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Henning: It’s big week for Tigers as Avila ponders ’17, beyond

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
J.D. Martinez

National Harbor, Md. – The Detroit Tigers flew into Washington, D.C., Sunday for baseball’s Winter Meetings, otherwise known as Black Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. For 30 big-league clubs whose best shot at getting better often comes during three full days of stop-ins at hotel suites where teams are headquartered, or during phone chatter that make the Winter Meetings Verizon’s best friend, this is heavy retail time.

The Tigers and general manager Al Avila are staring at business strategies that could go either way as teams settle into the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center:

Play for 2017: This happens if the Tigers aren’t happy with offers for players they’d prefer to trade in the quest to get younger and less costly. And those trades happen only if the Tigers swap, for example, Justin Verlander, or Ian Kinsler, or J.D. Martinez, or Francisco Rodriguez, or others, for skilled youth that could boost their long-term stock.

The Tigers would justify a playoff push for 2017 on the strength of healthy starting pitching that, if he’s not dealt, would include Verlander, Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and presumably, a healthy, back-intact Jordan Zimmermann.

Play for the future and immediate payroll relief: This is the Tigers’ preference. It is a goal shared by the front office and by owner Mike Ilitch, who is still in charge and who is deferring to his front office on shaping priorities that focus first on Detroit’s baseball product.

This fine-line approach has created a sense of palace intrigue. But there’s not a lot of drama at work.

Avila wants to get younger and less expensive for reasons that benefit a roster and a front office. The Tigers need all the tools youthful players tend to deliver at affordable prices. This has the potential to bring qualities to the Tigers not now in surplus – speed, defense, harder throwers – at the same time a lowered payroll gives the GM wiggle room down the road to add a difference-making piece.

Ilitch sees the wisdom in all of the above, as well as an escape from a payroll on which he now pays luxury tax and will continue to pay luxury tax in 2017 (perhaps upwards of $10 million) if payroll isn’t chopped.

But he is not ordering cuts. Rather than have Avila make tepid trades, Ilitch would approve another all-in approach to 2017, which isn’t far-fetched when one considers how injuries (Zimmermann, J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos, etc.) whacked the Tigers in fairly abnormal ways last season.

Ben Revere could be on Tigers’ short list for center field

Still, the owner has known as the GM has understood that the Tigers have been spending well beyond their allowance and that last year’s spending spree earned them nothing more than a sideline seat at playoff time.

So, the owner has agreed, make some deals. Big deals, if they’re there. As long as it makes the Tigers a healthier franchise for the long haul.

The Tigers have managed only a single piece of significant business in the two months since they closed shop on 2016. They decided a team spending its dollars sensibly couldn’t justify Cameron Maybin and his $9 million option. Rather than simply give Maybin away, they tried to trade him – and found one of 29 teams interested: the Angels, who landed him for a hard-throwing, right-handed reliever, Victor Alcantara, who isn’t a big-percentage bet to make the big leagues.

JaCoby Jones needs more time in Triple A before he become the Tigers' everyday center fielder.

The Tigers decided they had other, more practical options next year in center field, beginning with JaCoby Jones, who covers a great deal more ground than Maybin and who has infinitely more power. He might strike out, he might not hit for average, but his strong Arizona Fall League showed a prospect, 24 years old, can probably help Detroit in 2017, especially if paired with a helping hand, say, along the lines of Ben Revere, who was just non-tendered by the Nationals.

J.D. Martinez remains the Tigers player with the friendliest odds for being traded this week. But be mindful that he is part of a rare, right-handed power glut on this year’s market. The Tigers could leave town this week convinced Martinez would draw a potentially greater bounty at next July’s deadline, which of course would happen if the Tigers aren’t in a compelling playoff lane.

Avila, in this sense, is caught in something of an in-between time with the Tigers. They aren’t necessarily in a rebuilding mode. And they aren’t of a mind or of means to make a serious World Series push when they have an overweight payroll and an under-nourished roster.

So, again, they will shoot for a preferred path that could lower costs and give the Tigers a better shot at winning into the next decade.

Is Avila the man to craft a blueprint this delicate?


People forget he was a scout and player-development guy whom Dave Dombrowski employed for two decades for a reason. Avila knows personnel, as he proved when he steered the Tigers to J.D. Martinez.

The GM got off to a bad start a year ago when he and David Chadd, his right-hand man, made a disastrous foray that brought Mike Pelfrey, a fairly bad pitcher, to Detroit, at a thoroughly absurd price ($16 million).

It is a certainty Avila regrets the move as much as any critic who panned it from the outset.

But that wasn’t his only transaction. It’s simply the one easiest for most people to remember.

Avila also pulled off an economical trade (Javier Betancourt) for Rodriguez and the Tigers suddenly had a deadly closer. Rodriguez may yet be dealt, with July a strong possibility there, for inventory that could make this a dual winner.

Mensching: No deals? Tigers’ rotation still in good shape for ’17

He got Maybin for a year at low cost. He got Justin Wilson for the bullpen, and Wilson now is on plenty of opposing teams’ wish lists. His signing of Mark Lowe blew up, but at the time it looked solid until it confirmed how difficult it can be to project big-league relievers.

Zimmermann? This looks today like a prime reason to avoid that baseball trap-door, signing starting pitchers anywhere in the vicinity of 30 or older. Zimmermann, though, pitched like a Cy Young Award finalist in April until neck issues turned his fastball to mush. If he gets it back in 2017, he’ll look like a smarter investment. But this single pitcher and his ability to get the Tigers quality innings in 2017 and beyond very much is a test of Avila’s foresight.

The Tigers could, suddenly, become one of baseball’s busier teams this week. Or, they could learn the market simply isn’t cooperating. They could, for sure, find their phones heating up once White Sox ace Chris Sale’s situation is resolved and Sale, perhaps, is pitching for the Red Sox, or Nationals, or Braves, or whomever pays the heavy freight Chicago is demanding.

If that’s the case, Verlander turns into a hot ticket and could draw the package Avila will command if the Tigers are to part with a franchise pitcher.

It’s all indefinite a few miles from a place, the United States Capitol, where dealing and strategizing by rival parties is known to have been the rule for a couple of hundred years.

We’ll know soon if compromise is part of this week’s mindset. Or, if often times happens in Congressional sessions, everyone goes home with not a great deal having gotten done.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning