The Detroit Tigers reaffirmed their commitment to losing a bunch of baseball games this week at the MLB General Manager Meetings in Orlando, Fla. Tigers GM Al Avila told reporters that the team would not be in the market for big-time free agents like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and all but confirmed that the team would not look to sign anyone of note until Jordan Zimmermann’s contract expires following the 2020 season.
This isn’t a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, but is disappointing nonetheless. The Tigers have a decent crop of prospects currently making their way through the system, but are reticent to add any free agents to that group for another year or two. This makes some sense — giving Harper or Machado $400 million is a huge risk, no matter how good they are right now — but it also ensures that we are in for yet another awful season of Tigers baseball.
More than anything, it’s disappointing to see the Tigers flat-out admit that they don’t want to improve their club right now. The team is bad, sure, but so is the rest of the AL Central. One subpar season from the Cleveland Indians puts a playoff spot up for grabs, and anything can happen from there. Avila indicated that the Tigers are waiting for Zimmermann’s contract to expire before they do anything of note, but this ignores the fact that the Tigers have an estimated payroll of $111.2 million for 2019. There is money available to spend, despite Avila’s claims — a narrative that the team’s beat writers have bought hook, line, and sinker.
It is the dirty jobs part of the rebuilding process, which is equally important in its own right: Championship teams, as the Tigers know all too well, are not bought.
“You have to have enough of a nucleus of those guys that, when that payroll gets to a point where it’s not a burden anymore, you can go out there and get some guys and add on,” Avila said.
The Tigers insisting that a $111 million payroll is a “burden” borders on insulting, and is a major hint that the club will be paring back payroll quite a bit going forward, even when the team is good enough to contend.
Here’s what our staff had to say about Avila’s comments.
Cody: The Tigers’ payroll right now is in line to be under $100 million, and goes to like $110 million with the money owed to Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander. Let’s not act like Zimmermann’s money is some huge anchor preventing them from spending.
Rob: Yeah, my headline is going to not be very nice.
Cameron: People act like the Tigers magically started spending big money in 2006 and that resulted in immediate success. Go out and get good players now from a stacked free agent class. This is the best year for that.
Jay: It isn’t a magical solution, but it certainly helps. I would also like to see them cash in a few of their prospect chips before they flame out. Not a ton, but some.
Cody: Eh... I hate to say it, but that 2006 season was largely luck and probably not the best model for repeatable success. That year was packed with fluky career seasons, and when those guys regressed, the Tigers sucked again for a couple years. It was Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer that set up the run of success we’re aiming to repeat, not Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, among a lot of other factors, obviously. You can go out and sign your Pudge and your Maggs now, but unless you have a plan for getting magical performances out of a Brandon Inge and a Craig Monroe in the same season, your 2006 might not happen.
Cameron: I’m going to jump ship if they plan on having this rebuild go another seven years. If that is indeed the plan.
Cody: You can’t force a rebuild by throwing money at it. You need some prospects to pan out along the way. If this whole crop of pitchers busts — which is totally possible because pitchers — they won’t be ready to compete on this side of Manny Machado’s aging curve. But yeah, if their prospects pan out better than most, they will wish they had signed him. In hindsight.
Rob: I’m upset that they are admitting on November 9 that they aren’t going to sign anyone of note and have already committed to sucking next year. It’s November 9 and we can already pencil in 95-ish losses next season.
Cameron: But shouldn’t you be planning for things to pan out at least a little bit? There’s always a possibility that even the most elite prospects bust. You can’t keep kicking the can down the road and just wait until all these prospects have proven themselves. By that time, they will be behind the curve and have to settle for whatever free agents are available, even if they aren’t worthy of the big money that a Machado or a Harper are worthy of right now.
Cody: I think “top of the open market” and “prime free agent players” just refers to Harper and Machado. There are still plenty others that qualify as someone “of note” Not that I think they will actually go any bigger than Mike Fiers and Leonys Martin this offseason.
Rob: That people are using the Zimmermann contract as a crutch is also infuriating.
Cody: Yeah, that part bothers me.
Cameron: They don’t have any contracts that are a crutch if their payroll is under $100 million. It doesn’t matter how much one or two guys are making if you have a team that can operate at a $200 million level but are choosing not to.
Cody: Well, I don’t think they can operate at that level right now. They can go that high with a winning team, but if you tack $100 million on free agents onto this roster, they’re still only a .500 team.
Cameron: There’s truth to that, but acting like adding a big contract right now is going to throw a wrench in the rebuild is monumentally short sighted thinking.
Cody: No, they could certainly afford anyone on the market right now. The question is whether that’s the best long term option. Not whether they can literally afford it.
Cameron: I use Machado because he’s the biggest name, but if they try and compete within three years, wouldn’t it be a lot nicer having Manny Machado at shortstop who is still under 30?
Jay: I don’t really want Harper. He’s fun but too hit and miss for that huuuuge contract he is going to get. Someone is going to pay for the 10 WAR he may never post again.
Cameron: And if they are not trying to compete in three years then everyone involved in that organization should be fired.
Cody: On the flip side, if they can’t compete in three years, even with Machado, his contact will make it a lot harder to compete in six years.
Cameron: But that would be due to the front office screwing up all the other things that they are doing outside of signing Machado. It’s something that will be a factor regardless of whether they sign a big free agent or not.
Cody: It’s not that they’re planning on it taking six years, it’s just that [stuff] happens. Pitchers always get injured and it might take six years. Or more. It’s probably too early to commit to the kind of contract that could screw you over if that happens.
Cameron: I really don’t think a 33-year-old Machado at third base is going to screw them over, especially with their new TV deal.
Cody: If you only want one shot at the playoffs, maybe not. If you want another four to six year run, a 33-39 year old Machado makes it a hell of a lot harder. I mean, Tigers fans ought to be familiar with the concept.
Cameron: At the end of the day, what I would like to see is someone in the Tigers front office give some indication that they do plan on putting together a winning baseball team sometime in the near future. There’s no such thing as a self-sustaining organization (unless you sell your soul to the devil like the Cardinals), so big-time free agents or trades are going to be a necessary part of the equation. The Tigers have been trying to rebuild from within for a few years now without the slightest indication that they might look to deal a prospect or two for a good MLB player. Meanwhile, guys like Beau Burrows or Alex Faedo already appear on the cusp of flaming out.
Jay: You can’t predict how injury and attrition affects an athlete but sports contracts are always a gamble. Why not take a shot at a player with fantastic odds of staying successful long term?
Also, that’s not a fair description of Faedo or Burrows. They ran into challenges. welcome to prospects. They are still worth keeping around.
Cameron: Dave Dombrowski was elite because he timed almost every prospect trade perfectly. He traded Jacob Turner, Rob Brantly, Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, etc., all before their prospect shines wore off. I’m not saying they should trade all the prospects right now, but that shine has already worn off on a few of their top guys, so Avila is just kicking the can down the road. Again, the self-sustaining organization model is a myth. This plan has led to them being inactive in the trade market and inactive in free agency.
Rob: There just seems to be no middle ground. I get why they don’t want to spend $400 million on Bryce Harper, but why is giving Gio Gonzalez $30 million over three years so bad?
Cody: Maybe it’s not. I don’t think these recent quotes suggest anything about a medium-sized contract like that.
Cameron: I mean, they aren’t even taking small steps towards competing at the MLB level like signing Gonzalez or another guy of his caliber. Those are guys who won’t break the bank, but are quality role players on good teams. There has been absolutely no indication that the Tigers are interested in signing anyone to a major league contract this offseason, and that’s crap. Buying a million scratch-off tickets isn’t going to get them anywhere. Leonys Martin for Willi Castro is a nice trade on its own, but how much closer to competing does that really get them?
Rob: Avila’s big quote was ”You have to have enough of a nucleus of those guys that, when that payroll gets to a point where it’s not a burden anymore, you can go out there and get some guys and add on.”
Cody: I believe the entire conversation was in the context of top of the market and the big contracts, right? So the “some guys” he’s talking about are Harper or Machado sized guys, not Gio sized. Although payroll isn’t a burden, that’s some bulls***.
Cody: But that’s the line I’d expect them to feed us anyway, even if the reasons they are sitting out are rebuild-timing related and not money related. Fans can forgive “we can’t afford it” more easily than “we don’t want to win yet” especially if they don’t know it’s a lie.
Patrick: I am beyond annoyed with the Tigers’ refusal to field a competitive team.
Rob: The team just outright refusing to get any better for 2019 is bad.