Avila says Tigers could start 2017 with same gang

Chris McCosky, The Detroit News
Ian Kinsler

National Harbor, Md. — The phones weren’t exactly ringing off the hook in the Tigers war room on Day 1 of the Winter Meetings on Monday.

“We’ve talked to a few teams here, more than a few,” general manager Al Avila said. “But right now, there’s nothing I would call hot and heavy.”

And, contrary to what seems to be the national perception, that’s perfectly OK with him.

“Our message has been clear from Day 1,” Avila said. “Our mission, as we move forward, is we’re going to do things in a different manner. We’re going to be more reliant on scouting and player development. We’re going to sign, develop and keep our good prospects, as opposed to utilizing them in trades.

“We would like to reduce our payroll and get under the luxury tax.”

But, Avila said, that doesn’t mean the Tigers are going to just dump salary. There has been no mandate from owner Mike Ilitch to do so. He has instructed Avila to make the best deals possible; and if there aren’t good deals to be made, so be it.

In fact, when asked if it was possible the Tigers could start the season with the same group that finished last season — including J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera — Avila didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” he said. “Very possible.”

Several factors have altered the landscape since Avila spoke in his postseason address in October.

The new collective bargaining agreement raised the luxury tax to $195 million — between $5 million and $10 million less than teams expected. So clubs, even the big-market teams, have less to spend (or in the Tigers case, less room to absorb a big contract in a trade).

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Also, the new structure puts a premium on teams keeping and developing the young players who are still under team control. Those are the types of players — players who are projected to be everyday big league players within a year or two — the Tigers are seeking in trades for their established, expensive stars.

“I’ve never said we’re going to be pushing to trade players,” he said. “I’ve never picked up a phone and said, ‘So-and-so is available; what will you give me for him.’ What we’ve said is, we are willing to engage in conversation about any player on our roster.”

Avila said the club will have substantial contracts coming off the books after 2017 (Martinez and Kinsler, possibly Justin Upton) and 2018 (Anibal Sanchez and Victor Martinez), so some of the financial hardship will fall off naturally.

“My main message, though, is once that money falls off, don’t look for us to sign guys for $100 million or $200 million,” Avila said. “That’s not what we’re going to do. We are going to be more prudent and more conservative in our approach.”

Avila still is taking calls. There is still a chance he makes a deal or two before these meetings end. But at this point it seems highly unlikely that Cabrera or Verlander is traded.

The most likely player to be moved remains J.D. Martinez. There are teams, like the Mets, who still have interest in him.

“If we can use a player to make a good baseball trade and make our transition (to being more cost-efficient) smoother and faster, we would look at that trade,” Avila said. “If not, we will stay the course the best we can, and we would probably be more competitive next year doing that.

“If you can’t get a good return and you have to settle for fringe-type guys, it behooves you to keep your player, the guy who is going to help you now.”

Keep in mind, too, all those players could be back up for discussion at the trade deadline. And, as the Tigers found out in 2015 when they were able to parlay Yoenis Cespedes and David Price into three-fifths of their present starting rotation (Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd), their value could be much higher in July.

In the meantime, Avila and his staff are scouring the league for a center fielder. As it stands now, Tyler Collins, JaCoby Jones and Anthony Gose will come to spring training and fight for the job.

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“We like Jones, we feel he could be the center fielder,” Avila said. “Although, best case, he would start the year in Triple A. In that case, it would be in our best interest to get a guy who can play in center and buy some time for Jones.”

Avila said he was attacking all available avenues.

“Maybe we can get that guy in a trade,” Avila said. “Maybe we can wait until January and get a guy for $2 million or less to be a temporary fix. Maybe we can plug that hole with a sixth-year minor league free agent. We’ve had a lot of talk on certain sixth-year minor league free agents.

“We will attack it from every front.”

One player that might fit the bill is Ben Revere, who was non-tendered by the Nationals. He’s 28 and coming off the worst offensive season of his seven-year career. A career .285 hitter, he battled an oblique strain early in the season and his average fell to .217.

But, he’d not hit lower than .298 in the previous four seasons and averaged 33 steals a year from 2011 through 2015.

Avila did not comment on Revere specifically, but because so many teams need center fielders, he could end up being out of the Tigers price range.