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Avila: Mission One is to upgrade Tigers pitching

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Al Avila

Detroit – He really didn’t need to discuss anything else.

The Tigers No. 1 priority this offseason, as general manager Al Avila laid out in his 80-minute media luncheon Thursday, was to upgrade the pitching staff – both the starting rotation and the bullpen.

“I think two starting pitchers, added to that rotation, will bring down some of these young guys that we don’t want to force-feed,” Avila said. “We can put them right there in Triple-A. It’ll give us the depth to get through 162 games.

“And then, of course, the bullpen. The bullpen needs to be addressed. We do have some young guys that we like that should be able to help going into next year. But we do have to acquire at least a couple of bullpen arms, and that’s going to be the key this offseason.”

There is no debating the need. Tigers pitchers had allowed the most runs (803), earned runs (746) and home runs (193) in the American League. Also, opponents’ .267 batting average was second highest and 1.37 WHIP was the highest allowed in the league.

The question is, who and how? The Tigers are prepared to spend money on free agents, but there are limits.

“I’ve actually talked to Mr. Ilitch a couple of times, and we’re going to have a very highly competitive payroll,” Avila said. “Like we’ve always had.”

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But that payroll isn’t likely to exceed the $189 million luxury tax threshold and there is already nearly $105 million committed to Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler.

Asked if he would ever consider trading a veteran player with a big contract, Avila said, “Anything is possible. If something were to develop that would perfect sense and make us a better team – and when I say a better team, not for the future five years from now, but a better team in 2016 – yeah, I am open to doing whatever would make the team better.”

Still, the idea the Tigers will be putting $200 million offers out for a starting pitcher is unrealistic.

“We want to add to starting pitchers from outside the organization,” Avila said. “One would be in the mix for one of the top three spots (with Verlander and Sanchez) and the other would be less (No. 4 or No. 5 starter).”

Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Shane Greene and Michael Fulmer, who pitched at Double-A, will be in the hunt for the final spot in the rotation.

“The starting crop (of free agents) is stronger than the relieving crop,” Avila said. “We should be able to acquire a couple of guys we like. I can’t put a name or money to it, but starting pitching is at a premium and back end of the bullpen guys are at a premium.”

Avila singled out Drew VerHagen and Alex Wilson as two relievers who have a shot at making the staff in 2016. Presumably left-hander Blaine Hardy is also in that mix. But Avila said pointedly that he didn’t feel there was a secure seventh-inning or eighth-inning guy, or a closer on the roster.

“Right now, I think it’s too soon to really put a name to any one position like that,” he said.

Compounding the problem, Avila said he wasn’t overwhelmed by the closers on the free agent market.

“That’s a tough task,” he said. “If you look at projected free agents out there, I don’t know that there are any. It’s something that we could get via trade, say a legitimate closer. But this is an area we’re going to be experimenting, exploring, whether it be with the use of analytics in combination with our scouts — can we come up with a couple of names that have the potential to be closers?

“And that’s going to be very important. Because sitting here today, I can’t tell you that there’s an absolute closer right there that we’re locked in on. So we really have to explore every avenue to figure out who can do that job for us.”

Daniel Norris

The Tigers still have organizational control over Neftali Feliz, who will face arbitration and made $4.1 million last year.

“I would say that we like Feliz, and we’ll be evaluating, we’ll be discussing him along with a lot of other guys,” Avila said. “I guess you could throw him in the mix.”

Avila made it clear that all avenues were open – free agency and trades.

“Our message is that we’re open for business, in the sense that if there’s anything that makes sense for us in a trade, we would do it,” he said. “It’s not like everybody’s set in stone. I mean, we know the guys that are set here in stone, as far as the position players and the pitchers that would be back.

“But that doesn’t mean that something interesting can’t come up in the offseason where we could do something that would be a little different than what we see today.”

But even there, he expressed caution.

“You have to be careful with trades,” he said. “To get a good player, you have to trade a good player, and probably one or two of those good young pitchers (that were acquired at the trade deadline). Trade them and you are back to that area of weakness.

“Free agent costs may be prohibitive or you give up too much in a trade – it weakens the organization on either front.”

Risk or no risk, the mission is to build the team back to a competitive level for 2016. This, Avila said, is no rebuilding project.

“We haven’t had that conversation,” he said. “We have players here that are veteran guys in the prime of their career, still playing at a high level – with some young guys who with improvement will be good complementary pieces.

“With a few added pieces, we will again be contending for a championship for the next several years. We have enough young players that will keep us in it.”

Twitter @cmccosky