Detroit Tigers

Al Avila faced with task of slashing Detroit’s $200 million payroll

Detroit Tigers Executive Vice President and General Manager Al Avila addresses the media before a baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015, in Detroit. Avila replaces Dave Dombrowski who was released from his contract as Tigers general manager. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The Detroit Tigers aren’t rebuilding.

Just ask general manager Al Avila, who held his annual end-of-season meeting with the Detroit media Tuesday afternoon.

He insisted that the team hasn’t closed the window on its drive for a World Series title, and that the Tigers hope to be in the playoffs in 2017.

Everything else he said contradicted that.

Avila made it clear that the Tigers are going to be younger and cheaper by the beginning of next season, and that he’s going to make it happen by trading away some of the team’s older, more expensive players. He didn’t give many hints as to who he’ll be trying to deal, but a look at the roster provides some fascinating options.

The obvious choice is Justin Verlander. He has three years and $84 million left on his contract — a deal that would have seemed untradeable a year ago. However, he just put up a 6.6-WAR season that has him in contention for a second Cy Young Award, and was worth $46.2 million at the going rate of $7 million/WAR.

If a team thinks that Verlander can put up 12 WAR over the next three years, his contract makes financial sense. If he puts a team over the top for a World Series title, it makes the investment even better. There aren’t a lot of organizations that can afford to take on that contract, but Avila only needs one, and he has the additional selling point that Verlander is better than anyone available in free agency.

The second player that will probably go is Ian Kinsler. This would be another painful blow to Tigers fans, as he’s become one of the team’s most popular players in his three seasons at Comerica. He’s also been its best, putting up 17.8 WAR ($124.6M) in value.

He’s an All-Star second baseman who is coming off a year where he hit 28 homers, scored 117 runs and posted an .831 OPS while playing Gold Glove defense. He’s also significantly underpaid, earning $11 million in 2017 with a $12 million team option for 2018.

If the Tigers were committed to trying to win next season, they wouldn’t consider parting with Verlander or Kinsler, but why pay $39 million to two players in their mid-30s when they could use them to reload a dormant farm system?

May 16, 2016: Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler (3) waits for the start of the ninth inning during a regular season game between the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers played at Comerica Park in Detroit, MI. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire)

Another possible move would be another fan favorite, J.D. Martinez. He’s scheduled to make $11.75 million in 2017, the last year of his contract. He’s only 29, but Avila tipped his hand on Tuesday when he said he had no plans to discuss an extension to Martinez’s deal. He’s a valuable hitter, but regressed badly this season in the outfield and might be a better fit on a team that can use him as a designated hitter.

The Tigers can’t do that, because Victor Martinez has one of the contracts they won’t be able to trade. He’ll be 38 next season, and has two years and $36 million left on his deal. He can still hit line drives, but he’s the slowest runner in baseball and has no defensive value, so there’s no way he’ll put up the 5.0 WAR needed to justify his contract.

That’s the same problem the Tigers will have with Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann. They both signed nine-figure contracts a year ago, and promptly flopped in their Tigers debuts. Zimmermann was injured and ineffective for the last four months of the season, while Upton had a huge final six weeks after playing terribly through mid-August. Between them, they earned 2.2 WAR while making $40 million.

Martinez, Upton and Zimmermann alone will make $58 million next season, and the Tigers would have to accept pennies on the dollar to get rid of their contracts. Add in another $16.8 million for Anibal Sanchez, who couldn’t hang on to a rotation spot, and $8 million for Mike Pelfrey, and Detroit has $82.8 million tied up in bad contracts they can’t trade.

So if Avila is going to cut costs, it is going to mean the loss of players that are incredibly important to the fanbase.

Which leads to the $212 million question: What do the Tigers do about Miguel Cabrera? Could they trade Verlander and Cabrera without alienating the entire city? Would any team, even one as rich as the Dodgers, want a contract that will pay Cabrera $32 million in 2023, when he’s 40 years old?

For the last decade, Avila has worked with an open checkbook, either as Dave Dombrowski’s top assistant or the man in charge of the roster. That’s going to change this winter, and he’s going to have to find a way to cut costs, make the team younger and still attract fans.

That’s not easy, but rebuilding never is.

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