Henning: Tigers fans should brace for severe change

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
After a career revival, Tigers ace Justin Verlander could draw serious interest from a team like the Dodgers.

We have heard this before, of course.

The Tigers have missed October’s playoff fest. Ownership decides payroll is at its peak and there’s nowhere to go but down with next season’s salaries.

And then: It is January. Or the early days of February. Tigers czar Mike Ilitch gets itchy. A particular player (see: Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Johnny Damon, Justin Upton, etc.) is available for a particular hole on the Tigers’ ever-welcoming roster.

Ilitch decides to spend cash that supposedly wasn’t available. The Tigers, having torn a fat page from their checkbook, get busy chasing a pennant with newly financed firepower.

Tigers history, in that sense, begs skeptics to wonder about the front office’s present fiat to pare a nearly $210-million payroll in 2016 to something significantly lower in 2017. The likely path to propriety: trades. Big trades that could involve some high-profile people fans won’t care to see leave: J.D. Martinez, perhaps. Justin Verlander, conceivably. Cameron Maybin or Jose Iglesias, possibly. And incredibly, even Miguel Cabrera, should, say, a team that theoretically could handle his remaining contract, the Red Sox, decide Cabrera would be a deft answer to losing the retired David Ortiz.

No matter who might be dealt, it looks as if this time the scale-back order is firm and not prone to January-February owner impulse. The Tigers were so far beyond their already-massive payroll range in 2016 they paid a luxury tax of a few million dollars, a penalty that rises to 30 percent of over-runs in 2017 if the ceiling is again crashed and a new owner-player contract resembles the expiring deal.

Throw in the fact attendance was down 200,000 for a team already carrying more overhead than a mid-range market tends to accept, and it’s no wonder the front office’s orders today are consistent with messages to Tigers executives early and throughout 2016: Salaries must — must — dip after a go-for-broke push by the 87-year-old Ilitch to squeeze a championship from his 2016 team.

Tigers eye younger, less expensive team for 2017

Tigers general manager Al Avila has stayed away from trade projections. But he has said the team will keep “an open mind” to all offseason scenarios.

The reason he will listen has perhaps less to do with trimming paychecks than with another reality easy to see and understand. The Tigers hope to get better for the long term. A team that has missed the playoffs in back-to-back years has, for all its spending, been short on skills playoff teams have in fuller measure: power arms, defense, speed, as well as youth depleted by free-agent spending that has cost the Tigers five draft picks, or led to trades that wiped out some farm-system nuggets (Willy Adames, Jake Thompson, etc.).

Proof for why the Tigers can and should opt for thinking younger could be seen in their 2016 team. And in some history that preceded it.

Michael Fulmer arrived as a 23-year-old rookie starter and looks as if he could be named this year’s American League rookie of the year. A pair of left-handers, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, became life-savers in a rotation ravaged by injury and ragged performers.

They now figure to become 60 percent of Detroit’s most important trait, its starting pitching.

But they came at a price fans weren’t wild about paying when then-general manager Dave Dombrowski opted for reality in July of 2015 and traded David Price and Yoenis Cespedes in deadline deals that gained the above trio. For that matter, trading Curtis Granderson in December 2009 upset Tigers fans — until Max Scherzer arrived and became central to a long playoff run.

Avila now has the same opportunity, or obligation, whichever term guides him during the coming months.

Trade chips

Verlander will finish high in Cy Young voting for 2016 and is the Tigers’ most indispensable player alongside Cabrera. But there are facts to consider, apart from his $28-million salary through at least 2019.

He turns 34 in February. Although he is gold as the team’s staff ace, he is on the field every five days. Moreover, he might be at the top of his market value. Teams such as the Dodgers, who need someone such as Verlander to put them over the top and who can afford not only his salary but the trade package required to land him, could find themselves asking Avila about Verlander.

Also true is that Verlander has no-trade latitude and would need to approve any deal. But a man who loves nothing more than pitching in the playoffs, and who has been on the sidelines the past two autumns, would be expected to OK any move to a billboard contender. The Dodgers loom as a possibility there.

Mensching: Improving Tigers’ fielding, running won’t be easy

J.D. Martinez also will be attractive. And that’s because a 29-year-old outfielder, in his three seasons with the Tigers, has batted .299, with 83 home runs, and a big .898 OPS, despite missing six weeks last summer. Martinez is signed only through 2017 and the Tigers, whether now or at next July’s deadline, would appreciate more return from Martinez than a single draft pick, which they otherwise stand to earn if he leaves for free agency.

Victor Martinez is in an altogether different world. Martinez turns 38 in December, is purely a designated hitter, and has a heavy contract ($18 million per season) through 2018. The best chance for any potential trade of Martinez, should the Tigers be so disposed, probably arises no sooner than next July, if at all.

Maybin is a possibility after a big 2016 and even when his $9-million option is all but secured for 2017. So, too, is shortstop Iglesias, although, as with Maybin and his center field spot, the Tigers would need to know they have a replacement at an essential up-the-middle position. Those guarantees aren’t necessarily available when the current prospect cast is JaCoby Jones in center and Dixon Machado at short.

The same applies with Ian Kinsler. He would be immensely marketable. But unless the Tigers find an offseason answer at second base, they won’t part with Kinsler. Neither are the Tigers keen on dealing young and affordable talent like Nick Castellanos (third base) and James McCann (catcher).

Justin Upton might have played his way into conversations after he caught fire during the season’s final six weeks. Upton more resembled a star left fielder and slugger, only 29, as he ended the year with 31 home runs, matching his career high. But he has an opt-out clause that could kick in next autumn. Teams won’t be in a hurry to add his $110-million contract that runs through 2021 when he could leave them high and dry next autumn, save for a 2018 draft pick.

Anibal Sanchez? Not many takers when he still is owed money ($16.8 million in 2017, either $16 million or a $5 million buyout in 2018), and had a brutal year split between the rotation and bullpen. Even less unloadable is Mike Pelfrey, the starter who had a horrendous 2016 and has an $8-million guarantee in 2017.

Miggy on the move?

It leaves for contemplation, however incensed it might make fans who see him as either invaluable or immovable, to mention Cabrera, the Hall of Fame-destined first baseman and No. 3 hitter who in nine years with the Tigers has crafted a niche alongside Cobb, Kaline, Gehringer, etc.

Miguel Cabrera

The simple question for Avila will be this: Would another team conceivably make the Tigers a fetching offer while biting on Cabrera’s contract when Cabrera has $212 million guaranteed through 2023?

The simple answer is: No. Not for a moment. Not even for a hitter of Cabrera’s other-worldly ways.

Except, of course, that the same relative mountain of money was owed Alex Rodriguez when the Yankees said yes to him in a deal with the Rangers ahead of 2004. In the case of the Red Sox, they know Ortiz had a knockout season at age 40 and that Cabrera ranks as one of the few hitters with a shot at doing extraordinary things at a prohibitive age.

Another perceived problem in any distant thoughts about Cabrera and the Red Sox is that there is no sign Dombrowski, embittered over his Detroit departure in August 2015, would care to do serious business with the Tigers.

Avila and his lieutenants are wrapping up meetings this week in Lakeland, Florida, with focus on future rosters and realities: Players to be jettisoned. Players the Tigers would be happy to add. Strategies for revisiting the playoffs, not only in 2017, but in the years beyond, have been part of a week’s conversations.

Avila will offer some sense for plans, broad and specific, when he meets with media members, presumably next week.

What is known is that a team from Detroit will be happy to chat during the coming weeks and months. You’re a big-league club with interest in some Tigers property? A team from Detroit will listen. And, yes, see what might be arranged in the mutual interests of one more big-league team aching for a long ride in October.