Al Avila, Tigers patient but ready to pounce on buyer-friendly free-agent market

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
| The Detroit News

Detroit — Welcome to the virtual winter meetings.

Instead of the entire industry converging on a convention center in Dallas this week — as was the plan pre-pandemic — front-office executives, managers, agents, athletic trainers and medical staffs, media-relations bosses, equipment reps, exhibitors and job seekers will conduct their business from their homes and offices via video conferencing.

Tigers general manager Al Avila and his top lieutenants will be working out of a conference room at Comerica Park. Manager AJ Hinch, who is scheduled to do a video media conference Wednesday, Dec. 16, will remain in Houston.

Logistics aside, though, it’s still the symbolic beginning of the hot-stove season in Major League Baseball, and the Tigers are in an intriguing position. No longer on a payroll-cleansing, tear-it-down mission, they are in the early stages of laying the foundation for the next winning chapter.

And in a normal year, with a 162-game season and full-capacity stadiums guaranteed, Avila would be in position to bid on one or two top-ticket free agents. There is one guaranteed contract on the books right now and it belongs to Miguel Cabrera ($30 million per). Even the annual $6 million Prince Fielder payout is gone.

Alas, we may not see normal for a long while yet. Teams across baseball — after taking a collective hit of some $3 billion in lost revenue in 2020, according to estimates by commissioner Rob Manfred — have no idea what their budgets will be for 2021. That’s because with COVID-19 still spreading, there is no certainty of when the season might start, how many games might be played or how many if any fans will be allowed into stadiums.

So instead of entering the offseason armed for bear, the Tigers again will have to seek smaller targets in free agency. The positive there is, all the targets are getting smaller. Let’s explain:

There are only a handful of high-priced stars on the market — George Springer, J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer and D.J. LeMahieu are at the top of that list. And there are only a handful of teams equipped to bid on their services.

The free-agent market is otherwise flooded with very good players — 59 new free agents were added to an already deep pool after the non-tender deadline last week. Players like outfielders Eddie Rosario, Kyle Schwarber and David Dahl — players who stood to make between $6 million and $10 million had they gone to arbitration — are suddenly available.

And with the lost revenue last year and the uncertainties going forward, the price tag on those players, and others like them, could drop over the next couple of months. Teams have leverage right now, a leverage they have rarely had in the past and will likely not have after this collective bargaining agreement expires after 2021.

So expect Avila to be vigilant — there might be quality players in the $5 million to $8 million price range who get antsy by the first of the year and are willing to secure a roster spot. But mostly, expect him to be patient. A player asking for $10 million this week could be had for $8 million or less by the end of January.

Or, with vaccines on the horizon, maybe by the middle of January, Major League Baseball will be able to set a schedule and determine how many fans will be allowed in — thus giving clubs a better sense of what they can spend.  

Offseason primer

The Tigers, as Avila has made clear, will be active this winter. One way or another.  

“I know Al has been very forward with me that we’re not going into camp with the same team we have today,” Hinch said last month. “Whether it’s big names and big money, I don’t know it that’s going to be the case. That’s not even that important to me as much as the big vision and consistency in thought process of what we’re trying to build here.

“Being opportunistic is going to be the key.”

The needs are pronounced — starting pitching, a run-producing bat or two (preferably left-handed), starting catcher.

The Tigers have been linked in the media to Blue Jays right-hander Taijuan Walker, but the market price for starting pitchers may have to readjust. The signings of two ex-Tigers — Drew Smyly by the Braves ($11 million) and Robbie Ray ($8 million) by the Blue Jays — might have set a false bar.

With two top prospects already in the rotation (Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal) and two more coming (Matt Manning and Alex Faedo), it’s doubtful the Tigers will spend more than $5 million on any one veteran starting pitcher. More likely they would try to get two for that price.

The non-tender bonanza should be a boon for the Tigers. Any of those aforementioned outfielders would be a prized addition. Two others the Tigers may bid on are Joc Pederson and Jurickson Profar. Both are under 30 — Pederson 28 and Profar 27 — both hit left-handed (Profar is a switch-hitter) and both would fit nicely into the vacancy in left field.

The Tigers also will be seeking a corner infielder, again one with some power. Jeimer Candelario will start at either first base or third base next season depending on who they can sign. Two potential fits at third base are Maikel Franco (28) and Jake Lamb (30).

At first base, veteran Carlos Santana (35) would be an intriguing choice. The Tigers could also re-up with C.J. Cron, depending on how he’s responded after season-ending knee surgery last year.

The catcher spot is tricky. Avila indicated last month that he wasn’t enamored with the catcher’s market. The two best players — Realmuto and former Tiger James McCann — will be too costly for the Tigers to bid on.

That leaves a long list of players who are essentially backups at this stage of their careers. The Tigers, with Grayson Greiner, Eric Haase and Jake Rogers, shouldn’t be bidding on back-up catchers. They took a chance on promoting longtime backup Austin Romine to starter last season without much success.

If they go that route again, they might explore either Curt Casali (32), Tony Wolters (28) or Wilson Ramos (33).

Rule 5 draft

The Rule 5 draft is Thursday and the Tigers, who have the third overall pick, have made good use of it the last few years adding Daniel Stumpf, Victor Reyes and last year Rony Garcia.

But at this stage of the rebuild, the Tigers might be beyond needing to carry an under-developed player for a full season. Especially coming off a year where there was no minor league baseball and thus no fresh scouting data on any of the eligible players.

As of Sunday, the Tigers’ 40-man roster was full. They could easily clear a spot if they felt strongly about a player.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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