Avila: Tigers don't have to shed salaries

December 6th, 2016

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Change is coming to the Tigers -- eventually.

General manager Al Avila proclaimed the change in October and reinforced it on Monday as baseball's Winter Meetings began with Detroit as a potential seller and a suddenly thrifty spender. But change, Avila argued, might come slower than expected.

If the Tigers can't work suitable trades for their stars, Avila suggested, they might not happen at all this offseason. And a team that seemed on the verge of an offseason breakup might go into Spring Training with nearly the same group -- and the same payroll concerns -- as it did in 2016.

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If the Tigers do make a trade this week, Avila said, it'll be because they want to, not because they have to.

"We would like to shed some of that payroll," Avila said, "but quite frankly, if it's not a deal that we feel is fair for the Detroit Tigers, that will help us, there's no demand to dump the salary."

Although Avila said nothing has changed since he talked about fiscal discipline after the season, Monday's caution seemed at least like a slower pace in the same direction. Detroit's talks with teams this week will tell whether it's a negotiating tactic.

Though Avila said he resumed talks with teams from earlier this offseason and started new ones with several others, he cautioned that none fell under his category of "hot and heavy." Other clubs have suggested that the Tigers want more -- in some cases, much more -- for veteran players than they either expected or are willing to give.

That perception, Avila said, might have come from a mischaracterization of what the team wants to do, though last month's trade of and his $9 million contract option in exchange for relief prospect seemingly reinforced the perception.

"This organization, as we move forward, we're going to start working in a different manner," Avila said. "We're going to be more reliant on scouting and player development as we move forward, and signing, developing and keeping our good prospects that we want to keep, as opposed to trying to acquire more veteran players. The other thing is, obviously, that we'd like to reduce payroll and get under the luxury tax, and in doing so trying to get younger, leaner.

"However, that didn't mean we were going to go out there and dump salary. What it meant was that we would be open to listening [to inquiries about] any of our players. As a matter of fact, I've never said we were going to go out and start pushing to trade players."

For and , Detroit's veterans under long-term deals, that means that unless the Tigers are wowed by an offer, they're not going anywhere. Detroit, which signed both to lucrative extensions two years out from free agency, appears unwilling to eat salary to make a deal work, at least for Verlander. More important, changes to Major League Baseball's luxury-tax penalties make it prohibitive for large-market teams to take on their entire contracts.

, too, seems tied to Detroit, with two years and $36 million left on his contract and his 38th birthday coming up this month.

The bigger test will be with players under short-term deals. is under contract for next year at $11.75 million before he's eligible for free agency. has an $11 million salary for 2017, then a $12 million club option or $5 million buyout for 2018. Kinsler has a 10-team no-trade list; any team on that list would not only have to pick up the option, it would have to extend his contract beyond that for him to accept a trade.

Then there's closer , under contract for $6 million after the Tigers picked up his option last month. Detroit did not entertain trade talks for Rodriguez leading up to that decision, Avila said. Though the free-agent closer market is heating up, Avila said the Tigers are not inclined to trade Rodriguez right now.

Barring a trade of Cabrera, Verlander or , at least one of Martinez or Kinsler will likely have to be traded for Detroit to creep under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold for next year. But when asked if the Tigers could hold onto them all and remain over the limit, Avila said, "It's a possibility."

If the Tigers take this roster into 2017, they could still try to swing deals at next summer's non-waiver Trade Deadline if they're not in contention. But with the Royals and White Sox potentially trading away established stars, a summer selloff wouldn't necessarily be the end goal.

"[We're] certainly a team that could compete for a playoff spot," Avila said.