DETROIT — With baseball’s Winter Meetings going virtual, Tigers general manager Al Avila has been relatively quiet about the team’s offseason plans. On Friday, he shed a little light on Detroit’s Hot Stove while speaking at The Players Alliance Pull-Up Neighbor Tour event, where former outfielder Cameron Maybin, reliever John Schreiber, pitching coach Chris Fetter and Avila helped distribute food, personal protective equipment and youth baseball gear to more than 2,000 families in need.
“We’re very proud of this,” Avila said of the event.
The Tigers have emphasized pitching so far this offseason, but they also have needs in the field, including the corner infield and the middle of the order. Here’s a roundup of what Avila addressed:
Payroll and outlook for Hot Stove
Background: With Jordan Zimmermann a free agent, Miguel Cabrera is the only Tigers player currently on a guaranteed contract. The team has nine players eligible for arbitration, and it tendered contracts to all of them; none have reached agreement on a salary for next season yet. At the same time, Detroit finished a 60-game season with no fans at Comerica Park this year, followed by layoffs and furloughs in its business operations and scouting departments.
Avila: “Coming from a pandemic where there was nobody in the stands and a 60-game schedule is a very tough place to come from. And then going into the uncertainty of next season is also another difficulty, part of the planning as we move forward. But in saying that, obviously we’re going to try to better the team as best we can, identify what players might be out there that could be good fits.
“I think, ideally, we’d like to add a pitcher, maybe two, depending on the situation. If we could add a bat or another position player, that would also be part of the process. But mainly, we also want to give young guys opportunities to continue to develop and improve at the Major League level, too. So, it’s that combination. It’s going to be a year where we want some improvement, we want some advancement. That’s pretty much where we’re at. …
“Again, I am very optimistic about next year as we move forward into the summer and into 2022. Going that far, I think things will be back to normal, hopefully. But right now, as we move forward from the losses that we came from, and the possible losses we’re going into in the beginning [of next season], it’s really difficult. That’s something to consider right now. But on top of that, we also want more of the younger guys to get a little bit closer [to the big leagues]. The guys that are already here, we want them to start to feel a little bit more established. So, there is a timing factor from economics and talent on the field.”
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When to spend
Background: Avila has talked the past couple years about payroll flexibility once the Tigers got some of their long-term contracts off the books, notably Zimmermann. While Avila has downplayed the possibility of Detroit going back to the massive salaries it posted in previous years, he has acknowledged the team could have a little more room to deal around its core vision of building from within. That raised speculation that the Tigers could go big this offseason.
Avila: “I look at it as being disciplined this year and resisting, let’s say, an urge to really try to step up. The last thing we want to do is go out and spend some money that we’re trying to get rid of next year or the year after that. From the very beginning, we’ve been saying we want this to be a long-term success, not a short-term fix. And so, to go in here right now and make a big splash and then all of a sudden it doesn’t work out and then you’re trying to dump the salaries the following year, that’s not what we’re looking at. We’re looking at long-term sustainability. You have to be disciplined to do that, and sometimes you’ve got to have thick skin, because I know people want it now, so you get a little attacked here and there. But you know what, we’ll see that through, and at the end, we’ll make the right decisions and we’ll be successful at it.”
Cron and Schoop
Background: The Tigers signed first baseman C.J. Cron and second baseman Jonathan Schoop to one-year contracts last offseason and enjoyed production from both before they suffered season-ending injuries — Cron to left knee surgery in early August, Schoop to a right wrist sprain in September. Both are free agents again this winter.
Avila: “We have a wide net in looking at different possibilities, and I think we’re keeping all of our options open to see where it takes us. I’m not going to be pinned down to one guy in particular. It’s a wide net, and we’re going to try to bring in what we need the most at this point. At this time, it’s a wide net. I can’t say we’ve really pinpointed one certain position. And I think flexibility also is important.
“I know Schoop and Cron really were good for us last year before the injuries. I’m not saying they’re not possibilities. They’re certainly possibilities. But we have to keep our options open at this point and see where it takes us.”
Background: The Tigers signed Austin Romine to a one-year contract around this point last offseason as a stopgap to allow catching prospect Jake Rogers to develop. Romine got off to a solid start before he slumped after fouling a ball off his right knee. He hit .238 with two homers, 17 RBIs and a .582 OPS. He’s a free agent again this winter, along with many of the same free-agent catchers as last offseason. J.T. Realmuto and former Tigers backstop James McCann are the top catchers on the market.
Avila: “There’s a possibility we could bring in a catcher, too. But again, I couldn’t tell you right now where we’re at with that, but that is a possibility.”
Background: Avila talked at the end of the season about the challenge of building pitchers back up from a 60-game season to potentially 162 games and the need to have depth to cover innings. Every starter except for Ivan Nova is back, and the Tigers have prospects Matt Manning and Alex Faedo on track to potentially debut next season.
Avila: “There’s going to be some mainstays here. We have the makings of a rotation already going into next year, obviously with [Spencer] Turnbull and [Matthew] Boyd leading the way and Michael Fulmer coming back, and you mentioned Casey Mize and [Tarik] Skubal. But we’re going to try to add another pitcher or two to that mix for some competition and obviously some depth.”
Where to play Candelario
Background: Jeimer Candelario began the 2020 season at third base, then moved to first base following Cron’s knee injury and enjoyed a breakout season. Candelario said last month he hadn’t been told by the Tigers which position he should play in winter ball; he made his Dominican Professional Baseball League debut this week at third base.
Avila: In talking to [manager] A.J. [Hinch], he likes flexibility, so ideally, probably third base might be the best thing for him. But I think also the ability to play first base is good for him, too, no different than [top prospect Spencer] Torkelson being able to play third and first, and Willi Castro being able to play second and short. Niko Goodrum can play pretty much anywhere in the infield and the outfield. I think A.J. likes the flexibility. Where Candy ends up playing, it’ll determine how it all finishes out in Spring Training.”
Background: The Tigers had all of their major signings done around this point last offseason. Their only acquisition so far this offseason has been Rule 5 Draft pick Akil Baddoo. Other teams have moved at a similar pace.
Avila: “I think, so far, what you’re seeing is a slow-moving market other than a couple of teams. Atlanta jumped right in there, which was a very good strategy on their part. They identified what they wanted and they got it, as did Kansas City, so that’s good. Other than a handful of teams, you’re seeing it take a little bit longer. But every year is different. There’s been years there’s been some really good free-agent signings in February, and some guys even after the season started that were really good players. Every year is unique.
“I think, at the end of the day, teams will go in and sign their players that they need. Like us, things are starting to fall into place within time, but I can’t give you a timeline. But right now, as we move forward, we’re moving cautiously.”