When a team with an aging roster and a bloated, luxury-taxed payroll in excess of $200 million fails to make the playoffs, as the Tigers did in 2016, a change in philosophy is warranted. Thus, when GM Al Avila vowed at the start of the offseason to do something different — then quickly traded away outfielder Cameron Maybin, and his $9 million contract option — it surprised exactly no one. Judging from all the trade speculation surrounding the Tigers — with everyone from superstars Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander to valued run-producers Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez said to be available — many expected the tear-down to continue. But as the offseason wore on, and as some division rivals went all-in on shedding payroll and hoarding prospects, the Tigers stayed relatively quiet, hanging on to their vets and giving the impression of a team looking to take one last shot with its core. The Tigers in 2017 could occupy that middle ground of hoping somehow to get into contention but prepared to sell off pieces at the trade deadline if it doesn’t happen.
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On paper at least, the Tigers’ rotation looks like a powerhouse around which to build a contender. Verlander was the 2016 AL Cy Young runner-up. Michael Fulmer was the Rookie of the Year. Jordan Zimmermann is a two-time All-Star with 67 wins the past five years. And young lefties Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd took steps forward in 2016. But the rotation is not without its concerns, particularly the health of Zimmermann and the issue of the $24.8 million owed in 2017 to Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez, a pair of veterans showing signs of deep decline. The fact that Boyd has minor-league options remaining could doom him to Triple-A to start the year, if, say, Sanchez shows signs of a renaissance. At its best, this could be one of the top rotations in the AL. The question is whether — or for how long — it will be at its best.
Despite all the talk of trading veterans, the team quietly exercised closer Francisco Rodriguez’s $6 million option for 2017, intending to keep the veteran righthander on board for another year. In 2016, Rodriguez finally plugged the massive black hole at the back end of the Tigers’ bullpen. While this bullpen ranked just 24th in the majors in ERA, the back end was fairly dependable, with Rodriguez anchoring a late-inning relay of righthanders Shane Greene and Bruce Rondon and lefty Justin Wilson. Wilson, though, was a subject of rampant trade rumors throughout December, and the Tigers took a lefty, Daniel Stumpf of the Royals, in the Rule 5 Draft as an apparent hedge. Like many teams, the Tigers have work to do in the middle innings.
Kinsler and Jose Iglesias were thought to be two of the Tigers’ most appealing trade pieces this winter — a 34-year-old second baseman coming off his best offensive season in five years, and his first Gold Glove to boot, and a 27-year-old shortstop who was an All-Star as recently as 2015. But as of late December, and despite rampant trade speculation, they were both still in Detroit. Kinsler’s advancing age and Iglesias’ offensive regression in 2016 (his first season playing in more than 130 games) would be concerns for any team, but both are relatively affordable and — at least in Kinsler’s case — plenty productive. It would be understandable if the Tigers felt they needed to be blown away to trade either.
The 2016 season brought the breakout season the Tigers have long envisioned for third baseman Nick Castellanos. At age 24, he produced a .285/.331/.496 slash line and established himself as a middle-of-the-order hitter in the Tigers’ stacked lineup — at least until getting hit on the left hand by a pitch in August and missing an entire month. Though he is never going to win a Gold Glove, he is among the least of the Tigers’ worries for 2017. As for Cabrera, the Tigers may have trumpeted his availability via trade, but they also knew that his age (34 in April) and massive contract (seven years and $220 million remaining) made him essentially untradeable. Barring that, the Tigers would gladly sign up for another year of 38 homers, 108 RBIs, a .956 OPS and especially 158 games played.
This is where Tigers fans envisioned massive change, with Martinez (heading into his walk year) presumed to be one of the team’s most appealing trade targets, and center field in perpetual flux. But by late December, Martinez was still around, and center field, following the trade of Maybin, appeared to be a battle between Anthony Gose and prospect JaCoby Jones. And then there’s Justin Upton. The Tigers’ left fielder, who signed a six-year $132.75 million deal prior to 2016, was a disaster for most of the season before exploding for 18 homers in his final 37 games. It is not much of a stretch to say the Tigers’ 2017 fortunes could be tied to which Upton shows up this year.
James McCann is a capable No. 1, with an excellent throwing arm behind the plate (a 45 percent caught-stealing percentage in 2016), but he regressed offensively last season, posting a paltry .629 OPS. In addition, the Tigers appeared ready to cut ties with veteran backup Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and the pool of potential replacements was thin. One of the candidates, in fact, was Alex Avila, the former Tigers starter and the son of GM Al Avila.
The Tigers made a nice, sentimental move in December, adding veteran infielder Omar Infante on a minor-league contract, 15 years after Infante made his big-league debut with the Tigers. If he makes the team, it would be his third stint in Detroit. The question is, can he still play? If so, he could unseat Dixon Machado as the presumed utility infielder. Otherwise, the bench appears fairly well set, with Austin Romine back as a jack-of-all-trades reserve and Steven Moya, Tyler Collins and Mike Mahtook (acquired from Tampa Bay in January) around as extra outfielders. As for DH, the Tigers have been writing in Victor Martinez’s name there for five years now, and he remains a middle-of-the-order fixture.
Avila appears to embrace the notion of a major, youth-focused overhaul, if not an outright rebuild, but acting on those impulses has proven harder to do. Then, too, plenty of observers expected him to fire Brad Ausmus as manager following the disappointment of 2016. But here is Ausmus, back for a fourth season after the Tigers picked up his option. He has no job security, however, and a bad start could portend trouble.
The Tigers lost to the Indians by eight games in the AL Central in 2016, and it’s difficult to envision where they expect to make up those eight games, given their lack of impact additions. Perhaps the Tigers saw the White Sox and Royals shift into rebuild mode and decided to go for it one last time with this core. But it still seems more likely that the Tigers, as currently constructed, will take a big step backward than a big one forward. By July, an out-of-contention Tigers team could look vastly different than the one of April.