Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila told reporters in his year end press conference that “changes are coming.” He wanted the team to get younger, and payroll was “not going to go up.” Heading into the winter meetings, speculation has ranged from the Tigers gradually reducing payroll while getting younger and more athletic, to the club holding a desperate fire sale to slash payroll at the expense of fielding any sort of a decent baseball team.
Right now, they don’t need free agents to fill roster vacancies. Better health, improvement from their young pitchers and addition by subtraction could push the team that contended until the last day of the 2016 team into the playoffs without any expensive additions.
In his first season as the Tigers’ general manager, Avila inherited a roster that required replacing two starting pitchers, a starting catcher, two starting outfielders, and five veteran relief pitchers. They called that a “reboot.”
This offseason, only two regular players— Erick Aybar and Jarrod Saltalamacchia— are free agents and two others— Cameron Maybin and Frankie Rodriguez— had team options for 2017. The free agents will walk away, and the club has exercised one of the two options. The net savings is over $12 million.
Avila told Dan Dickerson in this interview on MLB.com that the Tigers intend to keep the window of contention open in 2017 while looking for ways to also improve in the seasons beyond.
"The two-year window, I don't know exactly how that became a real big story last year," Avila said. "But I like to look at it as a window of opportunity, wherever that opportunity takes us. So I'd like to keep the window open as long as it makes sense for the Detroit Tigers. That's really my goal, is to have a larger window of opportunity to move forward for many, many years to come."
The Tigers will listen to offers on any players, including Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Any team willing to pay those salaries will not give up players of equal value in a trade. Yet, Avila has not taken the opportunity to debunk such rumors, but Detroit’s asking prices for their premium players is understandably very high.
Avila would like to fill some vacancies now and in future seasons, before they occur. Ideally, he would trade an expensive outfielder for two young outfielders. The team could get younger, faster, better defensively, and less costly. That makes sense. A full rebuild does not.
"We're going to go out and talk to 29 other clubs and see how we can start, little by little, making this team leaner, younger, more efficient, and at the same time, staying competitive, trying to get to the playoffs," Avila said. "That's where the tightrope is that we're walking on."
The Tigers have profited by trading stars while trimming payroll, but this offseason is different. David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria were swapped at the 2015 trade deadline for Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris, Jacoby Jones, and more, but they gave up pending free agents on a team that was not contending that season.
The Tigers don’t need to dramatically slash payroll, either. Considering luxury tax consequences, Detroit is about $17 million over the new tax threshold of $195 million. Trading J.D. Martinez, who carries a $9.2 million “cap hit” only gets them half way there. Keeping him gives the team a shot at contending in 2017, another shot at trading him at the deadline if needed, and a potential compensation pick.
After the 2017 season, $60 million in contacts will expire for Martinez, Rodriguez, Mike Pelfrey, and Mark Lowe, plus options on Ian Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez. Upton may also opt out after 2017. That presents a better opportunity than the present for major roster reshuffling.
Standing pat also has consequences. Detroit could lose three outfielders and their closer by the end of next season. Plus, Avila would again be in a financial straitjacket, unable to make any roster additions during the season because the payroll is maxed out. A few targeted moves to solve these issues makes sense. A full rebuild does not.