Henning: Tigers should rebuild rather than reload

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Two-and-a-half weeks to go for the Tigers.

And then comes the question, which is more important than deciding on Brad Ausmus or Ron Gardenhire or anything pertaining to Detroit’s manager in 2016:

Should the Tigers go for it in 2016, or get on with a visionary plan for a good longer-term baseball product in Detroit?

The answer from a guy who doesn’t own the team is simple. Continue to do this offseason what you began, wisely, to do in July.

Sell your sellable parts. Lighten your massive payroll. Bring in as much fresh young blood as possible. Re-seed the roster and farm system as best you can, all because down-the-road dividends will make 2016’s potential bruises seem comparatively meager.

Yes, this means the Tigers should consider unloading any players and contracts that aren’t as likely to produce a playoff team in 2016 as they’re apt to create problems beyond 2016.

That means you at least listen to teams that might be seduced by Miguel Cabrera’s availability. You do the same with Justin Verlander. Anibal Sanchez’s sore shoulder probably eliminates him for now as a trade chip, just as Victor Martinez is anchored in Detroit because of age (37 in December), 2015’s knee-induced disaster of a season, and a fat contract that runs through 2018.

But the Tigers would be better off pruning age and money — now. Their alternative is risky and potentially a death knell for baseball in Detroit heading into the next decade as due-bills mount and production decreases.

Will they do it?

Probably not.

Going for it all

Mike Ilitch no doubt wants at least another crack at the postseason. Circumstances suggest he’ll opt for a 2016 surge even if payroll needs to climb from its present $172 million to somewhere in the $190 million range, minimally, if the Tigers are to contend in 2016.

To get there, they will need to spend big for two free-agent pitchers. They will need to sign a closer and find a left fielder. They will need to uncover at least two more relief pitchers.

That’s a heavy shopping list for a team that already is approaching big-league baseball’s luxury-tax phase.

And suppose you do spend that $190 million, or more, which a serious 2016 run would require?

Does that win you a division? Is it worth chasing a one-game play-in as a wild-card team?

There are no promises in an American League Central that is only going to get tougher as the Indians and Twins and their young talent rise to join the prime-time Royals as teams at least as likely as the Tigers to contend.

This approach flirts also with a compound problem. Going for broke in 2016 could leave the Tigers with a wounded baseball product for too many seasons thereafter.

Necessary decisions will have been postponed. Trade values will have eroded as overweight contracts become shackles. Younger talent that might have been worked into the picture is either lost or is half the value of what might have been secured if deals had been made earlier.

These are the risks as the Tigers move closer to October and to Ilitch’s sit-down with new general manager Al Avila.

Long-term plan more practical

While a tempting case can be made for the Tigers to pull a worst-to-first rebound next season, the probability of age, injuries, and those Central Division rivals cycling up as their skilled kids arrive, means the Tigers have an enormously tougher assignment than they faced at any point in the past 10 years.

But this probably isn’t a point of view shared by a man named Ilitch.

He likely will tell his new GM, whom he wants to support immediately, to spend what he must this offseason, luxury tax or no luxury tax. Ilitch’s history and his status at age 86 suggests he’ll take a stab at it in 2016.

If things don’t work out, the Tigers could then offer at next July’s trade deadline all the expensive flesh they now hold and see if — a big if — the market makes an offload possible.

And should things come together and a team competes next summer, the owner will have been glad he gave it one more shot.

Percentages, at least as computed by a tally of this roster’s holes and the costs at patching them, make such a plan more of a fantasy than anything pragmatic.

Which is why July’s lesson is important. The Tigers were forced to make trades that hurt. But those deals were long-term gains for Detroit and will help deliver better baseball over multiple seasons in the years ahead.

Take a similar tack this autumn, hang onto your early cache of draft picks next June by not over-indulging on free agents, and you’ll soon have a team more in keeping with the club that during the past decade restored, and even enhanced, a rich baseball brand name.

The other option is enticing, granted. But after this season collapsed, and others loom as bad gambles, it’s time to look ahead.

Way ahead.

In the end, everyone will have been done a favor. Including an owner who probably has better things to do with luxury-tax fines.