Paul: Tigers' big bat more likely to be added during season

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Ian Kinsler

After a flurry of activity to start the offseason, the Tigers' front office enjoyed a peaceful holiday break. But there still are issues to resolve once folks get back to work in the coming week or so.

Sadly, for Tigers fans, that work probably doesn't include signing Yoenis Cespedes or Alex Gordon.

Here's a look at what remains on the to-do list:

Trades and timing

The outfield market still hasn't fully developed, outside of the whopping and ridiculous $183-million contract the Cubs decided to give Jason Heyward.

Cespedes, Gordon, Justin Upton, Chris Davis and Dexter Fowler headline the list of still-unemployed outfielders, giving hope to Tigers fans that the price may drop so much, Cespdes or Gordon could end up wearing the Olde English D.

My advice: Don't count on it.

The Tigers, despite what Mike Ilitch may have hinted at back at the Jordan Zimmermann press conference, don't plan to go much over the $189-million luxury-tax threshold, and they're just about hitting their head on that ceiling right now.

The only way the Tigers would feel comfortable adding one of the big-name left fielders is if they could get one of them on a one- or two-year deal -- a pipe dream -- or somewhow stay under the luxury tax, and the latter scenario would require a trade of some sort.

The most common name thrown out there is second baseman Ian Kinsler, now that the Tigers have added utilityman Mike Aviles, and have prospect Dixon Machado in the fold. But this seems unlikely to happen, for a couple reasons. For starters, the Tigers love Kinsler, not just because he's a Gold Glove-caliber defender, but also because he's a huge clubhouse presence.

Also, trading Kinsler -- who's only making $14 million in 2016, down from $16 million -- still likely wouldn't be enough to create under-tax space for Cespedes or Gordon, both of whom are likely to command deals worth more than $100 million. And even if it did, subbing Kinsler for a good-hitting outfielder would just be robbing Peter to pay Paul; in other words, the offensive deficiency would simply switch from left field to second base. So, really, there's not much of an upgrade there, especially since the Tigers are nowhere near convinced that Machado is close to being an everyday major-leaguer.

Another Tiger who could be traded, Nick Castellanos -- yes, there have been inquiring phone calls -- wouldn't be nearly enough to balance the books to sign an outfielder. Castellanos still barely makes the league minimum.

The likeliest course of action here, then, is for the Tigers to stand mostly pat the rest of the offseason -- there are whispers they could add another, cheap reliever, and maybe a small-name outfielder, probably one who bats right-handed -- and, instead, wait to make their big splash during the season.

The Tigers don't feel they have the financial flexibility to hand out another huge deal that would stretch close to or beyond 2020. But at the trade deadline, they'd be comfortable enough to add a big bat who's got two years or less on his contract. The Tigers feel they've done enough upgrading to their pitching -- the rotation as well as the bullpen -- to keep them contenders well into the summer and beyond.

Iltich, of course, can wake up one morning and say, "The hell with it," and sign whoever he wants. That remains a long shot, today, however.

So if all you wanted for Christmas was Cespedes or Gordon, well, sorry, you're probably getting socks.

A deal for J.D. Martinez?

The Tigers haven't yet started serious negotiations on a contract extension with J.D. Martinez, but those likely will happen, in earnest, early in January.

Both sides are believed to have significant interest in getting a deal done. But what would an extension look like?

J.D. Martinez

The best guess here is something in the four-year, $60-million range, and probably backloaded.

Martinez is projected to earn $7.3 million in arbitration for 2016, up from $3 million in 2015. The Tigers are counting on that being the minimum salary for 2016. But if they backload an extension, they might be able to save some money up front and turn that into yet another addition to an already heavily-revamped bullpen.

I can see something like this: $6 million 2016, $15 million in 2017, $18 million in 2018 and $21 million in 2019.

This would be beneficial for both sides, as the Tigers would save in the front, and pay in the end, when they have more flexibility when other contracts expire.

Meanwhile, Martinez, a fiscally-conscience athlete who came from humble beginnings, would be set for life, and only would give up the first two years of free agency, allowing him to hit the market before his 33rd birthday with a chance at a mega payday -- a payday that would be guaranteed should he continue on this torrid pace, during which he's hit 61 homers and posted an .893 OPS the last two seasons.

Outfield positioning

This isn't on the to-do list until the spring, but it's interesting to take a look at now.

The Tigers, again barring any surprise big addition, will have to decide who plays left and who plays center, between Anthony Gose and Cameron Maybin.

Anthony Gose

Both are natural center fielders, and Gose is considered the better overall defender, which seemingly would play well for making the case he stays in center field.

Not so fast.

It seems Detroit is leaning toward starting Gose in left and Maybin in center, for a couple reasons.

One, Gose has a cannon for an arm -- something mostly center fielders don't have, and frankly, don't often need.

Gose's arm is better suited for left field, where he'll have more chances for assists. Just ask Martinez and Cespedes, who racked up 15 and 13 assists, respectively, from the corners in 2015. Martinez ranked tied for fourth and Cespedes tied for sixth among all MLB outfielders.