The Detroit Tigers’ decision to try to contend in 2017 has remained a contentious one. Whether the offseason deals they were looking for simply didn’t materialize, as seems likely, or if they have remained open to actually going for it if the team performed well, is still somewhat difficult to parse. What has remained clear, is the Tigers organization decided to remain flexible, and let the team performance, and the market, dictate the best course of action. But the fact remains that the team has to perform or face a substantial sell-off of talent come July.
Now, Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reports that recent indications are that the team may not wait until the trade deadline if the on field performance doesn’t rapidly improve.
If #Tigers are still under .500 by end of June, sources say they'll revert to stance from November: All veterans will be available in trade.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) May 26, 2017
On the surface of it, this isn’t an unexpected stance. The timing of the report, however, is interesting. With the Tigers unable to get the traction to climb over .500 in May thus far, their may be some intent to light a fire under the club here as well. What also stands out, is the possibility that the Tigers won’t be waiting until the trade deadline if the team doesn’t earn that consideration.
Obviously the Tigers have several players who seem like excellent trade bait. With J.D. Martinez set to become a free agent, the right-fielder would potentially be the most attractive power bat available to teams looking to go for it this season. Closer Justin Wilson, and possibly relievers like Shane Greene and Alex Wilson may also draw some interest should the Tigers make them available.
The real crux of the issue is whether the Tigers would move any of their veteran stars. It appeared early last offseason that the team would listen on just about anyone other than their young, cost-controlled starting pitching.
Justin Upton’s contract probably makes a worthwhile return unlikely, but the Tigers might be willing take very little to escape the contract. Meanwhile an interested team could hope that Upton would simply opt out of his contract at season’s end. Ian Kinsler is another veteran talent who could be in demand. Kinsler would come with a very cheap option for 2018 as well, making him more than a rental. Of course, both players have partial no-trade clauses, making them more difficult to move and would no doubt want compensation for waiving those clauses should a team on their list be interested.
That brings us to the big boys. Miguel Cabrera’s contract seems essentially untradeable. Justin Verlander, on the other hand, only has two years remaining at $28 million per year after the 2017 season. There is also a $22 million dollar vesting option for Verlander in 2020. The short remaining length on the deal, and the possibility that the Tigers would kick in some of the money in exchange for getting a quality return in prospects, makes Verlander a possible trade option for teams. However, Verlander also has the right to veto any trade, and would understandably demand compensation for waiving those rights as well.
To a degree, this is all academic. The Tigers’ situation should they fail to get themselves into contention has long since been unpacked. The real question mark is the new operation under Chris Ilitch, and whether or not he might be willing to suffer through a significant stretch of bad baseball, despite potential ramifications to the team’s finances, including television and radio contracts, that a long-term rebuilding project could entail. Continuing a rolling rebuild, without burdening the team with any more long-term contracts, seems the most likely play.
Should the Tigers move Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler, in particular, it’s difficult to imagine a competitive team any time in the next couple of years. Returns for either are unlikely to be quite what Tigers’ fans seem to hope for, though certainly a substantial amount of salary could be cleared in Verlander’s case. However, with high quality returns for some of their other players, combined with better payroll flexibility, the Tigers may be able to re-tool the roster, without putting the fanbase through multiple 90 loss seasons.
Only time will tell how this will play out, and the willingness of teams to trade their best prospects is another uncertainty. But the message is clear. The team has about six weeks to get themselves into the thick of things. If they can’t the organization may look to get the jump on the trade deadline, and the selloff could come earlier than most expected.