The Major League Baseball trade deadline is 11 days away, which opens the usual mad dash to get the best available talent, whether a team is a buyer or seller.
The Detroit Tigers, long known as an aggressive buyer around this time of year, are now in the unfamiliar role of seller. That’s what yet another disappointing season can do for a team that once had deep pockets that compared with other MLB powers like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers – and an aggressive general manager like Dave Dombrowski, who now runs the Red Sox.
But with the Tigers (43-50) currently sitting five games out of first place in the American League’s Central division, general manager Al Avila has the franchise at a crossroads. Avila has been around the Detroit franchise since the Dombrowski era and has seen firsthand what an aggressive Tigers’ front office looks like, but will now spearhead a front office that appears ready for a reset.
But the fact that the Cleveland Indians (48-45) aren’t necessarily running away with the division makes the rumored fire sale by Detroit all the more curious. All-Star outfielder J.D. Martinez was recently jettisoned to the Arizona Diamondbacks for prospects, and closer Justin Wilson is rumored to be on the chopping block as well. It’s being reported that at least three contenders, the Red Sox (54-42), the Houston Astros (63-32) and the Milwaukee Brewers (52-45), all have high interest in Wilson, which may be a blessing for the Tigers because all three have stellar farm systems and could replenish what looks to be a now-rebuilding Detroit roster.
Avila, though, said despite the fact that guys like Martinez and catcher Alex Avila are set to be free agents this offseason, money and cutting payroll isn’t his primary concern. He vaguely reasoned that he’s simply looking for the best deal and is not making moves “based on finances or salaries or any of that.”
Financially, the Tigers are actually in decent shape going forward. They will have roughly $47 million in average annual value of salaries coming off the books due to expiring contracts, losing only one expensive player (Martinez). The other contracts, such as Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe and Francisco Rodriguez, are all dead weight and once off the books it will create financial relief and spending flexibility – two things the Tigers have lacked in recent offseasons.
Detroit’s payroll is about $20 million above the $195 million tax threshold. And if they do nothing, the team would be $27 million under that level before adjusting for arbitration increases. Avila knows that moving still-valued players like first baseman Miguel Cabrera, designated hitter Victor Martinez and starting pitcher Justin Verlander simply to cut payroll – without garnering anything of roster value in return – is a waste. It’ll simply be trading just to be trading and won’t benefit the team in the short or long terms.
Besides, the aforementioned Big 3 all have full no-trade protection as “five and ten” players (at least 10 years MLB service and five years with Detroit). Second baseman Ian Kinsler can block trades to 10 teams, and outfielder Justin Upton can block trades to 20 teams. Starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman has a full no-trade protection for 2016-18 and partial no-trade protection, allowing him to block 20 teams, for 2019-20. Zimmerman makes $22 million, but his current struggles (6-7 with a 5.58 earned run average) hinder any trade because no team will foot that bill.
Keith Law of ESPN ranked the Tigers’ farm system as 24th in a 30-team league, so maybe it time for Avila and company to look towards a semi-rebuild while still holding onto respected and somewhat productive veterans to bridge the gap between recent past glory and a hopeful quick return to baseball prominence.