Henning: Tigers’ long-term plan is to cut payroll, get younger

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

He saw no reason to mention it Saturday during a press briefing, but Al Avila understands he will be trading players. He needs fundamentally to ease Detroit’s $200-million-plus payroll, a one-year surge that can’t be sustained. The Tigers simultaneously want to build a younger roster that has more all-around baseball skill than the current group offers.

It might not happen ahead of the Aug. 1 (non-waiver) trade deadline, but dealing will be done. It will begin this week if a team delirious with playoff fever makes the Tigers an offer that can’t in good conscience be turned down.

It’s more likely the heavier peddling will wait for the coming offseason. It will continue through next July’s interleague bazaar and deep into the autumn of 2017. It is part of a master plan the front office and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch have accepted as necessary and potentially beneficial.

Prepare to see, more likely this November and December, any of the following names relocate:

Justin Verlander. J.D. Martinez. Francisco Rodriguez. Ian Kinsler. Justin Upton. Not to mention Victor Martinez, who, because of his contract and age is more likely to interest a team next July if his body and hitting skills can stay aligned for another year.

Big names with big salaries. And with significant market value remaining. The Tigers will patiently wait on the best possible trade overtures for their high-profile veterans. And because they don’t expect to be wowed this week, it is easy for Avila to say, as he did Saturday, that the team will likely sit still in the hours before the Aug. 1 deadline.

He does not care to trade young talent for old in a bid to be a sturdier contender. And if more serious contestants aren’t likely to dazzle him with offers this week, it’s practical for Avila and the Tigers to say they’ll ride out the playoff race when they’re within mathematical realities of it.

But don’t be misled. That payroll is coming down and a roster will steadily be turned over, with most of the heavy work coming in the next 18 months.

Tigers payroll around $207 million

Begin with one basic fact governing the Tigers in 2016.

They have not adopted a new year-to-year ceiling on salaries. The $200-million plunge in 2016 was a one-year exception.

The Tigers are paying a slight luxury tax (in the vicinity of $3 million) on the 2016 payroll that is commonly undercounted. And the reason it typically is undervalued is because big-league payroll has many elements: salaries of all players on the 40-man roster, salaries of disabled players on the 40-man list, money owed past players with annual payouts (Prince Fielder, for example, whose salary is still subsidized to the tune of $6 million annually from the Tigers), option buyouts (Joe Nathan, $1 million), and funds for medical costs, spring training costs, etc.

Avila: Tigers likely to stand pat at trade deadline

That’s how you end up with something closer to $207 million when a look at simple 25-man roster salaries falls well beneath the $200-million mark.

Ilitch decided he would go for broke in 2016. But the luxury tax, which rises in rate in successive years for over-the-top teams, is a punitive and untenable cost for his team, beyond the more fundamental fact the Tigers aren’t a market that supports a $200-million payroll.

This is the understanding Avila carries with him this week and will be harboring throughout the coming offseason, which could see some of the most serious Tigers trading in years.

He has obstacles ahead and is aware of those, as well.

Players such as Verlander must approve any trade when seniority (10 years in the big leagues, five with the same club) allows them to say no to relocation.

Some contracts will not be easily moved. Miguel Cabrera, for example, is all but a permanent institution in Detroit because of the $250 million that remains on his axis-tilting deal.

Victor Martinez, likewise, who has $18 million owed him next season and again in 2018, couldn’t easily be swapped ahead of next July, if even then.

But others could easily be dealt.

J.D. Martinez attractive trade chip

Kinsler, who at age 34 is having another beauty of a season, would be attractive this autumn and could earn the Tigers a pleasant return — if they’re able to find a young second baseman to replace him.

A handsome second-base prospect is the style of player the Tigers might expect in any deal involving, say, Verlander, or J.D. Martinez, who should be a prized trade chip if he has a healthy finish to 2016. Martinez is 28 and is under contract for another season with the Tigers ahead of free agency.

Second walk-off wraps up sorry Sunday, lost chance for Tigers

About the only question that shrouds J.D. Martinez’s future with the Tigers is not if, but when, he will be dealt. This autumn, or next July in the fashion the Tigers last summer traded Yoenis Cespedes? Renewing his contract figures to be expensive in the extreme and perhaps an obstacle as the Tigers hope to add to their lineup younger, less expensive power in rookie Steven Moya and powerful prospect Christin Stewart.

The Tigers need to become less pricey and more skilled, meaning they want to re-fortify their roster with the kinds of talents that tend to be the province of younger players: hard-throwing pitchers, faster position players who can defend and sprint for an extra base.

The Tigers aren’t of that construct in 2016. Not sufficiently. And when your payroll becomes a compound issue, as it is for Ilitch’s team, there is no choice but to get busy planning for a brighter future.

That means trading and re-seeding a roster. And that means the Tigers are open for business. Shoppers may be few this week. They may be disinclined to pay retail prices the Tigers would insist upon.

But the trade mart otherwise is in session, and it won’t be long before Tigers followers could be witnessing some dramatic changes to Detroit’s baseball product.