SAN DIEGO -- The first words of the Winter Meetings from Tigers general manager Al Avila sounded more like a statement than a question.
“Our mindset here is to move forward now and build back up,” he said Monday evening from his suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel. “Obviously we’ve made a lot of trades. We’ve traded pretty much everybody that we needed to trade. We’re at a point where the team is very young, and now we’re at a point where we’ve got to build it back up.”
It was a message about the state of the Tigers’ rebuilding process. It was also a message aimed at the prospects they’ve begun to bring up to the Majors, several of whom showed their growing pains on the way to a 114-loss season in 2019.
“We lost a lot of games last year,” Avila said, “so it’s one of the things that we’ve talked about. First day in Spring Training: Fellas, let’s go. This is your time to step up. We feel good in the next three years that we can build this up. Are you going to be part of that? Or is it going to be somebody else from the Minor Leagues who’s going to be part of that? Or are we going to have to go out and get somebody else to be part of that?
“These guys are going to be given an opportunity, but it’s not going to be handed to them.”
It’s not hard to figure out where Avila is referencing:
Third base: After moving Jeimer Candelario to first base down the stretch last season amid his second year of offensive struggles, the Tigers are in the market for a first baseman to bolster their offense and push Candelario back across the infield and into a competition with Dawel Lugo and eventually No. 5 prospect Isaac Paredes for playing time at third.
“We need Candelario to come back and have a bounce-back year,” Avila said.
Catcher: The Tigers are in the market for at least one catcher, and possibly two, after missing out on a reunion with Alex Avila. Whomever they sign would compete for playing time with Grayson Greiner, with prospect Jake Rogers expected to back to Triple-A Toledo for more seasoning. Avila said Rogers was rushed to the Majors this year.
“The person that we acquire could end up being the starting catcher, depending on performance,” Avila said. “Right now, we’re looking to build up and get better. We’re not trying to crush a young kid and not give him playing time, but we’re going to give equal opportunity, and the competition is going to be real, and guys are going to have to start stepping up and performing.
“That’s the only way you’re going to get better. Otherwise you’re just spinning your wheels. We’ve come to that point.”
Shortstop: Super-utility player Niko Goodrum is the front-runner to start at short, Avila said, with prospect Willi Castro likely ticketed for more seasoning following his late-season stint this past season.
“We’ve gotten a lot of calls [from interested teams] on Niko Goodrum,” Avila said. “People think he can play. And we think he can play, so we’re going to give him an opportunity.”
Corner outfield: Former Royals outfielder Jorge Bonifacio, signed to a Minor League contract with a non-roster invite, arrives with the mindset that he’ll be the Tigers’ right fielder, Avila said. He’ll get a chance to compete for the starting job, with other signings likely to follow. The additions are meant to create competition for left fielder Christin Stewart, right fielder Travis Demeritte, center fielder JaCoby Jones and versatile outfielder Victor Reyes.
“You have the same guys coming back, but we’re going to try to add to that to make the offense better and give those young guys more competition,” Avila said. “Hopefully that whole process makes the team better going into 2020.”
Starting pitcher: The Tigers plan to sign one veteran starter to compete for a rotation spot alongside Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, Spencer Turnbull, Jordan Zimmermann, with Dario Agrazal and Tyler Alexander also in mix.
Top prospects Casey Mize and Matt Manning will also compete in Major League camp, Avila said, but they would ideally open the season at Triple-A.
Rule 5 Draft: The Tigers have the first pick in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft and have a short list of candidates, with the possibility of adding a second selection. But unlike the past two years, when they drafted players based on long-term potential, the Tigers plan to draft a player who can compete next season.
“We’re looking for more than a guy that we can just carry,” Avila said, “but a guy that can contribute.”