Offseason plans are under wraps until the day Tigers general manager Al Avila unveils a new manager, either late in October or the first week of November.
But conversations with those aware of tentative paths point to a team intensely trying to rebuild along a timeline that will extend into next season, and probably through the June 2019 big-league draft.
The Tigers will be open to trades this autumn or through next July designed for a kids-heavy roster remodeling, mirroring deals Avila made in July and August that delivered 10 fresh bodies.
Ian Kinsler, a faithful member of the old-guard Tigers, is expected to be traded. As with all deals, such a swap depends on a partner making the Tigers an offer absent in the year-plus Kinsler has been available.
Starting catcher James McCann is a player the Tigers would consider moving for a fair return when the Tigers believe they can survive 2018 with a combination of John Hicks and Bryan Holaday. Losing 100 games is possible during 2018 when an early rebuilding phase figures to hit the Tigers hardest. McCann’s trade value could be such that Avila would bite when minor-league catching is an organizational strength and could begin to arrive as soon as the 2019 season.
Shane Greene’s fire-throwing right arm puts him in roughly the same straits as Justin Wilson was a year ago when Avila was open to dealing Wilson. The problem last autumn and winter was one Avila ran into continually until the July-August market thawed. Trade interest was nil and scarcely changed until late summer brought four serious suitors for Wilson, J.D. Martinez, Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, and Alex Avila.
It’s possible Avila will find shoppers shrugging again this winter with no realistic hope of making palatable deals until summer deadlines, in which case Greene, and maybe Kinsler, stick in Detroit.
Another player very much available and heading for a front-office decision is shortstop Jose Iglesias. The Tigers could be looking at paying Iglesias $6 million to $7 million in 2018 because of his arbitration status. It’s more than a team still severely overweight with payroll cares to pay for a shortstop with a paltry WAR (wins above replacement) of 1.4 and whose OPS in 2017 was a puny .657. But if Kinsler is dealt the Tigers have a serious middle-infield gap. Dixon Machado is their only daily lineup insurance if either Kinsler or Iglesias leaves. Dawel Lugo, a second baseman the Tigers got in the Martinez trade, is not yet ready.
It makes Iglesias expensive but necessary insurance the Tigers are expected to hang onto when their only other option, apart from a trade, is to nontender him for 2018.
What about Victor?
The pachyderm in the room is designated hitter Victor Martinez.
Martinez turns 39 in December and has a contract year remaining at $18 million. He hit .255 in 2017 with 10 home runs and with an OPS indefensibly low for a DH: .697.
Martinez also missed the final season of the year because of an irregular heartbeat that required a September procedure. Martinez has told the Tigers he feels fine and will be ready for spring camp. The Tigers could decide then if it’s wise to bring him north for Opening Day or, should he show skills too diminished to carry, simply say goodbye and absorb his 2018 paychecks.
It’s likely he makes the team and the Tigers work to squeeze as much from his creaky body as possible. How they otherwise would patch any hole at designated hitter is difficult today to gauge. But between possible rotations of current players (Miguel Cabrera, Nicholas Castellanos, etc.), and the probability Avila would at some point add an affordable, if unremarkable, hitter to the mix, the Tigers appear ready to take their chances with Martinez and with a DH slot that’s hardly their first offseason worry.
The Tigers outfield could be one more dice-roll in 2018.
Castellanos was comfortable during a September reacquaintance with right field and figures to stick there as long as rookie Jeimer Candelario survives at third base.
Mikie Mahtook can handle left field, or center in the event JaCoby Jones proves he simply cannot hit enough to justify his edge in defense.
Tyler Collins again is part of the mix, at least for now. And so could Alex Presley be invited back as a free agent if the Tigers strike Presley as being the best option.
Two farmhands are not far from Detroit. Mike Gerber and Christin Stewart are expected to be invited to big-league camp in Lakeland, Fla., for their first taste of a Tigers clubhouse each man is expected to crash no later than next September.
The Tigers ideally want the left-handed hitting Gerber and Stewart to mature at Triple-A Toledo until September roster call-ups arrive and a minor-league option isn’t burned.
But they can’t be sure of timetables there. Injuries could force an early ticket to Comerica Park. A hot stretch at Toledo — Gerber is the best bet — also could lead to a fast promotion, especially if Jones, as the Tigers privately fear, strikes out too much and hits too little.
It’s a scary scenario for the Tigers front office as well as for the team’s fans, counting on the above crew to align and create steady big-league offense even if Cabrera, as the Tigers anticipate, has a fruitful offseason healing his sore back.
And it has nothing to do with the area that most directly sent the Tigers spiraling to a 64-98 record in 2017.
Tigers pitching was dreadful, with 16 pitchers holding ERAs of 6.00 or higher. Four more came home with 5.00-plus ERAs.
Avila understands he’ll need 10 starting pitchers in 2018, about the number most ballclubs require for 162 games because of injuries and pitchers being shipped out for Triple-A tuneups.
He today can count four reasonable rotation bets: Michael Fulmer, who is recovering smoothly from nerve relocation surgery; Jordan Zimmermann, whose neck issues the Tigers believe can and will improve during an offseason program; Matthew Boyd, who was great in spring camp, bad during some early months, then strong, with a near-no-hitter in September; and Daniel Norris, who could be close to lassoing his potential.
That leaves a fifth starter to be air-lifted this offseason, probably from the low-profile end of the free-agent market. One possibility is Anibal Sanchez, who won’t be returning for the $16.5 million the Tigers owe him for a pick-up of his contract option. The Tigers will instead hand him a $5 million buyout that doesn’t preclude them from re-signing him at a mutually agreeable price.
The Tigers don’t intend to spend big dollars on any free agents but are keen on adding one or two pitchers they believe can digest innings next season and keep their ever-thrilling bullpen from disintegrating.
Relief pitching is, of course, something the Tigers seem always to extract from ether and next year will be no different, particularly if Greene were to be dealt.
But it could get a bail-out if kids can somehow coalesce, which is a surprise the Tigers probably have coming.
Joe Jimenez, Bryan Garcia, Zac Reininger, Mark Ecker, Jairo Labourt — chances are only two, at most, will be worth taking north in March. But there should, steadily, be at least marginal help arriving from the bushes.
Avila and his office will be busy signing minor-league free agents, as well, hoping to run into a surprise. As far as their rotation, the Tigers will look at Chad Bell and Myles Jaye and others who might be something above cannon fodder in a bid to makes games competitive, which is not, in any event, going to be easy.
Not when 10 starters are essential. Not when the existing cast offers minimal hope.
Avila and his lieutenants want to avoid at all costs a desperate plunge into the staffs at Double A Erie, and at Toledo, where a number of the organization’s strength, young arms, are expected to migrate.
Beau Burrows will be given all of 2018 to add muscle and finesse. So, too, will Sandy Baez, Gregory Soto, Kyle Funkhouser, and, of course, June’s top draft pick, Alex Faedo, who will be pitching in his first games since he helped Florida win last June’s College World Series.
At least that’s the team’s plan for now.
Toss it all together and an early projection is not that the Tigers might lose 100 games in 2018. The issue might well be: How many more than 100 will they forfeit while preparing for that first overall pick in next June’s draft, and very possibly, the No. 1 turn in 2019?
It could be something closer to 110 or more. Rebuilding teams endure such seasons, even if they earn a magnificent consolation prize.
Those first overall picks can be franchise talents. Those early draft turns tend to generate excellence down the road, particularly if enhanced by trades of the kind made in July and August; deals that could be repeated next summer when a pitcher such as Fulmer might be spun for a passel of blue-chip kids.
Avila in a few weeks will wade into this and other facets of the Tigers’ makeover when a new manager is introduced.
That new man, of course, might also at that time watch as Avila pins to his jersey a medal of valor.
This isn’t going to be easy, skippering the Tigers. Not for a while. Perhaps for a long while.