After all the talk about slashing payroll, all the hype about being willing to trade any player, and all the expectations that the Detroit Tigers were going to market to sell at the winter meetings, General Manager Al Avila returns home without making a move. He wanted the team to get younger, faster, better defensively, and leaner in the payroll department, but none of that happened. Here are half a dozen reasons why:
The Collective Bargaining Agreement
The old CBA expired on December 1st, just days before the winter meetings began. There was talk that the meetings would even be canceled if a new agreement wasn’t in place. That had a chilling effect on the trade market, which got off to a slower start than usual by the time the meetings actually kicked off.
The free agent market for sluggers is saturated with talented players available. Other than Yoenis Cespedes resigning with the New York Mets, most of the big name hitters who entered the free market at the end of the season are still available. The Tigers have mostly hitters to deal, such as J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, and Victor Martinez, but another team would have to give up good young players and pay their salaries. Free agents only cost money, not players as well.
The Tigers’ asking price
Avila is not looking to unload salary just for the sake of slashing payroll. He wants young major league ready position players in return. Detroit got Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa for a two month rental of Cespedes, so they should get at least that for a full year of J.D. Martinez. With plenty of hitters still available as free agents, the market has been very slow to develop. This will inevitably change as the season approaches, but it may be July before there is a fit.
The Tigers would most like to unload large salaries and several have trade restrictions which allow players to block a deal, or to extract even more concessions from any team that would give up both money and talent to acquire them. Such is the case with Kinsler, Upton, Verlander, Cabrera, and Victor Martinez. With the exception of J.D. Martinez, there is little surplus value in those contracts that would inspire another team to give up both the salary and equivalent value in players.
Rivals didn’t get any better, as Ashley described here. The most active team at the winter meetings was the Chicago White Sox, who traded outfielder Adam Eaton and pitcher Chris Sale for a boat load of prospects. The Kansas City Royals dealt their closer, Wade Davis, and are reported to be looking to deal more of their many players who will be free agents after next season. The defending champion Cleveland Indians have lost Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli to free agency and haven’t made a move so far. So, the Tigers are in a relatively improved position vis-a-vis their division rivals, whom they will play 19 times each.
The Tigers are contenders.
As we explained here, the Tigers already have a contending roster. With better health and improvement from some of their young players, they could easily improve the team that contended right up to the final day of the season in 2016 enough to make the playoffs in 2017. The Tigers return essentially their entire roster from last season. They will only make a trade if it makes sense for their team.
Avila told reporters:
“If there is one positive, it’s that we do have a good team going into the season,” Avila said. “If we are patient and prudent and we don’t panic, things will fall into place as time allows. It’s all timing and opportunity. You cannot force the issue.”
For Tigers’ fans who were fearing a fire sale, which was never in the plans, no news is good news. The good news is that they’re going about it wisely, and not hastily. But the winter is not over. The team still would like to add a young center fielder and maybe bolster their bullpen, and they would still like to trim some payroll, which is currently on target to get hit with a luxury tax for the second consecutive season. With the luxury tax goes Avila’s flexibility to make virtually any cost adding moves during the season, as he was unable to do all of 2016.
The starting pitching market has moved quickly, in part due to the fact that the few good pitchers available have been in great demand. But even if the Tigers wanted to trade Verlander and the three years, $84 million left on his contract, it stands to reason that Chris Sale’s three years and $38 million would be moved quicker. The Tigers would not get equal value for their ace pitcher.
Detroit will attempt to trade other pitchers such as Anibal Sanchez, Mark Lowe, and Mike Pelfrey, who are free agents after 2017 and have $30 million in combined salaries. Unloading two thirds of that would get them under the luxury tax threshold. The market for starting pitchers is getting truly desperate. Even if the Tigers have to eat some of their salary, look for Detroit to try and trade them before the team heads to spring training.