With the non-waiver trade deadline behind us, the Tigers face a two-month slog toward the offseason. We’ll get a chance to test the waters with a few new relievers and the organization will take a long, hard look in the mirror as it prepares for what is sure to be an important winter. I wrote in June that it was time for the Tigers to tear things down and rebuild. While the club correctly assessed that the 2017 season was over, they held back on making any moves related to their long-term future. The Tigers traded JD Martinez and Alex Avila, free agents at the end of 2017, and Justin Wilson, a free agent after 2018, but did not make deals involving Verlander, Kinsler, Iglesias, Castellanos, Upton, or Cabrera.
In other words, the Tigers made the trades that they absolutely had to make at the 2017 non-waiver trade deadline. Holding Martinez or Avila would have been nonsensical and Justin Wilson’s value would certainly have been much lower this winter when teams were under less pressure to upgrade their bullpens. If they had failed to trade any of those three players, it would have been a failed deadline. Everyone else is either tradeable in August, this winter, or later, so the fact that the Tigers didn’t go further isn’t yet evidence of anything.
Before we take a broader view, let’s start with the deals they made. Many people panned the Martinez deal for an apparently light prospect return, but now that the deadline has passed it’s quite clear that the demand for corner outfielders was low and that teams were not motivated enough to acquire rental hitters to part with big prospects. Lugo, Alcantara, and King aren’t a murderer’s row infield, but the Tigers had to trade Martinez and looking around the league at the deadline indicates there wasn’t some team lurking and waiting to pay a lot more for JD. Lucas Duda, Melky Cabrera, and Todd Frazier were the only other notable corner bats to move and the Sox only got more for Frazier because he came with two good relievers.
Wilson and Avila brought back a more crowd-pleasing pair in Candelario and Paredes, one of whom is close to the majors and one of whom is not. They will probably both move down the defensive spectrum but they could both provide plenty of offense as well.
Neither trade blows you away in the way that the Price or Cespedes deals did two years ago, but the Tigers were dealing players who were either slightly worse or in lower demand at the time. It’s hard to knock the execution. The system is deeper today that it was a couple of weeks ago and it doesn’t appear like another team would have ponied up a lot more for either set.
But our focus now has to turn to the broader vision. The tactical execution of the deadline went well, but the strategic approach to the organization remains a question. The Tigers knew they were licked in 2017, but are they still considering holding things together for 2018 or did they simply not like the offers they heard on other players and are ready to try again in August and December? There’s no harm in holding Verlander if you expect to get a better return later, but if they are holding the core together because they haven’t decided to blow it up, that’s more troubling.
As I wrote in June, the Tigers have to make a big decision and their recent pattern has been to delay that decision as long as possible. If they’re not willing to run a very high payroll, they should begin a rebuild immediately. You don’t get extra credit for winning games with homegrown talent, it’s just a cheaper way to play. If you draft and trade well, you can acquire players and get their peak performance before they hit free agency. That saves money, but it’s not the only way to win. If the Tigers are willing to spend, they can keep playing the free agent market indefinitely. Ownership seems unwilling to push their payroll much higher than it currently sits. If that’s the mandate, the team needs to rebuild because they won’t be able to be successful if they don’t.
If they decide to rebuild, they need to be willing to trade everyone (except Fulmer) and eat a portion of their contracts. It’s hard to know what was rumor and what was fact, but the Tigers seemed unwilling to absorb a large portion of Verlander’s contract in a deadline deal. That’s absolutely the wrong approach. Most teams aren’t going to be interested in Verlander for $28 million a year. If they have $28 million to spend they can use it to sign a younger, better player on the market this winter. What the Tigers can offer other teams is Verlander at a salary well below market value. Doing so creates value and increases the prospect return. And that prospect return is how you rebuild.
The same is true for guys like Kinsler, Iglesias, Castellanos, and Upton if he doesn’t opt out. Those players don’t have the same size contracts, but the Tigers should be willing to absorb money to get back better players. Miguel Cabrera is a special case because he’s performing so poorly at the moment, but they should absolutely try to trade him using the same contract absorption method once he looks healthy.
The Tigers have good players who are paid like good players. Other teams wants good players, but they can get good players who are paid well on the free agent market. In order to create trade value, you have to offer good players at low salaries. That’s the decision the Tigers have to be willing to make as they approach rebuild.
If the plan is to simply offload salary, the only justification is that they would turn around and sign new players on the free agent market. That’s also a fine approach. If you want to dump salary to chase Harper in two years, that’s okay. If you want to dump salary so the Ilitch balance sheet looks better during down years, that’s not.
Al Avila completed a successful deadline but the real work is waiting. The Tigers have to chart a course. Either tear it down or spend a lot of money. I’m agnostic about the direction, but they have to pick a direction and start executing. Trying to hold this team together and improve around the edges is a recipe for failure.