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LYNN HENNING

Henning: Ilitch, Avila piloting Tigers through possible turbulence

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
J.D. Martinez is one of the several free-agents-to-be on the Tigers’ roster, which could see significant changes next winter, if not sooner.

Lakeland, Fla. — We take you back in time 18 months (and a few days) ago.

And to a date when Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski were the two men most in charge of baseball in Detroit.

The Tigers’ organizational chart has since been torn up. Mike Ilitch has died. Dave Dombrowski is now running the Boston Red Sox. In their places have stepped Chris Ilitch, his father’s chief business general, and Al Avila, who was Dombrowski’s co-pilot until Mike Ilitch made Avila the boss in August 2015.

Had this new tandem been empowered, or even envisioned, as late as July, 2015, Tigers Nation would have been rocked. No one would have expected changes so bold to a franchise that had run steadily for so long.

Now, those whose lives are affected by the Tigers, whether fans or employees or players, can wonder what’s ahead.

As was written in the hours following Ilitch’s death Feb. 10, life at Comerica Park should continue pretty much on course.

At least initially.

“Chris and I get along almost like brothers,” Avila was saying last week, only a few hours removed from Mike Ilitch’s funeral at St. Clement’s Orthodox Church in Dearborn.

Avila mentioned that when the Ilitch family brings you in, “you’re like family.” And to be sure, Avila and the Ilitches are close — far closer than the Ilitches ever were with Dombrowski.

Longer-term realities can always chop at these bonds, of course, particularly if a team the family owns isn’t winning or having happy times at the ticket counter.

In this respect, Avila will be measured as clinically as any person within a family’s storied business operation.

What matters for now is that Chris Ilitch is aboard and aware of where the Tigers are, and why.

It was Chris Ilitch who joined Avila at last fall’s owners meetings as he began to take a more hands-on role in his Dad’s stead. It was Chris Ilitch who a month later, as the baseball trade mart collapsed, told Avila to hang onto his high-priced players and not worry about paring payroll if the Tigers couldn’t get a decent return.

Victor Martinez bulked-up, healthy after frustrating year

Chris Ilitch, who was feared by some Tigers students to be a cut-and-slash agent waiting for his turn to chop salaries and overhead, instead told Avila: Don’t worry for now about luxury tax. Don’t worry for now about payroll we each inherited. Don’t destroy a product, or a brand, we’ve all spent so many years rebuilding.

This shared view of Tigers policy, at least in early 2017, does not sidestep realities.

Dollars and sense

The Tigers stand to pay luxury tax of $10 million to $15 million in 2017 unless an improbable trade or two happens ahead of Opening Day.

At the same time, the Tigers know luxury-tax penalties are about to wither. They’ll lose significant payroll after the 2017 season: Anibal Sanchez ($16 million this season, $5 million buyout for 2018), J.D. Martinez ($11.5 million), Ian Kinsler ($11 million this year, $10 million or $5 million buyout in 2018), Mike Pelfrey ($8 million), Francisco Rodriguez ($6 million), Mark Lowe ($5 million).

The Tigers will need to find replacements, either by trade or by free agency, but the probability is they can bring aboard help at a price well beneath the $57.5 million they’re spending this year on the above cast.

Tigers general manager Al Avila watches the team's workout on Sunday.

That would get them out of the luxury-tax soup and enable a payroll Mike Ilitch chose to inflate begin to recede.

What can’t be projected is how badly Chris Ilitch, Avila, and the Tigers could be whacked by that suddenly austere baseball market.

This wasn’t in the cards, this across-the-board horror of spending big money on big stars, or trading for them. Teams hadn’t always held onto their kid prospects as if they were Sutter Creek gold nuggets while spitting at stars with fat contracts. But when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between owners and players was unfurled in December, luxury-tax fines became hyper-punitive, all as a new consciousness and ethic began to grip front offices.

The Tigers were among the last teams to spend lavishly on long, free-agent deals of the kind in Jordan Zimmermann (five years, $110 million) and Justin Upton (six years, $144 million). The Zimmermann deal was done, with Ilitch’s blessing, by Avila. The Upton deal was more or less ordained by Ilitch, who 13 months ago wanted a name-brand left fielder at Comerica Park.

The Tigers are now in a bind.

They need to get younger, not only for competitive reasons, but because youth carries the dual advantage of making payroll softer.

But to do that in a way that allows the team to compete in years ahead pretty much hinges on trading high-priced stars for promising prospects.

The Tigers had such plans for the offseason. Then came the market pivot that had begun taking shape even last summer. A team from Detroit was about to be stuck.

Whether anything changes by July, when contenders get hungry for playoff help and slogging teams like to spin stars for fresh blood, remains to be seen. But even if some of the old ravenous ways return, the Tigers, if they’re of a mind to sell, could find July’s market as bad as December’s.

There could easily be a glut of talent and plenty of sellers. The Chicago White Sox, for example, are almost sure to offer Jose Quintana, David Robertson and Todd Frazier, as they’ve been dangling them since the Sox decided last year on a total reconstruction. They began selling in December heavy inventory (Chris Sale and Adam Eaton) that had the all-important edge of being contract-friendly.

If there’s a similar surplus of flesh in July, the Tigers, should they be open to offers, could be boxed out. Next autumn? No one knows. But this market correction looks as if it could last a while.

Note, also, a new fact of life about departing free agents. And what that might portend for the Tigers and J.D. Martinez.

If the Tigers make Martinez a qualifying offer next autumn as he heads for free-agency, and he signs elsewhere, the old days of getting a first-round draft pick in return are over. At least for the Tigers. They would instead get a fourth-round pick because of their luxury-tax overload.

Rebuild on the horizon

All of this adds potential years to an inevitable Tigers rebuilding project.

If they can’t trade serious talent for skilled youth, as the market allowed in July, 2015, when David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria were all dealt for nice returns, the Tigers will be forced to re-seed future rosters the old-fashioned way — by taking their lumps, drafting early, and, hoping they can groom a new crop of contenders.

That can make for some tough summers in the interim. The question today, as Avila and Chris Ilitch plot this new tenure in Tigers history, is whether baseball’s business world will cooperate. Will trades that haven’t been feasible become doable? Will there be patience on all parts for a long remodeling of the Tigers roster?

And, finally, will two men who together have inherited something of a sticky wicket, be able to forge the kind of contender their predecessors, after some bumpy years, ultimately crafted at Comerica Park?

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @Lynn_henning