Avila: Tigers will forge ahead as contenders — for now

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — How it all looks a month from now — the Tigers’ record, their status as a legitimate or hollow playoff team, the market for their tradeable players — might prompt a different stance.

But for now the mandate is clear, Tigers general manager Al Avila repeated during a Friday media briefing: The Tigers will ride it out. They will try and contend in 2017 and won’t yet mull any July trade thoughts.

“I do believe with the team we’ve got we should be able to win more games and compete,” Avila said, standing in the Tigers dugout as his team and the White Sox dressed for Friday night’s game at Comerica Park. “It’s more of a day to day thing. The closer to the deadline (July 31 for non-waiver trades), you want to be playing well.

“We’re just going to grind through every game and try and get our starting pitching on track.”

Avila and the Tigers have multiple issues that won’t easily be lessened no matter what happens during the next seven weeks.

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The Tigers were carrying a soft record (25-28) Friday but were only 3½ games behind the American League Central Division’s co-leaders, Twins and Indians.

It’s the kind of cozy proximity to first place that can make a team think about October and playoffs the Tigers haven’t reached since 2014.

But the team is also dealing with other realities.

A payroll far above $200 million means the Tigers will pay heavy luxury tax in 2017 if some pruning doesn’t occur. The brunt of that payroll is owed players in their 30s, which means experience and reputation can be expensive luxuries if a team isn’t truly contending.

The Tigers are 22nd among 30 big-league teams in batting average, and 17th in OPS. They are 28th in the more accurate pitching statistic known as WHIP.

Avila said it was foolhardy for the Tigers to consider July deals in June when so much can change, not only with his team, but with other clubs that might or might not be involved in July’s deals.

“We really look at our team every single game,” he said, shooting down thoughts of any firm July plans. “We’re also watching other teams right now. We have our scouts out there, monitoring what the market will be a month from now.”

He said the team’s situation in 2017 was akin to July 2016 when a heavy payroll and too few minor-league trade chips made buying at the deadline all but impossible. The Tigers missed any shot at a playoff chance with a loss at Atlanta in their final regular-season game of 2016.

“All along,” he said, “we’ve been a long shot to add salary.”

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Nor is the Tigers GM keen on dealing any hot 2017 prospects, the majority of which are pitchers.

“We’re trying to hang onto every prospect we can,” Avila said. “We’ve got some good young pitchers. I wish we had a few more position players.”

Avila acknowledged Friday that the 2017 Tigers have had their spurts, but too many breakdowns, across the roster, have sabotaged his team in too many games, as have injuries.

“We made some adjustments to the bullpen,” he said, “and we were getting great starting pitching. Now it’s kind of reversed, and we’ve got to get our starting pitching going.”

Avila spoke also of “defensive miscues” and an offense that “some days scores a lot of runs and other days it’s tough to get a hit.”

“There hasn’t been one huge hole,” he said.

Avila backed away from any suggestion outfielder J.D. Martinez, a free agent this autumn, will automatically be dealt next month rather than be lost for little compensation.

There has been no sign the Tigers will try and extend his contract ahead of next month. Martinez, likewise, has said he expects no conversations and no such agreement.

He said national media “trying to get something going” have spurred thoughts the Tigers are dead-set on dealing Martinez.

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“It’ll play out on its own,” said Avila, who is aware outfielders, even those swinging big bats, have been tough to trade during the past year.

Avila gave credit Friday to Brad Ausmus for his work managing the Tigers and said he had only one qualm: Ausmus’ focus on talking about team fatigue during a 10-day, 11-game road trip that ended when the team arrived home at 4 a.m. Thursday.

“I wasn’t wild about the road trip (talk),” said Avila, who Thursday night dined with Ausmus in Birmingham. “But, overall, he’s done a good job, as far as player moves. I think he’s made good decisions.”

Avila was, if not critical, plainly pained over pitching additions he authorized that didn’t work out, specifically in the cases of Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe, both of whom were cut during spring camp with a combined $13.5 million yet owed them.

“For me, it’s a knife in my side every day when you wake up,” he said, explaining that Pelfrey, particularly, was an anguished case.

“He tried everything he could,” Avila said of a right-handed starter who now pitches for the White Sox, “and we tried everything we could.”

Lowe, he said, had good seasons with Seattle and Toronto and “just fell off the face of the earth.”

He also acknowledged that Jordan Zimmermann, who was Avila’s and the front office’s choice 18 months ago when Zimmermann was signed to a $110-million, free-agent contract, hadn’t pitched to expectations but that, “with Zimmermann, the book isn’t closed.”

Avila repeated that the Tigers — for now — will stick to the script. But he acknowledged things could change if a month from now playoff thoughts appear more of a delusion. Just as important if the team does decide to deal, he’ll need other teams, as well as a marketplace, to cooperate.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of things to focus on,” he said. “But our job is also to look at the team, in general.

“We are looking at the overall process. But right now, we feel with what we’ve got, we can win.

“I’m not looking at next year or the following year.”