The Detroit Tigers are a confusing team. GM Al Avila has been on the job for less than 18 months, and in that time he has both obeyed Mike Ilitch’s whims and defied them at the same time. In the first instance, Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmerman arrived for gobs of money and very little production. In the second, not a single big-ticket free agent was signed this offseason, and Avila may even be looking to shed payroll. In fact, their only truly big move was to trade Cameron Maybin to the Angels. This may have been the most tight-fisted offseason the Tigers have had in more than a decade.
One can’t blame Avila for trying. The Tigers won 86 games last year, but that was just a year removed from a last-place, 74-87 season. The team will be shouldering a 30-year-old Alex Avila, a 31-year-old Jordan Zimmerman, a 33-year-old Anibal Sanchez, a 34-year-old Miguel Cabrera, a 34-year-old Justin Verlander, a 35-year-old Francisco Rodriguez, a 35-year-old Ian Kinsler, and a 38-year-old Victor Martinez. Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, and Justin Wilson will all be on the cusp of 30. A young team this is not.
It’s not a cheap team, either. Current payroll projects to be $195 million this season, the second-highest in baseball. Ilitch may love to spend, but even he has its limits. Keith Law of ESPN ranked the Tigers farm system 24th. Cleveland seems to have the edge on the AL Central. So why wouldn’t Avila try to shed some money and begin rebuilding?
Namely, parity. FanGraphs currently projects the Tigers to win 83 games. That puts them solidly in the AL Wild Card hunt, along with the Mariners, Blue Jays, Angels, and Rangers. Talent is much more diffuse in the Junior Circuit, and that helps with a two-wild card system. If you can build an 83-win team in the AL, you have a shot if things break your way. Despite all of their old, expensive players and their barren farm system, Detroit could very well make one last run with what they have.
That’s mostly due to the fact that their players, while old, are still really good. FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projects the Tigers lineup to be worth 35.6 wins above replacement this season. That’s not bad! Cabrera will always be Cabrera, despite his age. Verlander made a huge comeback last year, and there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t do it again. Upton had a horrible first half of 2016, only to go on a tear after the All-Star break; he should be ready to positively regress. Kinsler, should he and the Tigers choose to keep him at Comerica Park, will be the most steady-Eddy of them all. Michael Fulmer should theoretically build on his Rookie of the Year campaign. The two Martinezes will produce something. Zimmerman should also come back to earth after struggling with injury.
Tigers fans would probably want a little more certainty than this. They should also feel lucky that they play in a league with such an even distribution of talent. Avila, were he feeling bold, should probably trade everything that’s not nailed down, restock the farm system, and prepare for the next great Tigers team in five years. But Avila is never going to do that, so long as Ilitch is signing the checks. The middle path he’s taken this offseason threads the needle as best Avila can. He knows what he has. As long as he doesn’t tie himself down too much more, he can give the fans what they want at least one more time before the real hard work has to begin.
In some respects, the 2017 Tigers look a lot like the 2017 Mariners. There are certain large, aging contracts that their respective front offices can’t get out from under, and that force those front offices to either throw in the towel or, as Avila is doing, get creative. It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, but he may actually get to the other side of the tightrope.