Earlier this week, Al Avila met the press and signaled the organization will be taking a long hard look in the mirror this offseason. Avila indicated payroll likely won’t go up in 2017 and that the club is looking to get younger, likely through the trade market. Both comments send a message, but there was nothing definitive in his statement. You could easily interpret it as a prelude to a tear down or as an indication that the club might try to flip JD Martinez for someone a little worse but a little younger.
Obviously, Avila is right not to overly telegraph his plans. He should wait to see what the market does after the World Series and adjust his plans according to the actions of the rest of the league. No reason to commit to anything before you have information, but this is essentially the first time since 2009 that the club has even hinted at a potential rebuilding offseason.
As usual, when the World Series ends, I’ll lay out my recommendation for the offseason, but now I want to explore if the concept of a rebuild makes sense for the Tigers.
Let’s start with the basics. The club spent $198 million in 2016 and Avila said he doesn’t expect that number to rise. While that has led some people to forecast a big payroll cut, I think it’s more likely we’ll see the club spend $190ish million or so. Even if the Tigers want to get leaner, the luxury tax threshold is going up this winter (potentially by a lot) and there is a lot of new money flowing into the game. The Tigers might not keep pace with everyone else this winter, but I don’t think they’re planning to go down to $140 million simply for financial reasons. They could end up there for rebuilding reasons, but that’s a different question.
Aside from Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ longest commitment runs through 2021, but that’s Justin Upton who could easily opt out after 2017. Verlander has an option for 2020 but that requires a top 5 Cy Young finish in 2019. Realistically, You have Cabrera forever, Zimmermann until 2020, and Verlander through 2019. Everyone else with financial commitments are done after 2018. Essentially, this means that the Tigers have to decide if they want to contend in 2017 and 2018, or set their sights on 2019. These aren’t mutually exclusive options, but there’s no reason to shoot for a rebuild to complete any later than 2019 if that’s the plan.
So the options are work to contend for 2017, start a full rebuild for 2019+, or doing something in between that keeps you relevant but acknowledges it might be a slow two years.
If the Tigers want to go for it, they’ll look to make a trade or two to bolster catcher and center field, and then probably also do some combination of things to help the pen. The free agent market is very weak, so there aren’t any big splashes coming. Making some tweaks around the edges will easily bring the club to another 85-88 win season. The downside of this approach is that the longer you wait before rebuilding, the less valuable your trade chips become. The Tigers will get more this winter for Martinez, Cabrera, Kinsler, etc than they will in a year or two.
The rebuild option is some combination of deals involving Martinez, Kinsler, Cabrera, Verlander, Upton, etc. The Tigers have lots of good veteran players who would be attractive in a weak free agent market. If you make these trades, you’re punting the next two seasons because the odds of getting back that much major league ready talent is quite low. Even if you make good trades, you’re probably unlikely to get players who are ready to step in on day one.
The middle path involves dealing JD Martinez, or maybe Martinez and Kinsler. You could probably get enough in return that you could stay competitive in 2017, but also with an eye on the 2019+ timeline. Losing several wins would hurt, but you can probably find league average players to replace them and be a .500 or better team.
This is all hypothetical and the Tigers shouldn’t decide until they know the going rate for these players, but I think the Tigers should go for it in 2017. The idea of a rebuild is interesting, but they have already assembled a championship caliber core. They have an impressive middle of the order, a frontline ace, a solid #2 in Zimmermann, and three young pitchers who could all easily be 2/3 starters as soon as 2017. If they had been a little healthier in 2016 and not lost lots of time from Castellanos, Martinez, and Zimmermann, they would have made the playoffs.
Certainly, key players are aging and you don’t want to kid yourselves into holding on too long, but there’s a very real chance the Tigers make a run in 2017 without significant acquisitions. If the club wanted to rebuild, last offseason would have made more sense. They could have avoided the Upton/Zimmermann deals and traded Kinsler, Martinez, Cabrera to line them up for a big rebuilding project. With those deals being signed and Verlander proving he is back, it doesn’t quite make sense to punt on 2017.
Again, you want to read the market. You do what’s best for the long term success of the organization, but the Tigers are too close, in my opinion, to give up on 2017. The club has been chasing a title for a decade and they are absolutely still in striking distance. If they wait until 2019+, they won’t have prime Cabrera and Verlander and the odds that they acquire two Hall of Fame caliber players in this rebuild is remote. It’s certainly possible, but I don’t think the situation is dire enough yet to warrant that kind of gamble.