It would appear that the days of Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch gladly opening up his pocketbook to reel in big name free agents are gone. In his year-end media session, Tigers general manager Al Avila told fans three simple words: “Changes are coming.” That phrase, along with the rest of a stunner of a press conference, turned what was supposed to be a quiet and uneventful offseason into a winter soon to be filled with anticipation and trepidation.
Now, the Tigers face the unenviable task of putting their payroll on a diet. Avila stressed that the Tigers have been “operating above their means for some time” and that changes must be made to get “younger and more efficient”. The time to do so is upon us, apparently, and this offseason looks to be the first of many where the Tigers will look to transition from a $200 million payroll on the fringe of contention to a sleek and efficient machine that fields churns out young players and keeps the dream of the postseason alive every year. No, this won’t happen overnight, and it may not even fully materialize for many years. It’s going to be difficult, and at times painful. But what does this mean?
One could read Avila’s statement about trying to remain competitive as generic GM-speak meant to sugarcoat a world of pain and hurt ahead. However, Avila has been fairly straight with the media in his short time at the helm. What you hear is what you get. If he says that the Tigers are looking to cut payroll and get younger — something they did during the 2009-10 offseason, where we saw the Tigers trade off Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson — then they are probably looking to do something along those lines. But, it won’t be exactly that.
The Tigers have a couple of attractive trade chips they could look to peddle this winter. One of the most likely to be moved would be J.D. Martinez. The star outfielder has become a fan favorite in Detroit for his hustle and massive home run power. He is entering the final season of a two-year agreement he signed last winter, and will be owed a very modest $11.75 million in 2017. With nothing owed beyond next season, teams that are looking to make a splash but are turned off by the idea of signing an aging outfielder like Jose Bautista or Yoenis Cespedes to a long-term deal will no doubt value Martinez very highly.
The other obvious trade candidate is gritty second baseman Ian Kinsler. The second base free agent market is rather barren, and headlined by Neil Walker and a 37-year-old Chase Utley. If made available, Kinsler would be the clear cream of the crop at that position. He just enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career and is owed a scant $11 million next year. For a 6 WAR player at a premium position, this is a bargain.
Another player that could potentially be on the move is outfielder Justin Upton. He has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to 20 teams, but also holds an opt-out clause after next season. He caught fire down the stretch after a slow start to 2016, and managed to finish up the season close to his career offensive norms. There could be some snags when working around the no-trade clause, but if given the opportunity to head to a contending team and away from a rebuilding one, Upton might just be on his way out. He is owed a hefty $22.125 million over the next five years, so this is not as likely of a scenario. It’s not out of the question, though.
If the Tigers are looking to deal this offseason, they will likely be listening on all of their big-money players. Cutting down payroll to a more sustainable level could be a long process, and Avila said that this work may not be finished in one offseason. Since the Tigers are very tight lipped about their finances, we have no way of knowing where exactly their spending threshold lies. One can reasonably assume it’s below the luxury tax threshold, and likely much lower still than that. Anyone could be traded should the right deal come along, even franchise cornerstones like Justin Verlander or Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers would love to be rid of underperforming players like Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, or Mark Lowe, but they would have to get very creative to find a way to ship those players off a year before they walk free.
It’s hard for fans to look forward to several years of downsizing. There’s a good possibility that a beloved player or two will be headed elsewhere this offseason. Unfortunately, this is the business of baseball. On the bright side, the Tigers are well positioned to be in the conversation of contention for the next several years thanks to a good core of young pitchers. Coupled with an increased focus on player development and building from within, the farm system should start to bear fruit soon as well. The road ahead won’t be an easy one, but it’s a necessary one if the Tigers want to remain relevant in the near future and beyond.