Henning: Tigers want to deal, not solely lop payroll

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera

Phones began ringing more often Thursday in big-league front offices, including one in Detroit, and not surprisingly. Once a new owners-players deal was sealed Wednesday night, clubs had a greener light to talk trades while settling on free-agent strategies.

No names have been revealed from the Tigers’ conversations. But here is what’s known as 30 clubs pack for Sunday’s check-in at baseball’s Winter Meetings, which this year are set for suburban Washington, D.C.

The Tigers are not — are not — obligated by ownership to chop payroll even if luxury-tax punishment hits them again in 2017. They will make trades, likely one or two next week, if they’re offered players they see as making a team healthier for the long term.

If they don’t get deals they like, Tigers general manager Al Avila will take something similar to last year’s club into spring camp in 2017.

That’s important information but not exactly news. There has been a popular, stubborn belief that, behind the scenes, Ilitch family members have been holding a gun to Avila’s head ordering him to whack salaries. In fact, there has been no such decree. Ever.

The impetus for making the Tigers less expensive was always tied to a more fundamental need at Comerica Park. The Tigers had to get more speed and defense into their lineup. They’ve needed at least as much a parcel of young, hard-throwers. And not for one season’s playoff push, but for multiple years.

New CBA further incentivizes Tigers to shed payroll

Those skills happen to be more prevalent in younger players who deliver a dual benefit. They don’t cost as much early in their career and can be carried on a team’s roster for years ahead of free agency.

There’s your basis for expectations the Tigers would be major offseason wheeler-dealers. It’s younger talent first, payroll second, in order of a team’s priorities. And nothing about that sequence has changed in the minds of a front office or a team’s owners.

The question is whether Detroit can make the trades Avila ideally hopes to swing.

Big salaries and no-trade clauses already have complicated life for the Tigers and inquiring teams.

Cabby's hefty deal

Miguel Cabrera can be dealt — if the Tigers care to pick up tens of millions on the $213 million still owed him through age 40. It’s conceivable a team will bargain on some combination of salary and a prospect or two. But it’s highly unlikely.

The market for Cabrera today: Zero. All because a man who turns 34 in April has too much contract baggage. Even the well-heeled teams (Red Sox, as one example) are dealing with luxury-tax realities and new penalties that make Cabrera all but prohibitive.

So, unless a surprise awaits Avila next week, Cabrera is here to stay. Perhaps for the duration of his career.

Where Tigers’ roster stands at critical juncture

Justin Verlander is in a different situation. Slightly, anyway. He has $84 million guaranteed during the next three years, which isn’t necessarily a disqualifier for a man who nearly won this year’s league Cy Young Award.

Now that he and his fiancée, Kate Upton, have secured a new abode in Beverly Hills, Calif., it’s all the more tempting to see him as Dodgers property in 2017. Except …

The Dodgers are being elbowed by Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office. They’ve spent $1 billion on salaries the past four years, which isn’t a brand of economy favored at MLB headquarters. The Dodgers won’t easily add $28 million to their 2017 paydays, although they have options that might allow room for Verlander at the same time a prospect or two could please Detroit. These are why phones and the Winter Meetings can be a happy pairing. All it takes is a couple of earnest conversations and what seemed remote is today’s blockbuster deal.

Keep in mind, Verlander (or for that matter, Cabrera) can approve or reject any deal. It’s one more potential hitch in a possible swap.

J.D.'s trade appeal

J.D. Martinez is, for sure, your Tigers Player Most Likely To Be Traded during the next week. But he, too, isn’t without hang-ups. There is a bumper crop of right-handed power on the autumn market. Martinez is signed only through 2017. The Tigers can trade him, absolutely, because of his power and pure hitting skills. But will they get more for him now? Or, perhaps, next July, when a team smelling the playoffs, and maybe one big bat away from World Series thoughts, makes an offer along the lines of those the Tigers leveraged in dealing Yoenis Cespedes and David Price in July 2015?

Ian Kinsler is marketable, also. But it depends upon the team and Kinsler’s disposition toward it. He has a 10-team, no-trade clause. He has said he’ll approve any deal to one of those clubs depending upon his feelings toward it, and even then only if he gets a contract extension as a sweetener. Not a lot of teams need second basemen. Kinsler could easily be at Lakeland, Fla., in 10 weeks readying for his fourth season in Detroit.

All that matters in pondering baseball trades is will. The reason Detroit figures to make one or more swaps next week is because, absolutely, the will is there to get younger and better — and, in the process, cheaper.

Report: Verlander, Upton purchase $5.5M Beverly Hills house

Consider next the quality of talent Detroit might auction: Verlander, Martinez, Kinsler, or even Victor Martinez, or any pitcher who’s not named Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, or, perhaps, Matt Boyd.

There is inventory galore available for discussion. And for bargaining. It is known Avila has been asking Somerset Collection retail prices on his available players, which hasn’t greatly pleased certain GMs who can’t believe Avila was serious.

But that’s not a bad way to begin discussions. You can always come down. You can listen to counter offers. You can negotiate in the fashion GMs have jockeyed for as long as players have been dealt.

Expect something to happen next week in Washington, D.C. One deal, probably, at the very least.

What’s important for Detroit’s fans is to know the front office has its freedom. There will be no trades that don’t, in the eyes of a GM, make a team better and more competitive well beyond 2017.

That’s smart policy, it seems. It also makes next week’s all but inevitable business even more intriguing.