Tigers going in 'younger, leaner' direction

GM says organization will be 'open-minded' with offseason trade scenarios

Tigers going in 'younger, leaner' direction

DETROIT -- Changes are coming to the Tigers.

Taken in itself, that statement Tuesday from general manager Al Avila isn't new. It's the way the Tigers are approaching change that is dramatically different.

In that sense, Avila's end-of-season press gathering Tuesday was more like the beginning of a new era.

"We want to get younger," Avila said. "We want to get leaner. We want to run the organization without having to go over the means of the organization."

It's not going to be a sudden, dramatic tear-down, Avila said, and it's not going to be done in one offseason. But it starts this offseason, making a winter that was already expected to feature a bevy of big trades across baseball potentially one where those big names include several Tigers.

Avila didn't name names, but he said they have to be open-minded to anything that makes the club better over the long term.

"We certainly want to stay competitive," Avila cautioned. "We certainly want to be able to try to get back in the playoffs. But at the same time, this organization has been working way above its means as far as payroll for many, many years, and it's put us in a situation where quite frankly, it's difficult to maneuver."

The Tigers spent just over $200 million this past season, paying a luxury tax penalty for the first time since 2008. With the exception of 2011, they've ranked among the six highest-spending teams in baseball every year since 2008. A win-now mentality led to lucrative long-term contracts for Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez along with free-agent signings of Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. All of those contracts came with the support or direct involvement of owner Mike Ilitch, whose quest to add a World Series title to his collection of Stanley Cup championships has directed the Tigers for more than a decade.

The Tigers took their bid for a postseason berth to the final day of the season before falling short of an American League Wild Card spot. After outslugging and outspending division rivals on the way to four consecutive AL Central titles, they've missed the postseason the past two years while watching the Royals and Indians make deep playoff runs with more economical rosters.

Detroit enters the offseason with 10 players under guaranteed contracts for next season worth more than $167 million. Add in club options on center fielder Cameron Maybin and closer Francisco Rodriguez, plus a half-dozen players eligible for arbitration, and the Tigers would again be in luxury tax territory -- unless the threshold changes in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement -- if they keep the team intact. 

"It's no secret, obviously, of the tax consequences that we're going to have to pay," Avila said. "And if we continue that trend, it only gets worse and higher. So it would be foolish. And my opinion, my recommendation, is that we don't continue on that trend, because it would definitely be detrimental to this organization as we move forward. …

"We want to win. We want to be competitive. We want to try to get back into the playoffs. But at the same time, we have to see how that's done."

The Tigers haven't decided whether to exercise options on Maybin or Rodriguez, Avila said, and likely won't until the deadline of three days after the World Series passes. For that matter, Avila said, they haven't set a payroll target, either, but he doesn't expect it to go up.

"If I'm telling you I don't expect it go up, then usually it'll be the opposite," Avila said. "I can't give you a definitive answer until we see where it goes."

Avila doesn't know who will be traded, only that they have to be willing to listen. Sanchez, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe are entering the final year of their contracts. Upton has an opt-out clause in his contract that allows him to become a free agent next winter, too, if he so chooses. Martinez and Kinsler could attract interest coming off productive seasons.

"We have to be open-minded to anything," Avila said. "That doesn't mean that we're dangling Player A out there and seeing what happens, but it does mean that in our conversations with other clubs, we will be open-minded, and if somebody has interest in a certain player, we'll take a look at it. If it makes sense for the Detroit Tigers present and future, then we certainly will consider things that we feel will make us better."

The bigger speculation, however, could revolve around Verlander, the longest-tenured current Tiger. The 33-year-old right-hander is due to make $28 million in each of the next three seasons with a $22 million option for 2020. After a 2016 campaign that has him in the conversation for the AL Cy Young, he could attract interest from teams willing and able to take on that deal.

Verlander would have to approve any trade. So, for that matter, would Ilitch. But at this point, Avila said, nobody can be considered untouchable.

It's not a rebuild, Avila cautioned, and he didn't want to use the term "retooling," either. In the end, he left it up to reporters to define it. Whatever the term, it's a new approach for a team that has pushed payroll parameters for years.

"We're going to go out and talk to 29 other clubs," Avila said, "and see how we can start, little by little, making this team leaner, younger, more efficient, and at the same time, staying competitive, trying to get to the playoffs. That's where the tightrope is that we're walking on. Not the easiest thing in the world to do, obviously … but it has to be done."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.