By Will Burchfield
In an offseason in which the Tigers figured to be prominent players, the team’s biggest move was trading Cameron Maybin. It was like a fireworks show where all the fuses were duds.
The Tigers’ GM was a little disappointed.
“I was actually hoping that it would play out a little bit differently,” Al Avila told ‘Tiger Talk’ on 97.1 The Ticket on Wednesday night. “But I was not surprised that this winter went by and we really didn’t make any moves. Even the Maybin thing was really a non-move.”
Avila entered the offseason with a stated intention to cut payroll and an open-for-business stance on the trade market. That led to a flurry of rumors involving the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez. But as Avila explained on Tuesday, the Tigers were never particularly close to pulling off a big-time trade.
That was due to a couple of reasons.
For one, Avila explained, the free agent market undermined the Tigers’ leverage in trade talks.
“Most of the time a club would rather sign a free agent player than have to trade a good prospect – or prospects – to acquire that talent for their team. This year, some of that happened obviously,” he said.
For another, the Tigers’ trade chips may not have been all that appealing.
“You really don’t know the value of a player until you pick up the phone and you start calling other clubs and see how they value your players as far as the total package of contract, cost, age and everything of that nature,” said Avila.
“Young players at low cost that you have under control for several years, they are at a premium,” he added. “That’s what teams are coveting.”
In that regard, the Tigers had very little to offer. Cabrera and Verlander can be automatically crossed off the list due to their gargantuan salaries. And Kinsler, 34, can be crossed off due to his age. That leaves Martinez, who, though younger and cheaper, isn’t controllable beyond next season, after which he’ll hit unrestricted free agency.
In short, there’s a difference between great players and great assets. And Avila, realizing he was short in the latter department, felt it was best to stand pat.
“We’re not going to go out there and basically trade for A-ball, fringe type of guys because we’re not there yet,” he said on Tuesday. “I can’t trade away two or three players without having the return to be able to plug in because then I’m going to cripple the organization.”
It’s telling that perhaps the hottest Tiger on the trade market this offseason was Justin Wilson. Though lacking the star appeal of the aforementioned players and coming off a good-not-great season, Wilson, 29, is a young-enough reliever who will make somewhere around $2.7 million next season and is under team control through 2018.
Avila explained the Tigers’ decision to hold onto him:
“While there was some interest in him, we also felt that, ‘Okay, based on his performance last year he probably could have been better, more consistent.’ So we had to evaluate — is it better to keep him and see what he can do for us out of the bullpen in 2017?
“If everything works out great and he does a good job, well, we’re going to need him because you’re always looking for that left-handed reliever. And if things don’t go well for whatever reason but he does well, then at the trade deadline obviously the value will still be there, if not higher.
“So you can play it either way. You have to just figure out (how he) has more value for you: as a left-handed reliever or in a possible trade. So these are things that you’re evaluating all the time as you talk with different clubs.”
In all likelihood, the Tigers followed the same rationale in retaining their stars.
With Cabrera, Verlander, Kinsler and Martinez in tow for 2017, the team has a legitimate chance to contend for a playoff spot. If injuries or other factors derail those plans, Avila has a wealth of big-name players to shop at the trade deadline. And by then, teams with championship aspirations may look past issues of age, cost or controllability in sizing up a big bat or a power arm.
Avila has said all along the Tigers’ goal of becoming a more cost-effective organization won’t happen overnight. This offseason proved why.