is like attempting to play "Where's Waldo?" using only M.C. Esher drawings. The team just got a fresh crop of prospects in July, those guys are going to be needed for future rosters, so "hands off."
As for the starting rotation, Avila reiterated that "we need to go out and get two more starting pitchers," so if you were thinking that the plan was to use guys like Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer, and so on to build the rotation, that would be incorrect. As Avila explained, "some of the young guys that we have, that we like, we would like to not push them so much where, we're going in with three young guys, per se, and trying to win a championship -- y'know, you can add one guy in there, but you can't have three."
One guy. Who's it going to be?
Here's a helpful clue: Avila indicated in this interview that he's really high on Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez right now. He said Sanchez was "healthy" at the end of 2015, but they chose to shut him down anyway and give him a head start on strength and conditioning, but he's definitely being looked at as a secure brick in the wall of the starting rotation. That's two starters in place, plus two Mystery Men from Avila's "target list" of free agents, leaving one spot open to be filled from that pool of "young guys that we have, that we like."
Daniel Norris? Shane Greene? Matt Boyd? (It's not Matt Boyd.) Michael Fulmer? (It's not him either.) I'm rooting for a Cage Match at the end of spring training to determine who the final starter will be, and I'd definitely be betting on the guy who shaves with an axe blade.
The most intriguing part of the interview, though, and the subject on which Avila spent most of his time elaborating, was how to fix the bullpen. The TL;DR version: there's a best way, there's an out-of-necessity way, and the Tigers will have to mix a tasty late-innings cocktail using a blend of the two.
Here's how you build a bullpen, according to the Man with the Plan:
I would say the best way to fix your bullpen, in reality, is to have your own players, homegrown, knowing what you've got coming through the system, and them putting them out there. That's really the best way to do it. Now, in saying that, when you don't have that coming through, then you have to go out and acquire players either via trade or free agency, so, that's all we're trying to do.
We're really evaluating the possible in-house candidates that can go out and close out games or be an eighth-inning guy, so we're evaluating that process, and we'll make decisions in spring training, but at the same time, now here in the offseason, we've got to target the best available relievers that we can and see which one -- or which ones -- we end up acquiring.
So it's a combination of both, you can't just say, "I'm gonna give this guy an opportunity from within," and then not try to do your due diligence in either acquiring a guy through free agency or trade, so it's really a combination of everything. But if everybody had their 'druthers and everybody had ... you know, the perfect situation is, you bring a guy up through the system, he gets the experience and he's brought through the system, and then you bring him to the big leagues, and then you put him in there in a less stressful role, and within time, you put him there in that back end, and he ends up being your guy. That's really the best way to do it.
So what does all of that mean, in practice? Hopefully it means a bit of necessary chaos in spring training, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all solution that could -- and often has -- become a straight-jacket for the organization.
The long-term plan should be to develop bullpen help from within and not rely on expensive free agent signings. That's been the path to failure for several years: sign Jose Valverde, sign Joe Nathan, sign Joba Chamberlain, sign Joakim Soria, just sign, sign, sign. Spend all the money on a closer and a set-up man, add in a few cheap guys under the category of "meh, we probably won't ever need to use them," and then watch it all burn for months on end.
Developing some internal options is a great idea. But in the meantime, Avila knows he can't put all of his eggs in that basket. So the plan, as stated, is to "target the best available relievers that we can" and pair them up with whatever in-house talent is already there. Here's the super-bright ray of hope, as I see it: Avila said, "we'll make decisions in spring training," and the only way to leave options and choices open surrounding who will close games, especially when working with a mix of current players and new acquisitions, is to avoid signing an expensive reliever who comes with the words "Proven Closer" already tattooed on his chest.
Sure, go ahead, target a couple of the best relievers on the market (notice he said "which one," then quickly corrected that to "which ones"). Just don't let the Closer Anointing Ceremony become a pre-season fait accompli based on the size of someone's contract. Assemble a collection of good relievers, let them do their thing in spring training, and then make the decisions.
That's how you do it, isn't it? Because if it isn't, I'm out of ideas.
Oh, and by the way, Matt Vasgersian commented at one point, "It had to be weird to let your son leave via free agency," and Avila just ignored it, so apparently that's a done deal. (Unless it isn't.)