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Tigers should be ready to spend big next winter; here's who could pique their interest

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The time should be coming.

Whether that time is, however, depends on your trust in the word of Christopher Ilitch, the de facto owner of the Tigers who has said for years that when the time is right, Detroit would once again be a significant spender in the free-agent market.

And you need look no further than District Detroit — an Ilitch-backed project that promised blocks of shops, restaurants, bars and housing, but actually is more of a parking-lot paradise — to legitimately wonder if Ilitch's word will be any good on the Tigers' front.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume it is.

J.D. Martinez

If that's the case, then next offseason should finally be the one in which general manager Al Avila is allowed to load up his shopping cart and spend like a drunken sailor for the first time since the winter after he took over for fired Dave Dombrowski, in the summer of 2015.

And there are plenty of intriguing options that should be availabe on the market come next winter, particularly on the position-player front — the area the Tigers seem most certain to focus on, given the perceived strength of their pitching in the minor leagues.

"Is 2021 the time to, OK, start spending some money?" Avila said one year ago. "I don't know. I do know that we will have some money by 2021 to start going out there. I've talked to Chris Ilitch and I know that whether it be 2021, 2022, at that point, we will be at a place from a payroll perspective where I want to be at, where I'm comfortable where financially I know we're in a good place."

The Tigers' projected payroll to start this season is $93 million, their lowest since 2007, according to numbers-crunchers from USA Today, Baseball-Reference.com and Spotrac.

And for 2020, the situation is even better for the books. Assuming the Tigers don't sign any player to multi-year contracts between now and then — and every free agent this offseason has been on a one-year deal, including Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron, Austin Romine and, most recently, Jordy Mercer — the Tigers will have just one contract on the books beyond 2020. That would be Miguel Cabrera's, which runs through 2024 at a total cost of $124 million over the final four years. 

Jordan Zimmermann's five-year, $110-million contract mercifully ends after 2020, and the Tigers no longer will be paying on the Prince Fielder contract. Their final $7 million payment to Fielder is this year; their final $8 million payment to Justin Verlander was made in 2019.

That means, for 2021, there's just Cabrera's $30 million accounted for, before arbitration, and that's it.

In other words, it's the perfect time to go shopping — assuming, of course, the Tigers see the progress on the field in 2020 that they are expecting. Specifically, that means the Tigers brass has to see the young stable of pitchers start to make an impact at the high levels of the minor leagues, or even in the majors. Nobody's expecting a playoff push in 2020 but another 100 losses isn't acceptable either.

The Tigers, of course, appear much more set in the pitching department for the future, given they have a good arm at the top of their major-league rotation in Matthew Boyd, and another possible ace in Michael Fulmer assuming he comes back nicely from Tommy John surgery, plus the fascinating case of Daniel Norris. Then there are the young guns that are coming and probably soon, among them Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Tarik Skubal, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser, Joey Wentz and, dare we say, Franklin Perez, among lesser-known yet still-intriguing arms. There's enough, you'd figure, to build a rotation and bullpen, with the help of maybe one free-agent signing or two.

Less set, of course, is the position-player situation. Taking a look at the Tigers' current depth chart, you could make a case that none of the eight nor a DH are long-term solutions. A more-rosy outlook would count on JaCoby Jones, Dawel Lugo, Jeimer Candelario, Christin Stewart and Niko Goodrum, though where any of them would play long-term — except Jones, who's a quality center fielder — is anybody's guess, really. Another caveat will be the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020, which belongs to the Tigers and almost surely will be used on a college bat, probably either Arizona State first baseman/outfielder Spencer Torkelson, Vanderbilt middle infielder Austin Martin or New Mexico State second baseman Nick Gonzales.

Still, counting on a draft pick, even a college-seasoned one, is risky business. Combined with the current depth chart, that's why any shopping next offseason would focus, almost exclusively, on bats and gloves, despite an array of quality pitchers scheduled to be looking for new homes.

Two big questions loom: Will Ilitch really open up the purse strings? And if he actually does, will Avila go hog-wild in one offseason or spread the spending out over two or even three, like the Tigers did in the mid-2000s when they were on the verge of bursting back onto the national baseball landscape?

Much will depend on the progress Avila sees from the kids this year.

"That's where we want to be, where we have some young guys at the big-league level doing well. 'Hey, do we start spending now?'" Avila, whose one big splurge as GM included the 2015-16 signings of ZImmermann and Justin Upston, said last year. "Maybe it's a gradual build."

DJ LeMahieu

Assuming it's the splurge, here's a look at who might be available next offseason.

D.J. LeMahieu, 2B: He's quietly a stud, with three Gold Gloves, three All-Star appearances and a batting championship. He also is a local, from Birmingham Brother Rice.

Mookie Betts, OF: He's expected to be the big fish of the 2021 free-agent class, but lots will depend on a possible trade from Boston in the coming days or weeks. The 2018 MVP could be an extension candidate.

J.T. Realmuto

J.T. Realmuto, C: The Tigers suddenly realized last year that they don't have the catching depth they thought they had. Realmuto could play the role of Pudge Rodriguez, brought to town at just the right time.

George Springer, OF: The Tigers have a lot of outfielders, but no sure things there. Springer would've seemed a pipe dream not long ago, but given the Astros drama, things might be imploding in Houston.

Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Marcus Semien, SS: Lots to choose from here, which could help in bargaining. The Tigers have Goodrum there this year, but that doesn't seem like any sort of long-term fix.

Justin Turner, 3B: Tough to see Turner trade in his West Coast zip code for a long-term deal in Detroit, but money talks. And it's tough to believe the Tigers are totally sold on Candelario and Lugo.

Nelson Cruz, DH: He'd be entering his age-41 season, but Tigers fans might like to see him on their side for a change. This would depend on Cabrera's ability to, at least, occasionally play some first base.

J.D. Martinez, OF: He would have to opt out of the final two years and $38.75 million of his contract in Boston, but it'd be a heck of a homecoming. The Tigers were the first to really give Martinez a chance.

Giancarlo Stanton, OF: Another opt-out to watch, though much less likely than Martinez, given that Stanton will have eight years and $218 million left on his deal with the Yankees. He'd be nuts to throw that away.

Kris Bryant, 3B/OF: He now won't be a free agent until after the 2021 season given that he lost his grievance case with the Cubs, but he's a trade candidate to watch given the animosity that's understandably grown.

Tigers payroll through the years

2020 (projected): $93 million

2019: $105 million

2018: $111 million

2017: $180 million

2016: $181 million

2015: $172 million

2014: $173 million

2013: $152 million

2012: $139 million

2011: $106 million

2010: $123 million

2009: $115 million

2008: $137 million

2007: $94 million

2006: $82 million

Source: USA Today, Baseball-Reference.com and Spotrac

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984