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Tigers embrace strategy of uncovering gems

Avila aims to catch 'lightning in a bottle' on free-agent market
MLB.com @beckjason

DETROIT -- The days of the Tigers being major players in the free-agent market seemingly ended last offseason, when most of the Hot Stove talk around Motown involved who might be traded rather than signed. That will not change this winter.

"Free agency is going to be a little different this year than we've been accustomed to in the past," general manager Al Avila said. "We're going to be … kind of bargain-looking."

DETROIT -- The days of the Tigers being major players in the free-agent market seemingly ended last offseason, when most of the Hot Stove talk around Motown involved who might be traded rather than signed. That will not change this winter.

"Free agency is going to be a little different this year than we've been accustomed to in the past," general manager Al Avila said. "We're going to be … kind of bargain-looking."

Last week's news conference to introduce Ron Gardenhire as the Tigers' manager doubled as Avila's end-of-season remarks, delayed from its usual early October slot while team officials conducted their managerial search. The message was a continuation of the direction the Tigers explored last fall and then forged this past season.

Video: Avila discusses hiring Gardenhire as manager

The Tigers are focused on developing talent from within their farm system -- a process they warn is going to take time. They'll sign some free agents to fill the gap until those players arrive, but they won't be big names.

"The free agents that we're looking at -- hopefully we can find a diamond in the rough somewhere, or 'lightning in a bottle' would be a better term," Avila said, "and trying to make sure we put together a team that can compete solidly over the six months of the season.

"And then we're also going to look for Minor League free agents. And hopefully we can find there a diamond in the rough or lightning in a bottle, and guys that can give us some depth at Triple-A as we need them throughout the season."

To some extent, the Tigers did that last offseason as well, signing Omar Infante, Brendan Ryan and others to Minor League deals in case they traded players like Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias. Detroit didn't like the market and kept the team intact for one more run, so Infante and Ryan spent the season at Triple-A Toledo. Kinsler and Iglesias are expected to be on the trade market again this offseason, assuming the Tigers pick up Kinsler's contract option as expected.

Part of the Tigers' approach is a lesson from 2003, the last time the Tigers undertook such a massive rebuild. That team went young to open the season, even releasing Damion Easley in Spring Training and eating salary to create open spots, as then GM Dave Dombrowski took the opportunity to evaluate the prospects he had inherited. Detroit set an AL record with 119 losses that year and ended up using Minor League free agents like Warren Morris, Kevin Witt, Ernie Young and Danny Klassen to help fill gaps by midseason.

The other track is to take a free agent on the rebound, helping him get back to old form or gain value, then possibly moving him at the non-waiver Trade Deadline for prospects. The A's have done a skilled job of this in recent years, notably with Rich Hill in 2016. That said, Hill signed a $6 million, one-year deal with Oakland that year; the Tigers aren't expected to make any signings that big.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

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