- The Tigers are on a mission to shed payroll and get younger, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of right-hander Justin Verlander or second baseman Ian Kinsler, opines Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. While the Tigers don’t aim to rebuild, Fenech argues that they won’t be able to contend without those two. Dealing the soon-to-be 34-year-old Verlander would remove a Cy Young contender from Detroit’s rotation, though it would simultaneously free the team of some or all of an $84MM commitment through 2019. Like Verlander, Kinsler also had a stellar 2016 campaign, but the 34-year-old is due a far more palatable $21MM over the next two seasons.
- The Tigers received calls on outfielder Justin Upton over the summer, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported Saturday. Heyman contends that dealing Upton would be a “tall task,” pointing to the amount of capable right-handed hitters in the offseason’s class of free agents. There are other factors that could stand in the way, too, including Upton’s 20-team no-trade clause and his right to opt out of his contract after next season. Upton just finished the first season of the six-year, $132.75MM deal he signed with Detroit last winter. A torrid September helped prevent a disastrous year for Upton, whose overall output – .246/.310/.465, 1.4 fWAR over 626 PAs – was nonetheless disappointing.
5:00pm: A Tigers source tells Olney (Twitter link) that while they received some calls about Upton last summer, Detroit wasn’t trying to move the outfielder.
9:14am: The Tigers “were ready to move” Justin Upton last season, ESPN’s Buster Olney reports (subscription required). The club’s efforts seemed to go beyond merely testing the market or exploring offers, as Olney writes that the Tigers “pushed to” trade Upton and will make an “effort to dump his salary this winter.”
It was just last January that Detroit signed Upton to a six-year, $132.75MM contract, seemingly making him a cornerstone piece for the franchise (though the deal allows Upton to opt out after the 2017 season). His tenure in the Motor City got off to a shaky start, as he posted just a .590 OPS in April and May before recovering for a .862 OPS over the last four months, including a red-hot September. 2016 marked Upton’s first season with an AL team, so it’s possible his early struggles simply reflected some adjustment to pitchers in his new league.
Overall, Upton hit .246/.310/.465 with 31 homers over 626 plate appearances, with a 105 wRC+ that marked a career low over a full season. Between this middling offensive performance and pretty average defensive metrics (-6.7 UZR/150 but +1 Defensive Runs Saved), Upton was only worth 1.4 fWAR, not a great return for a player earning $22.125MM last season.
Upton has a partial no-trade clause in his contract that allows him to block deals to 20 teams, so the Tigers are already limited in their efforts at a swap unless Upton is open to switching teams. As Olney notes, teams looking to add outfield pop this winter could acquire many players earning far less than the $110.625MM still owed to Upton through the 2021 season. Teams probably also aren’t too keen on surrendering much in return for a player who could opt out after just one year, unless Detroit is willing to take a smaller trade return just for the sake of getting Upton’s deal off the books.
It’s pretty rare for a team to almost immediately start shopping a player so soon after signing him to a huge free agent deal, and the very fact that Detroit did so with Upton could have been something of a red flag to other teams. (The Diamondbacks discussed a Zack Greinke trade with the Dodgers last summer, though Arizona was seemingly exploring its options in the wake of a very disappointing season, whereas the Tigers were in the playoff hunt until Game 162.) That said, shopping Upton could be a sign of how creative the Tigers need to be in order to remain competitive while still getting younger and cutting salary.
Olney’s column as a whole explores how the industry perceives the Tigers as willing to listen to offers on anyone (even the likes of Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander), though since the club isn’t at all going into fire-sale mode, a willingness to hear offers doesn’t actually mean Detroit is ready to unload a cornerstone star. There’s also the fact that many of the Tigers’ best players are in their 30’s, still guaranteed large salaries for years to come and also have trade protection in their own contracts, so the market for some of these players could be somewhat restricted. Younger and controllable options like J.D. Martinez (who the Tigers aren’t planning to talk to about an extension) and Jose Iglesias could potentially be more realistic trade chips.
Former Mariners and Pirates skipper Lloyd McClendon will serve next year as the Tigers’ hitting coach, per a team announcement. He’ll take over for Wally Joyner, who is said to be departing to pursue other opportunities, per Evan Woodberry of MLive.com (via Twitter).
The 57-year-old McClendon ran up a 336-446 record during his initial run as a manager with Pittsburgh. After a strong first season in Seattle in 2014, when he returned to the top uniformed staff job, McClendon’s Mariners sputtered a season ago and he lost his job as part of a broader house cleaning exercise.
McClendon spent the 2016 season managing at Triple-A Toledo — the top Detroit affiliate. Now, he’ll be a part of a major league staff that’s headed by manager Brad Ausmus. The Tigers somewhat surprisingly elected to pick up Ausmus’s option this winter, but there has been no indication that any additional seasons were added to his deal — putting Ausmus in the position of managing for his job.
Also joining the Tigers’ staff as assistant hitting coach is Leon “Bull” Durham. The former big league slugger has been in the organization for 17 years, the team notes, but has never before coached at the major league level.
GM Al Avila made headlines earlier this week when he stated that changes were on the horizon for a Tigers team that “has been working way above its means for some time,” thereby implying that payroll needs to decrease, and he also added that the Detroit roster needs to get younger. While that doesn’t mean the Tigers will ship off cornerstones Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, it does call into question the future of some players who are nearing the end of their time with the team, including J.D. Martinez, whom Avila says isn’t likely to be extended this winter, according to Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press.
“I don’t foresee any talks of a long-term contract at this point,” Avila said of Martinez. “In saying that, we’re going to keep an open mind in what possibilities come across this winter, this coming summer. I’m not going to rule out that we wouldn’t consider a long-term deal, but sitting here today, we’re not thinking that way right now.”
An extension of Martinez, who is slated to become a free agent next winter, would represent yet another $100MM+ commitment for the Tigers given the extent to which the 29-year-old has blossomed since signing in Detroit. Martinez has batted a combined .299/.357/.540 over the past three years and averaged 34 homers per 162 games played along the way. He missed nearly two months of the 2016 season with a fracture in his elbow but was improbably even better after his time on the DL, slashing .332/.392/.553 with 10 homers over his final 232 plate appearances (albeit with the help of an unsustainable .418 BABIP).
MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk recently examined the possibility of a Martinez extension, noting that his age and emergence as an offensive force could push his price point beyond the six-year, $132.75MM figure for which Justin Upton signed last winter (depending on whether or not the Tigers and Martinez’s agents worked an opt-out clause into the deal). That number may look jarring for a player who was released by Houston in Spring Training 2014, but since Opening Day 2014, Martinez rates as the game’s 13th-best hitter by measure of wRC+ (via Fangraphs), placing him alongside the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Kris Bryant. His defense, as Mark addressed in the aforementioned Extension Candidate piece, is another story, but Martinez’s bat comes with tremendous value.
As such, the possibility of Martinez’s entrance into the trade market this offseason shouldn’t be taken lightly. Fenech speculates that Martinez is the likeliest member of the Tigers to be traded this winter, as doing so would trim $11.75MM off the payroll and net the team some much-needed premium minor league talent. The Tigers, after all, have a pair of young outfielders that are out of minor league options next year in Steven Moya and Tyler Collins, both of whom will need to make the Opening Day roster or risk being exposed to outright waivers. Dealing Martinez would free up a much clearer path to a big league opportunity for either player.
Tigers GM Al Avila told team reporters in his end-of-year press conference today that the organization will be looking to shake up its approach to roster building this winter. While Avila was largely and understandably vague on specifics, he made clear that “changes are coming” to how Detroit does business, as Evan Woodberry of MLive.com reports on Twitter.
The central issue, Avila suggested, is to avoid the ongoing reliance on high-priced veterans, as Jason Beck of MLB.com reports (Twitter links). “We want to get younger,” he said. “We want to get leaner. We want to run the organization without having to go over our means. We want to stay competitive, but at the same time, this organization has been working way above its means for some time.”
The notion that the Detroit organization has been spending “above its means” is certainly notable. Unquestionably, the club — under the leadership of owner Mike Ilitch — has committed huge sums of money to acquire and retain numerous talented players at market prices. That includes not only large extensions for players like Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, but also major free agent outlays for Prince Fielder (who was later traded for Ian Kinsler), Anibal Sanchez, Victor Martinez, and — most recently — Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann.
Many of those big contracts were handed out while the Tigers’ baseball operations were being run by Dave Dombrowski, who Avila replaced last summer. But he oversaw the signings of Upton and Zimmermann last offseason, along with acquisitions of veterans Mike Pelfrey, Francisco Rodriguez, Cameron Maybin, and Mark Lowe. And the front office reportedly talked down Ilitch from a budget-busting offer to slugger Chris Davis. While the club improved to an 86-75 record, it failed to make the postseason for the second consecutive season despite an Opening Day payroll of nearly $200MM.
Ultimately, Avila was not willing to label the team’s upcoming approach as a rebuilding effort, as Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press reports (Twitter links). And he did not specifically chart a course for how the team will accomplish the stated aim of infusing youth and trimming costs. But he did suggest that some tweaks could be coming, and that they may require some changed expectations for a team that has fashioned itself a perennial contender. “It’s not going to be easy,” said Avila. “But it has to be done.”
The overall thrust of the comments appears to indicate that Detroit may look to reallocate resources as soon as the coming winter. Avila left the impression that the organization won’t be looking to add impact free agents, as Woodberry tweets. And the GM made clear that payroll won’t go up, as Fenech tweets. He also didn’t promise a decline, but seemingly suggested as much. “Usually it will be the opposite,” he said. It’s not immediately clear whether the Tigers could pursue trades of quality veterans in a bid to add younger, controllable talent, but that certainly seems to be a natural course to pursue given Avila’s statements.
Detroit may not pursue a dramatic tear-down, but the precise strategic direction remains to be seen. Avila did note that the Tigers will likely need to add a reserve catcher to pair with James McCann, suggesting his son — Alex Avila — could be considered for a return, as Fenech tweets. The organization has yet to decide on club options over Maybin ($9MM with a $1MM buyout) and Rodriguez ($6MM with a $2MM buyout), the veteran executive added and Fenech tweeted.
- The Tigers and Diamondbacks both “tried hard” to sign John Lackey last winter before the right-hander inked his two-year, $32MM deal with the Cubs. Lackey reportedly chose Chicago over two larger offers, though Heyman doesn’t know if the Tigers and D’Backs were the clubs behind those bigger deals. Arizona was known to have “at least checked in” on Lackey last winter, and while Detroit’s involvement in the Lackey market is new information, it isn’t a surprise given how the Tigers targeted starting pitching last offseason. Either team landing Lackey sets up several fascinating what-if scenarios, given that the D’Backs and Tigers made alternate pitching acquisitions that didn’t pan out in 2016. If the Diamondbacks signed Lackey, perhaps they then wouldn’t have made the franchise-altering decisions to sign Zack Greinke or trade for Shelby Miller. If the Tigers had gotten Lackey, perhaps they wouldn’t have spent $110MM on Jordan Zimmermann, or $16MM on Mike Pelfrey.
Tigers GM Al Avila tells Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press that he takes full responsibility for the team’s underperformance in 2016. “…[A]t the end of the day, I make those decisions and you’ve got to put a lot of the blame on myself,” said Avila. “So the guys that we brought in — and let’s say they didn’t perform for whatever reason — that’s on me. As Fenech explores, about $56MM of the Tigers’ 2016 payroll was dedicated to free agent signings Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe and Mike Aviles. That quintet of players, however, fell woefully shy of expectations and finished the season with a collective performance that was scarcely better than replacement-level. Fenech notes that Avila fared much better on the trade market — Cameron Maybin, Francisco Rodriguez and Justin Wilson — and will probably have to be more active in that regard this winter anyhow due to the lack of appealing free-agent options.
- The Tigers have announced that hitting coach Wally Joyner will not return in 2017, as he intends to pursue “other interests in the game of baseball.” Assistant hitting coach David Newhan’s role with the team will be determined once the team finds a replacement for Joyner. Other key Tigers coaches (including pitching coach Rich Dubee, bench coach Gene Lamont, first base coach Omar Vizquel, third base coach Dave Clark, bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer and defensive coordinator Matt Martin) will return. The Tigers exercised manager Brad Ausmus’ 2017 option earlier this week. Under Joyner and Newhan, the Tigers had one of MLB’s better offenses in 2016, batting .267/.331/.438, although it should perhaps be noted that having Miguel Cabrera in the middle of their lineup gave them a hefty head start.
- Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was serious about pursuing slugger Chris Davis in free agency last winter — so much so that he was willing to guarantee something approaching $200MM, says Heyman. Newly-installed GM Al Avila, however, recommended that the team take another course. Though Davis has been reasonably productive, he hasn’t produced at the levels that earned him his ultimate contract — a $161MM deal with the Orioles.