Tigers eye younger, less expensive team for 2017

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
With a big contract and a few excellent outings tempering an otherwise dismal season, Anibal Sanchez is likely to return.

By the end of this week, after five days of meetings at Lakeland, Fla., a Tigers front office will have specific people and scenarios in mind as it begins assembling a 2017 team designed to put Detroit back into the playoffs.

Payroll limits will be worked out between Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Al Avila. But even ahead of a firm number, it is the clear understanding by Tigers brass player salaries will shrink from this year’s nearly $210 million.

Thus, there will be no wild free-agent forays. Rather, trades designed to make the Tigers younger and less expensive are almost sure to evolve.

And then, of course, there is the matter of what to do with existing roster pieces that might or might not be headed back in ’17.

Begin with a best-bet group of those likely to show up in less than four months when spring camp convenes at Lakeland.

Andrew Romine: He is one of the handiest players in memory, a version of golden oldie Ramon Santiago who during manager Jim Leyland’s days always had a job because of Santiago’s knack for playing any infield position — well. Romine can do the same and tops off his bag of tricks by being a safe option even in center field.

This season, Romine hit .236, with a .624 OPS, which is why he’s a utility man. But he also made $900,000 in 2016 and can’t become a free agent for two more years. The Tigers will be bringing back Romine, happily, unless he somehow fits into a trade, which isn’t the most prescient of bets.

Tyler Collins: Collins is another probability to make the team in 2017, all because he has left-handed power and can play anywhere in the outfield, including center. Collins in his 134 big league games has a .709 OPS, which by no means is unacceptable when he’s 26 and when he cost the Tigers all of $511,000 in 2016.

Collins is the kind of guy destined for long-term big league employment as long as he stays healthy and as long as those offensive numbers climb, even incrementally. For now he looks like a fourth outfielder in 2017.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: His contract is up and so, almost certainly, is his time in Detroit. The Tigers thank Saltalamacchia for his service, but he hit .171 in 2016 with second-half numbers worse than most would imagine: .130, with a .471 OPS. He turns 31 next month, and even if he cost the Tigers only $507,500 as part of the $8 million the Marlins were still obliged to pay him, he isn’t the brand of overall catcher the Tigers will want alongside James McCann.

Figure, instead, on someone like — you might have heard of him — Alex Avila of the White Sox. Avila can’t be trusted, physically, to catch regularly after his years of concussions and assorted ills. But he is an expert defender, calls a game Tigers pitchers always raved about, and bats left-handed, which the Tigers need as a counter-point to their right-handed ways.

As the locals know from his seven seasons here, Avila isn’t big on batting average (.213 in 2016, .240 career) but he had another year chock-full of walks in 2016, which is why his on-base percentage was still at a gaudy .359. He also hit seven homers in 57 games and 169 at-bats.

And while he cost more than your average reserve, his $2.5 million salary isn’t bad by backup catcher standards. At least not when he figures to be insurance at a position that can be difficult to fill satisfactorily.

There is another man in the mix, of course. And that would be John Hicks, whom the Tigers pilfered from last spring’s waiver wire after he was released by the Twins. Hicks is solid.

He hit .301, with a plump .842 OPS, in 70 games at Toledo, which wasn’t overdoing it for a right-handed hitter who was a fourth-round pick by the Mariners in 2011 after he played at Virginia.

The Tigers, though, ideally might want Hicks as immediate big league depth no more than an hour’s drive from Detroit, even if they were initially to station him at Toledo.

Anibal Sanchez: Some will remember the 2012 offseason. The Tigers had traded that July for Sanchez in a deadline deal that helped Detroit lock up a playoff spot and crash the World Series.

That autumn, when Sanchez hit free agency, the Tigers were allowed and/or urged by Ilitch to make Sanchez a long-term reality. The Tigers signed a slick right-handed starter to a five-year extension worth a minimum of $80 million and a maximum of $91 million. The latter figure depends on what the Tigers do with Sanchez’s option year in 2018, which offers them a choice of drafting Sanchez for another year at $16 million or awarding him a lovely parting gift of $5 million.

These are hefty numbers for a man who lost his rotation spot in 2016 and finished with a scary ERA of 5.87. But it’s also true Sanchez pitched, at times, excellent baseball. With relative youth on his side (he turns 33 in February) and lots of cash owed him, the Tigers likely will dream Sanchez can help in their 2017 rotation or, at the very least, as a reliever.

Trading him probably would mean eating money on Detroit’s end. Unless, of course, the Tigers took on someone else’s uncomfortable contract, or ingested a sizable portion of Sanchez’s remaining money. All available evidence points to Sanchez returning in ’17.

Mike Pelfrey: The front office no longer is in denial. Tigers bosses know they blew it last December when they convinced themselves a right-handed pitcher with shaky career numbers was destined for solid times in Detroit.

It didn’t work out that way. Especially after the Tigers had spent, relative to Pelfrey’s skills and track record, lavishly ($16 million) on bringing aboard a right-handed starter who in 2016 had a 5.07 ERA and 1.73 WHIP.

The Tigers won’t care to digest Pelfrey’s paychecks in 2017. So, in a world where you try mightily to squeeze some form of livable dividend from big investments, don’t be surprised if Pelfrey goes north with the team in April, even as a long reliever.

Tigers' Cameron Maybin reacts after he doubles in the first inning.

Cameron Maybin: This is an interesting player, and not only because he hit .315 with an .801 OPS in 2016. Those numbers were high-water marks for Maybin, who arrived at Lakeland last February with career stats that didn’t approach his 2016 yield: .251 and .679.

Maybin was a bargain in all ways in 2016. He handled center field after Anthony Gose washed out, he cost Detroit only $5.5 million (another $2.5 million was paid by his former team, Atlanta), and he had something paleontologists determined had not been in Detroit for many millennia: speed.

Now, the Tigers must decide about 2017. And it’s not as tidy of a matter as meets the eye.

Yes, of course, the Tigers — today — absolutely will pick up Maybin’s $9 million option for 2017. That’s because he played like a $9 million player in 2016 and, more to the point, because the Tigers don’t have a great number of alternatives in center.

JaCoby Jones has the skill set to play center at Comerica Park. In fact, Jones, because of his terrific range, would be a defensive upgrade on Maybin. He also has much more power than Maybin.

Jones, though, strikes out abundantly and shows no particular inclination to master the strike zone. Or even pass his apprenticeship there.

For now, it means the Tigers will hang onto Maybin, pay him his $9 million option, all while monitoring Jones in this autumn’s Arizona Fall League in the event he shows promise in his bid to stop swinging at and missing pitches, bad and good.

Maybin won’t be going anywhere unless the Tigers get a center fielder as part of a plausible trade package. It’s a possibility to keep in mind. This offseason in Detroit has a chance to be a multi-episode drama that could extend well past December’s Winter Meetings.

As the man in charge, Avila, told media last week: The Tigers intend to keep open minds. Fans might want to do the same.