Detroit — The complete rebuild is under way. There’s a new parking structure across the street, and new condos and businesses nearby. A short distance down Woodward, a hockey-basketball arena rises with staggering speed.
That’s all good and welcomed, fresh pictures of progress. Inside Comerica Park, there aren’t many fresh pictures, no introductions necessary. And you know what? That’s also good and welcomed.
A full rebuild by the Tigers never made sense, not with high-monied stars such as Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, not with a deeply invested owner in Mike Ilitch. General manager Al Avila swears it never was the complete plan, and no, he’s not surprised the team opened TigerFest Thursday with essentially the roster that missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
It’s the same reason the Ilitch-owned Red Wings resist a tear-down and build-up. It’s difficult to sell fans on a new competitive structure after years of contention, just as a new infrastructure is erected. The Tigers made one semi-significant offseason trade, dealing center fielder Cameron Maybin for a middlin’ prospect, and if you’re in the shake-it-up camp, you’d say Avila failed, so far.
Can’t sell them short
I don’t think so, not yet. If he made a mistake, it was touting the possibility of major changes to make the team younger and less salary-bloated. Those remain the goals, but Avila repeatedly said it could be a three-to-four-year process. The bigger mistake would’ve been dealing prime players — J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, etc. — for lesser, cheaper players in a weak market when a total rebuild wasn’t feasible.
So Avila and ownership held off, for now, and the players are ecstatic about it. And Avila is eager to clarify his stance, without changing his stance. The Tigers will be more prudent about long-term contracts, but they’ll also be patient with the roster, partly because they don’t have a choice. And also for this reason: They think they’re still good enough to contend.
“If we can’t do what we wanted to do this winter, well, it behooves the club to keep it as good as we can,” Avila said. “We’ll make adjustments as we go. We feel we can compete, we feel we have a chance to get to the playoffs and make something happen. Sitting here today, you can’t predict how the market is gonna develop between now and the trade deadline. But we’re hoping our team stays healthy and we’re right there at the deadline, looking at the playoffs as opposed to selling off.”
Avila was delivering his message to the media, and also to the fans. And he surely was delivering it to the players sitting around him inside Comerica Park.
The Tigers probably got some push-back after the season when Avila’s message included lines such as “Changes are coming.” I imagine the Ilitches didn’t like the way it was perceived, and Avila recently said he was under no direct orders to cut payroll.
The Tigers still could bump up against the luxury tax with a payroll near $200 million. They saved $9 million by trading Maybin, and that seemed like a precursor to more. But then the market shifted and other teams sliced payroll, which interestingly might have helped nudge the Tigers to stand pat.
“There was never a fire sale, we never shopped players, not one player,” Avila said, getting slightly animated. “We did receive several calls, but we were never pushing pushing pushing. This team has been together quite a long time, and at some point that’s gonna come to an end. But you can’t just listen to part of the message, you gotta listen to the full message — I said it might take three to four winters, not like right now, fire sale, gonna get rid of everybody today!”
Other teams sort of did, notably in the AL Central. The Indians are still the power, and they added slugger Edwin Encarnacion. But the White Sox dealt away star Chris Sale, the Royals broke up their stellar bullpen and the Twins might scale back even more. And the truth is, until the season starts, there’s no guarantee the Tigers won’t scale back.
But there’s no immediacy, and that’s a good thing if you care about watching competitive baseball at Comerica Park, and care to see icons play out their careers. I never thought Cabrera or Verlander would be traded, and Kinsler is both valuable and affordable.
“I like this team, I like this city, and I think we’re gonna be good,” Kinsler said. “I think we got better just because the other teams had a lot of subtractions. We have a good mix of veterans and young players. I think the industry gets a little confused that a young team is the way to win, and that’s just not the case.”
Trade deadline looms
It’s still a taut rope the Tigers are trying to walk. When we hit the old midseason buy-sell debate, they might do neither, and that wouldn’t be ideal either. If they’re essentially out of the race, Avila would have to shop players. And if they’re in it, Avila would have to try to tap Ilitch’s competitive fervor again.
And yes, the Tigers could be in it. They’re likely the second-best team in the Central, with a lineup that’s still poorly balanced but loaded with sluggers. If Verlander is dominant again, and young pitchers Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd are more seasoned, and Jordan Zimmermann bounces back, and if — IF IF IF — the bullpen ever gets fixed, it’s not silly to suggest they could contend.
Avila is unusual in his frank transparency, and it’s appreciated by media and fans. It also makes it possible for issues to be overblown. I get the notion that fans grow weary of seeing the same cast fall short, and the Tigers do need more fresh stars. Attendance has slipped, but fielding a bunch of unproven players would add to the slide. At this stage, only winning will stem the slide.
That said, the Tigers can’t just count on having a healthier team. They lost key guys — Martinez, Nick Castellanos, Zimmermann — for long stretches last year, which doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. It also doesn’t mean you unload for the sake of unloading, especially when your best commodities are too expensive for other clubs, or too young to give up. And it’s not like the farm system is bursting with replacement talent.
The Tigers were eliminated on the last day of the regular season, and the year before, they finished last. Before that, they won the division four straight years. Many of the same pieces are in place, which wasn’t the preferred plan, but all things considered, it’s not a bad one.