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Henning: Tigers going for broke in 2016

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Inside the Tiger Club at Comerica Park, there was a press briefing Thursday that pretty much unveiled how baseball philosophy will shape 2016 and, maybe more scarily, seasons afterward.

The Tigers are gambling. Big. They believe they can win again — soon. And for the immediate future.

“We really haven’t had to talk about rebuilding,” Al Avila, the team’s new general manager, said at a table where he was book-ended by lieutenants David Chadd and John Westhoff.

“We felt with a few additional pieces we can be contending for championships for the next several years.”

Mind you, this came from a GM whose team won 74 games during a season that ended Sunday. This grand plan was laid out by a man, who in concert with owner Mike Ilitch, will soon begin pushing baseball’s fifth-biggest payroll in 2015 to more expensive heights as the Tigers begin a pricey quest for free-agent pitchers.

Is this the way to proceed?

Ilitch, fundamentally, has said yes. He authorizes budgets and writes the checks. He determines policy. His new GM also is on board believing the Tigers, who had just about everything go wrong in 2015, will have a reasonable share of good fortune that next year will mesh with new players and developing talent to bring a return contender to Comerica Park.

This wouldn’t have been my call, but Ilitch has 23 years of ownership seniority and a few more billion dollars within his net worth and can do what he wants with a team he still dreams of seeing win a World Series.

He and Avila can also make a case for sticking with playoff plans. But, again, it is a strategy loaded with risk.

Ace in place

What the Ilitch-Avila team and its allies see is a healthy pitching staff next year headed by a true ace, Justin Verlander. They envision Anibal Sanchez, who is reportedly fine after some late-season issues, settling in for what should be a more Sanchez-like 2016. They will sign an equivalent, top-three arm this season (and no doubt forfeit an early draft pick in 2016), add a lesser-profile starter, and then allow Daniel Norris or Shane Greene or Matt Boyd or some such candidate to duke it out for a fifth slot when spring camp convenes in four months.

Avila vows also to fix Detroit’s chronically ailing bullpen, even if the GM acknowledged Thursday that finding a legitimate closer will be “a tough task.” He plans in any event on adding at least two relievers, which figures to be the minimum this team will require if it’s serious about repairs.

Putting those pieces together will be expensive and will be anything but failsafe, given the roulette wheel that all teams spin when they attempt to project pitchers and expectations.

Elsewhere, Avila, in this view, is on firmer ground as he plots Detroit’s 2016 season.

Miguel Cabrera will be Miguel Cabrera, even as he turns 33. Victor Martinez should have a cooperative left knee in 2016, which can be a difference-maker. J.D. Martinez is a potential MVP-caliber hitter. Jose Iglesias bats .300 and is a siphon at shortstop. Ian Kinsler looks as if can be effective-plus for at least another season.

Youth movement

Avila’s most interesting vision probably is tied to his youngest horses.

He realizes kids tend to get better, sometimes dramatically so, if they have skill on the level of his key early-20s crop. He’s absolutely correct to anticipate better years from Nick Castellanos, James McCann, and Anthony Gose.

Nick Castellanos and James McCann

* Castellanos: He had a handsome .800 OPS during the season’s second half. He turns 24 next March and will hit more heavily in his third full year. People squawk about his defense. It’s below-average and never will be significantly better. But he can add an important step in his range, and that will be fine when third basemen who can swing a bat and shut down every ground ball within 300 square feet are scarce.

* McCann: A much better hitter than some scouts believed when the Tigers saw his potential and snagged him as their top pick in 2011. He has the talent to be an All-Star. In most years, when Rookie of the Year candidates can be thin, he’d have been a top-tier vote-getter based on his 2015 debut. Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa wiped him out, but the Tigers have a tremendous up-the-middle pillar here who will only get better in days ahead.

* Gose: Go back to spring camp. The Tigers, and most Gose students, thought if he could hit .230 or .240, Detroit would have gotten exactly the guy they needed from a typically tight market for center fielders. Gose, in fact, batted .254.

Granted, batting average is one set of numbers. He had a .688 OPS, he struck out 145 times and had 45 walks, and his defensive metrics were borderline alarming.

He is also 25 and was in his first full year in the big leagues.

“We think he can be an average major-league hitter and a well-above-average defender,” Avila said, and that thought is why GMs and scouts and their ability to project is taken seriously, especially when someone happens to agree.

But that also is scripting a great deal of everyday reliability on one-third of a batting order. The forecast fails to explain what the Tigers will do at a position at which offense is a must: left field. The options, for now, will be Tyler Collins, who is not a half-bad left-handed hitter, as well as a player to be determined, which isn’t likely to be an eye-popper when budgets will have been devoured by the pitching Avila intends to add.

This master plan doesn’t account for bench players, long an area of little muscle at Comerica Park. It doesn’t cover with any certainty positions and fill-ins should any of the key regulars get hurt, a reality too often on display in 2015.

And it doesn’t for a moment address what a Tigers team, loaded with hundreds of millions of dollars in contract obligations into the next decade, might do to escape debt and begin a full-scale rebuilding push should this team next year more resemble the 2015 club than the contender Ilitch and Avila are counting on.

If that happens — flip a coin and you’ll be close to 2016’s probabilities — there will be a mass sell-off at next July’s trade deadline.

The Tigers' plan counts on J.D. Martinez duplicating 2015's production of 38 home runs and 102 RBIs.

That is, if player value is sufficient to jettison some of those potential ball-and-chain contracts.

This was why Thursday’s grand blueprint was intriguing, and maybe chilling.

Not only next season’s baseball product will be affected by what happens this offseason. If things don’t work out in 2016, baseball in Detroit will be different, ominously so, for years afterward because of a fixation on goals that perhaps weren’t practical or achievable.