There will be at least a dozen clubs, and perhaps even more than half of all Major League Baseball teams in “sell” mode at the 2016 non-waiver trade deadline, but according to general manager, Al Avila, the Detroit Tigers won’t be buying. Avila told reporters before the team’s double collapse on Sunday that standing pat at the deadline was the most likely course of (non) action.
As contending teams are lining up to improve their rosters for a playoff run, Detroit is four games out of a playoff spot and six games out of first place in their division. This week, they face the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros, two of the primary contenders for the last playoff spots, prior to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.
Avila’s insistence on not making any moves at the deadline is partially motivated by the team’s long-term prospects. He told reporters that standing pat “is probably what’s best for the team this year and moving forward in the future.” When asked recently about what he might do to improve the team’s playoff chances, Avila has often brought up the subject of finances.
“I don't foresee us adding another starting pitcher or reliever at this point,” he said. “We have one of the highest payrolls in baseball and we put this team together in the wintertime thinking this is the team that's going to compete and get us into the playoffs. And we're going to stay the course.”
If this refrain sounds familiar, it is. This is pretty much what Avila was saying for much of December and early January, with the payroll sitting right at the point where any more spending would be subject to a luxury tax. That was before owner Mike Ilitch opened up his checkbook to sign Justin Upton to a six-year contract worth $22 million per season.
So what is the Tigers’ plan?
"Right now, what we're really focusing on is trying to get the guys who are injured back and playing," he said. "Those are going to be our major acquisitions. There's nobody out there better than Jordan Zimmermann if he comes back healthy."
Zimmermann pitched four innings of shutout ball for Toledo on Sunday, so his return is not too far off. Daniel Norris made a second rehab start on Saturday with less than sparkling results — his first outing went much better — but he’s pitching. One of them figures to bump Anibal Sanchez back to the bullpen, and the other will challenge Mike Pelfrey and Matt Boyd for a spot at the back end of the rotation.
"If our team gets rolling to their capabilities, it's one of the better lineups in baseball. Our starting pitching is the same thing. If you've seen our bullpen, when they're clicking, that's a pretty good bullpen. We've got to stay healthy, and I believe this team has the capabilities of doing that, and we have a great manager to lead the way."
Whether the Tigers have the bargaining chips to acquire a starting pitcher that would make a big difference is a legitimate question. One can immediately count a dozen teams — seven in the National League, five in the American League — who are sure to be sellers in the next week. That does not include teams on the bubble such as the Yankees, Royals, White Sox, Mariners, or Pirates. Those clubs, like Detroit, are within shouting distance of a wild card spot, but farther out of their division races. Some of them will come to market in sell mode, but Avila is not interested in dealing his top prospects for a two month rental.
"I have actually been in contact with several GMs that are in sell mode about their pitching," Avila said, "and the asking price is to too high, even for a fifth starter. I looked at some teams where we could maybe upgrade, and in talking to our scouts and our staff, the quality of pitchers available doesn't really put us over the top, over the edge that much to say it warranted a big payback in a trade.
The Tigers are not in a position to sell off pending free agents to restock their roster as they did last season. The only players who will be free agents after this season are Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mike Aviles. Francisco Rodriguez and Cameron Maybin have team options for 2017, but every other player is under club control for at least two years, many of them on long-term contracts. There is no David Price or Yoenis Cespedes to sell this year.
“I'm not saying we're not going to be open-minded to anything that might make sense,” he said. “Because coming closer to the August 1 deadline, there may be something out there that makes sense. I can't rule it completely out. But I would say right now it's not a probable thing.”
That sounds like more of an opening than there was last winter, so you can never say never when Mike Ilitch is your owner. There will also be opportunities on the waiver wire in August.
But for now, what you see is (probably) what you get.