Avila: Tigers ‘need to get younger, leaner’

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera

Detroit – What Tigers general manager Al Avila did Tuesday during his annual post-season address was lay out his vision.

What he sees, and what he has recommended to owner Mike Ilitch, is a younger Tigers team with a leaner payroll, much more organizational flexibility and ultimately more depth. He stopped short of calling it a rebuild.

“I can’t call it a rebuild because we haven’t broken anything down,” he said. “So, no, I’m not comfortable with the word rebuild. I’ve read retool, I don’t know if that’s the right term. I don’t know if there’s a term for what I want to do here.

“But changes are coming.”

And yet, he remains hopeful the younger, less experienced, less expensive team he envisions for 2017 can compete for a playoff spot.

Tough duty.

“It’s a tightrope we have to walk on,” he said. “We certainly want to stay competitive. We certainly want to be able to get back into the playoffs. But at the same time, this organization has been working way above its means, as far as payroll, for many, many years.

“It’s put us in a situation where it’s very difficult to maneuver. It’s no secret the tax consequences we have to pay (for going beyond the salary cap in 2016). And if we continue that trend, it’s only going to get worse. It would be foolish to continue on that trend.”

Avila has drawn the line in the sand. These are no longer Dave Dombrowski’s Tigers. Avila made it clear he doesn’t plan to be a big player on the free-agent market this winter.

“The best way to build a good foundation and organization for the long term is not through free agency,” he said. “It’s through drafting good players, developing those players and bringing them up through the system.”

Henning: Avila ready to deal in mission to remake Tigers

Avila said Ilitch has not set any hard numbers, but clearly the payroll ($198.59 million last season) will not increase, and the goal is to reduce.

So how, exactly, is this going to happen? The only way it can happen is by trading away some of the team’s older players and expensive contracts.

“It’s not going to be an exact science,” Avila said. “We have to be open-minded to anything. That doesn’t mean we are dangling Player A out there to see what happens. But it does mean in our conversations with other clubs, we will be open to something. If a team has an interest in a certain player, we’ll take a look at it.

“If it makes sense for the Tigers, present and future, we’ll certainly consider it.”

Avila was asked if there were any untouchables on the roster, any sacred cows. Certainly Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander weren’t being put on the trade market?

“There are guys you would prefer not to (trade) particularly the younger guys that performed well this year,” he said, referring to pitchers Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris. “Guys that you have under control. You don’t want to trade those guys, but you can’t rule it out.

“Guys that are icons on this team, that have been here for years, most of those guys have no-trade clauses in their contracts or they are 10-5 guys (10 years of experience, five with the Tigers and can veto a trade). It’s going to be a difficult situation.”

This is the rub. There may be a wide gulf between what Avila wants to do and what he will likely be able to do.

Victor Martinez

Trading the likes of Verlander ($28 million per through 2019), Cabrera ($28-$30 million through 2020) and Victor Martinez ($18 million per the next two seasons) would be tough without eating salary.

The Tigers most attractive trade chips might be second baseman Ian Kinlser and right fielder J.D. Martinez, but how do you trade those cornerstones and tell your fan base you are still trying to win?

“We're going to go out and talk to 29 other clubs and see how we can start, little by little, making this team leaner, younger, more efficient, and at the same time, staying competitive, trying to get to the playoffs,” Avila said. “Not the easiest thing in the world to do, obviously. … But it has to be done.

“And it's not a process where it's going to be done in one winter. What we want to do ultimately may not be done between now and the Winter Meetings. It may not be done between now and the end of spring training. It may not be done between now and the next trading deadline. So it will be an ongoing process.”

Standing pat would be a worse option, Avila said. Trying to squeeze one more playoff run out of the current roster would be delusional.

“If you just stay status quo, it doesn’t tell you that people are going to get hurt again next year,” he said. “It doesn’t tell you that there will be some players who don’t perform as expected. Every year you have injuries and you have players who don’t perform as expected. It’s not as easy and clear cut as that.

“With our organization and its lack of depth, it’s dangerous to make it that simple. We’re not going to get faster. Our defensive won’t improve that much. Status quo looks good, but overall it might not be the best decision. That’s why we’re going into the winter with an open mind and see what changes we can make.”

Avila admitted, what he’s trying to do might not be doable this winter. But, he said, it’s time to alter the course of an organization who has been living above its means for years.

“It’s going to be a long process,” he said. “It may seem painful. But it could be fruitful, too.”

Twitter @cmccosky