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Don’t judge the Tigers until this offseason is over

The torches and pitchforks are already out for Al Avila, but he still has two-plus months to put a team together for 2019.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Yeah, yeah, I know. We haven’t exactly been a beacon of patience around here this offseason as we wait for the Detroit Tigers to emerge from their current rebuild. One way or another, we have implored the club to spend money this winter. Whether it’s adding a free agent superstar to expedite the rebuild or making a modest signing just to make 2019 a little more palatable, we (and the fanbase at large, by extension) want to see improvement out of the Tigers next season.

But while the Tigers haven’t exactly done themselves any favors so far, from cutting Alex Wilson to calling their $110 million payroll a “burden,” let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s only December 7. There are still more than two months until the start of spring training. The MLB Winter Meetings have not happened yet, and we are coming off a winter where there were bargains aplenty to be had as the upcoming season drew closer.

Remember when all of last year’s remaining free agents created their own spring training because there were so many of them? It wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar situation unfold in early 2019. MLB teams are stingier than ever when it comes to paying mid-tier veteran players in free agency, and are increasingly willing to tear apart competitive rosters to start rebuilding. The same circumstances that have left us Tigers fans wanting the team to spend — a mediocre AL Central division and fewer teams league-wide actually trying to win games — could leave general manager Al Avila with his pick of the litter as spring training draws closer.

Part of the fanbase’s anxiety this winter could stem from Detroit’s relative lack of activity so far.

Avila has done his shopping early in his couple years atop the organizational heap. He signed Jordan Zimmermann in November 2015, and added Mike Pelfrey and Jarrod Saltalamacchia less than a week later. Cameron Maybin was acquired even earlier than Zimmermann that winter, and traded away on the very first day of the following offseason. Francisco Rodriguez was also a November addition, while Leonys Martin and Mike Fiers were added in early December last year.

If anything, fans were all too ready to criticize Avila for making his usual early moves last winter. Fiers was seen as an overpay once everyone saw what the Tigers signed Francisco Liriano for, and many (ourselves definitely included) were unimpressed with the Martin signing up until he started the regular season in red-hot fashion. But, as we have seen before with examples big and small, Avila was able to find undervalued players who out-performed expectations in a Tigers uniform.

Whether or not Avila goes on a spending spree in the next week, it’s still too early to panic about this offseason, and the rebuild in general. The Tigers filled one hole on the roster already by adding lefthander Matt Moore, and veteran catcher Bobby Wilson is a nice pick-up for minor league depth. They have other needs to address, of course, but as mentioned above, the team might be able to find a better value by waiting until January or February.

No matter what happens, this is going to be a divisive offseason for the Tigers.

The club is trying to find a balance between giving young players opportunities and improving the roster with veteran talent. Fans are going to disagree on where exactly the line should be in this scenario, and what the Tigers should be prioritizing in 2019. Sure, everyone wants to see the prospects develop, but what should they do at the major league level? Is it better for the MLB club to add veteran players, win more games (and, thus, better entertain their fans), and hopefully instill a culture of winning that pays dividends in future seasons? Or should they curtail spending, give young players opportunities come hell or high water, and possibly collect another top-five draft pick after another 95-loss season?

Most of our staff skews heavily towards the former for a number of reasons. No World Series winner is built entirely from homegrown talent; the Tigers will need to add a free agent or two eventually. Improving from a 75-win team to a playoff contender is much easier than doing the same from a 65-win level. And, selfishly, the former is just more fun to watch and write about. But at the same time, winning 75 games doesn’t do much for the Tigers, especially if many of the players that got them there are traded away in July or leave as free agents in a year or two.

If things still look this way in February, we’ll talk.

Avila’s comments about the payroll earlier this offseason didn’t exactly leave us with warm fuzzies. The Tigers’ future payroll has been an open question ever since Chris Ilitch took over as the team’s principle owner, and early returns aren’t pretty. The Tigers have nearly halved their payroll from a couple years ago, and might be waiting until Jordan Zimmermann’s contract expires after 2020 (if not longer) to open up the checkbook again. They were never going to spend as much as they did when Mike Ilitch was calling the shots, but there’s a big difference between their current level and pushing up to around $150 million. The Tigers won’t get there this offseason, but we would like to see them do more than sign the Matt Moores and Freddy Galvises of the world.

But whether they do that or aim a little higher, let’s give them a little time to do so. We could still see a move or two at next week’s Winter Meetings — Avila’s track record suggests this might happen — but it also might be a good idea for them to wait and see who falls through the cracks in January and February. It’s too soon to completely write off the 2019 season, even if there has been no indication yet that the organization plans on spending this offseason.