What had been known unofficially throughout baseball became known, for the record and for front offices everywhere to ponder, 10 days ago when Al Avila met with media hours before a game at San Diego.
It was a Tigers general manager’s latest declaration that his team essentially was for sale.
“Right now, based on where we’re at and how we’ve been playing, I’ve got to keep all options open,” Avila said, making sure the realtor’s sign that had been in place on Comerica Park’s lawn for a good year or more was firmly staked.
“And I have to start thinking about listening to clubs. If there is any interest out there, I have to open myself up to being flexible and listen to what might come our way.”
This is what “being flexible” will mean during the next four weeks ahead of the annual end-of-July interleague trading deadline.
It will mean that any player on the Tigers roster is available, assuming there’s a fair and appealing offer tossed Avila’s way.
J.D. Martinez? All but gone, providing there is an earnest buyer, which isn’t guaranteed. He is a few months from free agency, the Tigers cannot afford him long term, and they would appreciate more compensation than a marginal pick in next year’s draft.
Alex Avila? What a handy left-handed bat and multiple-position, stretch-drive bonus a team can procure here. Figure on blood becoming thinner than trade water during Al Avila’s upcoming phone conversations.
Justin Wilson? Also a reasonable bet to be working elsewhere, for a heavy contender that could find its way into a World Series given the strength and mastery of Wilson’s left arm.
Jose Iglesias? He likewise could be spinning ground balls into silk as a needy team’s summer replacement at shortstop. He is becoming expensive and does not figure into the Tigers’ long-term plans.
Justin Verlander? He needs to pitch in October and that isn’t going to happen in Detroit probably for some time. But timing is everything when you carry his generous contract. And his Sunday start against the Indians, a certified clunker, was noted by any team with even casual interest in a Tigers ace.
Ian Kinsler? If there is a shopper, and no team at the moment is hurting for a second baseman, he probably goes. But minus a market there’s no chance he moves.
The Tigers, as Kinsler’s and other availabilities confirm, have been hit with a flurry of factors that necessitate as many justifiable trades as can be made during the next four weeks — and beyond, given that waiver deals can be concocted after July 31.
They are a low-grade playoff contender, as their 36-45 record makes clear. They are well beyond their payroll means and have been so for some time now. The difference is they’re now paying a stinging penalty (luxury tax this year, potentially of $15 million or in such a vicinity) at the same time they need to get busy restocking their farm with legitimate new-wave prospects.
There is only one problem with the above scenario, beyond the fact fans won’t be wild about seeing some of the above leave town.
Trades will be difficult, and in some cases, all but impossible during the coming weeks and days. Lots of clubs have blown engines during this year’s playoff chase and will be dangling inventory galore for browsing shoppers to grab at prices that often will be closer to wholesale than retail.
It’s not going to be easy in 2017 — for any GM with parts to sell.
The Tigers understand realities here. Avila was open for business last autumn and winter, only to learn what all front offices were coming to understand: Baseball had changed. On a dime. No more big, big contracts. No more dispensing young talent as if they were grocery store coupons.
No more trading young, affordable talent for aged, high-priced stars who so many times prove disappointing or regrettable, athletically and financially.
The Tigers were shut out on dealing some of the above names, which they were absolutely prepared to do.
Avila can’t be sure the market will have changed substantially as he heads into July. Hence, the hedges. Hence, the “we’re still trying to win” mantra that is absolutely true but absolutely denies a greater reality about the Tigers: They really need to make a bunch of swaps.
This is how the various Tigers properties shake out as trade chips heading into the thick of July’s conversations.
Contract status: Free agent at end of season.
Potential trade partners: Rays (surprise contenders who could use another bat), Rockies, Nationals, Cardinals, Yankees.
Trade probability: 75 percent.
Analysis: This would rank as a 100-percent guarantee if this were a typical mid-season market. But it's not. Therefore, it might take an injury to turn Martinez into an auction item that draws multiple bidders.
Martinez has joined Norm Cash in the realm of all-time Tigers steals. The team signed him in 2014 after the Astros had somehow abandoned a young outfielder who had rebuilt his swing.
Avila knew of Martinez and all but chloroformed him to keep him away from other suitors. The Tigers got him for the price of a car Verlander might drive.
He has since become one of the finest hitters and purest power bashers in the game.
But to keep him in Detroit would require an expenditure and commitment the team can’t, and really shouldn’t, make at this point in a club’s timeline.
If old rules applied and the Tigers could count on a first-round draft pick next June, there would be insurance on Martinez that would safeguard the Tigers either way if he were to sign with another club this autumn. But those old rules were axed in last December’s new owners-players contract.
There is a sliding scale based on various factors: Is the new contract worth more than $50 million (Martinez’s likely will be)? Will he have been made a one-year qualifying offer by the Tigers (if he stays until October, yes)? Does either the signing, or losing team (Tigers), pay luxury tax? If either answer is yes, there are qualifiers there. And what are the market sizes of the teams involved?
It’s complicated. But the reality for the Tigers is that Martinez, at best, would fetch something after the second round of next year’s draft, and perhaps after the fourth. Not much of a prize there in either case. Not for a talent on Martinez’s scale.
And so the expectation is the Tigers will deal him. The power he delivers, the ability Martinez has to change a game in a single at-bat, will make him a Roman candle of a July addition for a team looking for added crunch.
Contract status: Free agent at end of season.
Potential trade partners: Cubs, Yankees.
Trade probability: 80 percent.
Analysis: He is batting .310. He has 11 home runs in 168 at-bats. He has a .431 on-base percentage. He is a superb catcher and pitch-caller. He can play first base. He is a clubhouse’s and front office’s best friend due to the fact you worry more about what your kids might do than any possibility Avila will have an untoward moment.
And, of course, that means he is headed elsewhere, even if his dad’s the Tigers GM.
The Tigers didn’t see this coming. Nor did any other big-league team, which is why Avila managed to sign a relatively skimpy $2-million contract to play a single season with the Tigers.
But in 90 days or so Avila will be a free agent. And with John Hicks seated at Triple-A Toledo when he’s not being summoned to Detroit for a few hours of helpful fill-in work, the Tigers suddenly have a potentially big-dividend trade piece in Avila, who would fit nicely at Wrigley Field or on another contender’s manifest.
The Tigers need all the youth they can fetch. Avila can conceivably help there and make his 2017 investment one of the smartest moves his dad has made.
Contract status: Arbitration eligible in 2018, free agent after 2018 season.
Potential trade partners: Nationals, Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Rockies.
Trade probability: 80 percent.
Analysis: Wilson is good. He also is about to become expensive. The combination of dealing Wilson for a couple of solid prospects, while keeping your payroll safe from police surveillance, likely will be too much for Avila to pass on.
Other front offices have known for a long while about Wilson. He has been mentioned by nearly every scout who has stopped to shop the Tigers’ players and pitchers. Virtually all mention him in the manner carnivores talk about steaks at Ruth’s Chris. They immediately salivate.
Of course, once Wilson is gone from the Tigers’ ninth innings, opposing teams, too, will drool knowing they don’t have to face that left-handed lightning from a bullpen closer who has become so adept at torching batters in the ninth.
The allure is too grand. The price is too easily paid by an adoring contender, especially when teams saw how the Indians last fall used a multiple-pitcher bullpen to seal games from the fifth inning on.
It’s a good bet Wilson, come October, will be preparing for his first taste of playoff limelight.
Contract status: $28 million each season through 2019, with a comfortable $22-million vesting possibility in 2020 (if he’s top five in Cy Young voting in 2019).
Potential trade partners: Cubs, Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox.
Trade probability: 30 percent.
Analysis: This once was unfathomable — the idea a locally beloved superstar, who has been Detroit’s pitching jewel since the day he signed in 2004, would be dealt by any rational Tigers GM. After Sunday’s historically bad outing (no strikeouts for the first time since 2007), it’s even less plausible.
But he could yet head elsewhere, particularly if Verlander follows his Sunday nightmare with a handful of Verlander-grade starts the remainder of July (a bet here: he will). At last call, he could be too fetching to resist.
Verlander probably is in the latter one-third of a Hall of Fame career. He is an extraordinary pitcher and athlete who has that added dimension: He knows how to compete, and win, at a point other stars often feel the pressure and suffocation that can come during October’s playoff grind.
Those are qualities that can make $28-million annual paychecks seem quite digestible to a team that has World Series fantasies aflutter.
It is the best and most compelling reason for why he will be dealt: He is simply too good to be sitting out October when he could be helping a team to its small-window dream. And yet it’s all incumbent on what teams see from him during his next two or three starts.
There is an ongoing question, proper to ask, about the formula by which Verlander might be traded. Would a team take on that entire salary package? And if the team said yes, would there be any kind of personnel return to the Tigers? Or, if the Tigers decided to absorb some of those paydays, might a respectable prospect, proportionate to Detroit’s salary contribution, come Comerica Park’s way?
It’s an impossible arrangement to predict or foresee with any accuracy. It will be a product of July’s supply and demand. It will, again, be a matter of how well Verlander is throwing and how dreamy an opposing GM might become imagining having Verlander’s brand on the mound during the most critical period of baseball’s calendar.
Although it’s tough for locals to forget Sunday’s slip-up, Verlander still has the talent. And contending teams still have an appetite for luminaries who have Verlander’s one-of-a-kind portfolio.
Contract status: Arbitration eligible in 2018, free agent after 2019 season.
Potential trade partners: Nationals, Rockies, Cardinals, Diamondbacks.
Trade probability: 50 percent.
Analysis: Iglesias is a fine, fine player. A dazzler at shortstop with an arm that can be underappreciated for its power and precision. A hitter who can get a big single or take an extra base and eventually find his way across the plate.
But for a team with so many needs, financial and competitive, he is not a practical long-term resource. Not when he is arbitration-eligible in 2018 and not when the Tigers believe they can get by with Dixon Machado at short.
Thus, he is at least on the market. Injuries have begun creeping into the contenders’ 2017 realities (Diamondbacks and Nationals during the past week) and Iglesias might quickly learn he is being targeted at a point teams had earlier been indifferent.
It’s about a club’s needs at a particular point in a schedule. And with a second half ahead when a playoff-fixated team can’t afford letdowns at shortstop, Iglesias could boost a team headed for October, just as he did when the Tigers first grabbed him at the July deadline in 2013.
Contract status: Can be retained next year for $12 million or bought out for $5 million.
Potential trade partners: None on the horizon in early July.
Trade probability: 20 percent.
Analysis: Kinsler is the perfect stretch-drive player. Gold Glove defense, seasoned bat with plenty of power, good baserunner, super-smart athlete, superior clubhouse presence.
But it takes two to tango, and to trade, and partners simply aren’t easily found — yet. All it takes is a batter getting crunched in the hand by a pitch, a bad hamstring, or some such event common to baseball to change the whole shooting match in these next four weeks.
The Tigers won’t kick if they don’t deal him. And neither will fans. Neither, for that matter, will Kinsler, who has a fairly meaty no-trade clause. It is merely assumed that, as with Verlander, a shot at playing for a World Series aspirant would prompt Kinsler to say yes.
As for other Tigers who might find themselves on the receiving end of an Al Avila phone call these next 28 days, it’s fair to say anyone — anyone — could be discussed.
Even their lone All-Star, Michael Fulmer, qualifies, only in that “Offers That Can’t Be Refused” are just that. And if a committed club cares to make Avila’s day with a three-gem trade dowry, then he’ll dutifully listen. All because it could end up as just the package the Tigers require at this point in their baseball lives.
But that’s a single-digit percentage shot, at best, with more likelihood something along those lines would come Detroit’s way this fall or winter.
The Tigers are in transition, for sure, and have been since their last meaningful, go-for-broke World Series launch in 2016, months before Mike Ilitch, and his dream, died.
They have been endeavoring since late last fall to get on with their new baseball lives. This month is part of the process. Avila has a roster to remodel. Any deal that can help there will be welcomed and fulfilled.