Detroit — September is here again. But on a cool, autumn afternoon that certainly felt right for an important baseball game, the kind of game Detroit Tigers fans have grown accustomed to seeing — and feeling — for most of the last decade, there was something missing.
A day after a pair of bombshell trades sent franchise icon Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros and Justin Upton, the team’s best hitter in 2017, to the Los Angeles Angels, it wasn’t just that familiar faces were gone. Or that, as catcher James McCann said wistfully a couple hours before Friday’s doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, “This is a different clubhouse now, and it’ll be a different clubhouse forever.”
No, it was about those pennant races, too. And the realization, affirmed by the transaction wire, that the white flag Tigers management started waving last month isn’t going away anytime soon.
“Obviously, it is a sad situation, because we had a great run here for close to 10 years, building this organization and this team,” general manager Al Avila said Friday, less than 12 hours after he’d completed the most frenzied waiver-wire deadline day in MLB history. “And we’ve had some good, winning years. But like most things, it comes to an end. It’s a hard thing. But it’s a necessary thing, to be able to win in the future.”
Whether that’s necessarily true or not is debatable. But though the writing has been on the wall since last October, at least, there’s no doubt this was the day the music stopped, even if the semantics didn’t. Avila can’t call it “retooling” any longer, not after trading away arguably the best pitcher of his generation Thursday, just before the stroke of midnight. And he didn’t Friday, readily admitting, “This is an obvious rebuild move.”
But while he continues to insist there’s no directive from ownership to slash payroll — “If we had a mandate to dump salary, all these players would’ve been traded a long time ago,” Avila said — there’s also no denying the bottom line. Between lunch and bedtime Thursday, the Tigers’ GM managed to save owner Chris Ilitch more than $130 million in future commitments to Verlander and Upton.
There’s more austerity to come, too, with veterans such as Ian Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez likely to be jettisoned after this season. A decision on the future of Victor Martinez also is looming, which would leave only Miguel Cabrera from the last World Series roster in 2012. And after five consecutive seasons with payrolls ranging from $150-200 million, the message to the fans is clear: Hope you enjoyed it while it lasted.
“Once we’ve finished this, at some point there will be a turnaround,” Avila said.
But in the meantime?
“Hey, we’re gonna have a rough month of September,” he added. “And next year may not be all that pretty, either.”
Make no mistake, this has to be pretty painful for Avila, who joined the Tigers 15 years ago and has ridden the wave from that infamous 119-loss season to a pair of World Series appearances and the four consecutive A.L. Central titles. He also in the last month has traded away his own son in catcher Alex Avila, as well as two players he’d grown attached to over the years in J.D. Martinez and now Verlander.
Add the emotional ties to all of Verlander’s accomplishments here – the 183 wins, the MVP and Cy Young awards, the two no-hitters and the countless nights where he electrified the crowds at Comerica Park – and “those things really make it difficult to say, ‘I’m gonna trade this guy,’” Avila said.
So did the things Upton did in his short time in Detroit, particularly this season as the 30-year-old outfielder posted career-best numbers and proved to be, in the words of manager Brad Ausmus, “the single most consistent offensive player” in the Tigers’ lineup.
But Avila had a meeting with Upton’s agent, Larry Reynolds, while the Tigers were on the road in Denver this week and came away with a “sense” that Upton would decide this winter to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract, which still has four years and $88 million remaining.
“So I figured it was best to do this deal rather than wait,” the GM said, not wanting to risk getting next to nothing in return.
To Avila’s credit, he got quite a lot in the end. Much was made about an underwhelming return for J.D. Martinez back in mid-July, but it’s a different landscape now, with big-market clubs avoiding harsher luxury-tax penalties and even contenders hoarding prospects. Regardless, over the last six weeks, Avila, who replaced Dave Dombrowski as GM just after the 2015 trade deadline, did manage to pour 10 new players into a shallow talent pool in the minors. And of the four added Thursday, three immediately vaulted into the top eight in the Tigers’ organizational rankings.
At the top of the list is 19-year-old righty Franklin Perez, a top-50 prospect overall that Avila projects as a future front-line starter alongside this summer’s first-round pick Alex Faedo. Daz Cameron, the son of former major leaguer Mike Cameron, has “huge upside” as a center fielder, Avila said. And in catcher Jake Rogers, the Tigers think they’ve added a defensive backstop who’ll hit enough to be an everyday player.
Someday, that is. But when? That’s the question Avila had to dodge Friday.
“At some point in the near future we expect this to turn around, that some of those prospects will be coming up and making a difference,” he said “And then within a reasonable time we should be ready to go.”
But when I asked him to define “reasonable,” he balked.
“I don’t want to put an exact time frame on it,” he said. “Because all you have to do is look at other clubs and what they have done.”
Some take 2-3 years, while others talk about a 5-year plan, he said, “and there’s some teams, quite frankly, that it has taken them 10 years. I’m 59 years old. I certainly don’t want a 10-year plan. I just don’t see that in my vision.”
As for how the fans will view this, I’d imagine Friday’s matinee crowd of 26,093 will pass for a full house next summer. And probably for a couple years beyond that. Attendance already was on the decline the past few years.
“That’s always a chance that you take,” Avila said. “At the end of the day, you still have to make those moves. Because if you don’t, you’re gonna run the franchise into the ground. … Hopefully, (the fans) understand the process and they have faith in it.”
Hope isn’t a strategy for many, though. And as he finished speaking with the media in the Tigers’ dugout an hour before Friday’s doubleheader, Avila was confronted by a fan in the stands who shouted, “Do you miss Verlander yet?” Avila smiled politely and replied he would.
They all will, of course. Nick Castellanos called it a “bittersweet” day, only because he, like most others in the Tigers’ clubhouse, are happy to see their now-former teammates getting a chance to chase a World Series ring with a contender.
McCann, for his part, tried to put into words just how much Verlander had meant to this franchise — arriving as he did after a couple decades of losing baseball — and to this area, with all its economic challenges. “He’s a guy that whether he meant to or not, he brought hope back to the city of Detroit,” McCann said. And maybe, he added, Verlander can be a “figure of hope” with the Astros down in Houston, where the painful recovery from Hurricane Harvey’s devastation is only just beginning.
But as a different kind of rebuilding begins here in Detroit, one can’t help but wonder how long it’ll be before we see — or feel — the results.
“You know, if you want to be negative, you could say it’s the end of an era,” Kinsler said, offering a wry smile. “If you want to be positive, it’s the start of something new.”
Either way, though, on the first day of the last month of this baseball season in Detroit, it was hard to shake this empty feeling. From his vantage point, Kinsler shrugged, “They’re both kind of the same thing.”
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