Where Tigers’ roster stands at critical juncture

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Brad Ausmus could be looking at a radically different roster when the Tigers reconvene in spring training.

Detroit – Changes are a-comin’.

That’s been the mantra of general manager Al Avila since the end of last season. His aim is to change the Detroit Tigers’ business model, to trim the bloated payroll, to bolster the farm system and to put a younger and more athletic team on the field.

He has alerted teams that he’s willing to listen to any and all trade offers for his veteran stars, even for iconic, face-of-the-franchise players like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.

But – and Avila has said this often, as well – there is a wide gulf between what he might want to do and what he will in reality be able to do. These iconic veterans come with hefty contracts, no-trade clauses and, thus far, a significant price tag.

In other words, changes may be a-comin’, but maybe not right away.

With that as the backdrop then, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the Tigers roster stands as Avila and his lieutenants march into Washington, D.C., this weekend for the Winter Meetings.

STARTING PITCHERS

Top five: Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Norris (LH), Matt Boyd (LH).

Next three:  Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, Buck Farmer.

On the farm: Myles Jaye, Victor Alcantara, Chad Bell (LH).

Comment: The cornerstone of the next Tigers’ run will be the three young arms procured at the 2015 trade deadline – Fulmer, Norris and Boyd. But they aren’t ready to carry the rotation yet. Which is why trading Verlander, even if it makes economic sense and brings several top prospects, would be catastrophic to this rotation – especially with the uncertainty with Zimmermann, Sanchez and Pelfrey. Yet, that’s the hard price Avila seems willing to pay.

Francisco Rodriguez

RELIEVERS

Top seven: Francisco Rodriguez (closer), Alex Wilson, Justin Wilson (LH), Shane Greene, Bruce Rondon, Blaine Hardy (LH), Kyle Ryan (LH).

Next three: Mark Lowe, Drew VerHagen, Angel Nesbitt.

On the farm: Joe Jimenez, Adam Ravenelle, Sandy Baez.

Comment: Believe it or not, this is a pretty solid group. The emergence of Greene and Rondon last year, along with the two Wilsons, changed the face of this bullpen. There is also a good chance that Sanchez and Pelfrey will work out of the bullpen next season, which adds length and depth. If Rondon, Greene and perhaps Jimenez continue to develop like they did last year, Rodriguez could be a valuable chip at the trade deadline.

CATCHER

Starter: James McCann.

Backup: TBD.

On the farm: John Hicks, Miguel Gonzalez, Grayson Greiner.

Gone: Jarrod Saltalamacchia (free agent).

Comment: Avila is going to sign, or trade for, a veteran, left-handed hitting catcher before spring training. It could be Salty. It could be Alex Avila. But the club doesn’t want to begin the season with Hicks, a right-handed hitter, backing up McCann. The Tigers have been pleased with the offensive rejuvenation of Greiner – though he is also a right-handed hitter. He could emerge as the club’s No. 3 catcher by the end of the 2017 season.

FIRST BASE

Starter: Miguel Cabrera.

Backup: Andrew Romine.

On the farm: Dominic Ficociello.

Gone: Dean Green (Japan).

Comment: If the Tigers did trade Cabrera, they would have to hit the market for an everyday first baseman. Here’s a tentative free-agent list (not necessarily the Tigers’ list): Mitch Moreland, Chris Carter, Adam Lind, Mike Napoli, Logan Morrison. Ficociello had an up and down year last year, but he is a switch hitter with gap power and he’s getting stronger. He could make his Tigers debut sometime next season.

Dixon Machado

SECOND BASE

Starter: Ian Kinsler.

Backup: Andrew Romine.

On the farm: Dixon Machado, Argenis Diaz.

Comment: Kinsler has a no-trade clause with 10 teams and his agent has made it clear he’s not waiving it without an extension to his contract, which is up after next season. Even with that, though, there is a big market for him and he’s likely played his last full season in Detroit. And once he’s gone, the pain of the Devon Travis for Anthony Gose trade two years ago is going to be felt for real. The Tigers do not have a true, MLB-ready second baseman in the system. Presumably, they will move Machado to second, a position he’s barely played in his life.

THIRD BASE

Starter: Nick Castellanos.

Backup: Andrew Romine.

On the farm: None.

Gone: Casey McGehee (free agent).

Comment: Castellanos’ breakout season was interrupted by the broken hand last year, but suffice to say, he’s another of the team’s foundation pieces moving forward. It is a little distressing there is no third base prospect above A-ball in the system, though Ficociello can play third, also.

SHORTSTOP

Starter: Jose Iglesias.

Backup: Andrew Romine.

On the farm: Dixon Machado.

Gone: Erick Aybar (free agent).

Comment: Despite some concern, still, over Iglesias’ durability, he solidified himself as the team’s shortstop last year. He matured both as a player and a teammate. The Tigers, though, will almost certainly be seeking shortstop prospects in their trade talks. They’ve traded away some good ones in recent years (Eugenio Suarez, Willy Adames, Domingo Leyba). Left the cupboard bare.

LEFT FIELD

Starter: Justin Upton.

Backup: Tyler Collins.

On the farm: Christin Stewart, Jason Krizan.

Comment: It’s not being talked about much, but Upton is on the trade block, too. He can opt out of his six-year, $132 million deal after next season – which may be desirable for some teams. His value may be higher at the trade deadline than this winter, though. You can bet, considering how well the opt-out year worked for the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes, Upton will be supremely motivated to produce in 2016.

CENTER FIELD

Starters (platoon): JaCoby Jones, Tyler Collins.

On the farm: Anthony Gose, Derek Hill.

Gone: Cameron Maybin (traded).

Comment: Avila said during the General Managers’ Meetings that he would be shopping for a veteran center fielder. Though he also said he thought a Collins-Jones platoon could be serviceable. Most likely, if a center fielder is acquired, it will be at a bargain price – either a mid-level veteran (Austin Jackson?) or six-year free agent.

RIGHT FIELD

Starter: J.D. Martinez.

Backup: Tyler Collins.

On the farm: Steven Moya, Mike Gerber.

Comment: It seems almost certain Martinez will be dealt this winter. In a contract year, making $11.75 million, with three straight ultra-productive seasons under his belt, and no restrictions on where he can be dealt, he is the club’s best trade chip right now. Which leaves Avila with a tricky question. Does he give Moya one last chance? Or does he plug in a mid-level veteran for a year or two until Gerber or Stewart, or another youngster, is ready? Either way, it’ll be a deep drop from Martinez.

DESIGNATED HITTER

Starter: Victor Martinez.

Backup: Miguel Cabrera.

On the farm: None.

Comment: Suddenly there seems to be a market for Victor Martinez. The $36 million he’s owed the next two years could end up being more palatable to teams (like the Red Sox) than paying $100 million for the likes of Edwin Encarnacion or Joey Bautista. Of course, Martinez can veto any trade. But if he’s gone, the designated hitter position becomes a black hole in the Tigers’ lineup.

Twitter @cmccosky