DETROIT -- The last time the Tigers headed to San Diego for the Winter Meetings, they were wheeling and dealing to try to keep their window of contention cracked open for another year. That was five years ago, when then-GM Dave Dombrowski made waves on the last day by trading Rick Porcello for Yoenis Céspedes. To fill Porcello’s rotation spot, Detroit acquired Alfredo Simon from Cincinnati for a package that included a young infielder named Eugenio Suárez, a deal that haunts Tigers fans every time Suárez hits a highlight home run.
This year’s Tigers are in a much different position, coming off a 114-loss season that ranks as second-worst in the club’s 119-year history. But unlike the last couple of years, general manager Al Avila will walk into the lobby looking to buy more than sell.
Mind you, the Tigers won’t be shopping the top shelves, not yet anyway. For the most part, they’re looking for stopgap signings that fill spots until the prospects they’ve stockpiled over the last few years begin to take over later this season and next. It still beats the downtrodden meetings of the last couple of years that included the Ian Kinsler trade of 2017, the Nicholas Castellanos trade rumors of the previous two offseasons and rumors surrounding many other players the Tigers tried to move.
The Tigers really, really need offense. Could be a first baseman, a corner outfielder or even a middle infielder, but Detroit badly needs a run producer to provide some punch to the Majors’ lowest-scoring team in 2019. Though the Tigers are willing to wait to find a late bargain, the speed of the market could prompt a deal. They also need a veteran catcher to pair with Grayson Greiner while Jake Rogers puts the finishing polish on his resume. A veteran starter isn’t an absolute necessity now that the Tigers have young starters on the doorstep, but it’s a preference. A lefty reliever is needed after Blaine Hardy and Daniel Stumpf were dropped from the roster at season’s end.
Whom might they trade
Avila isn’t in as much of a selling mode as he's been in Winter Meetings past, largely because the Tigers’ most appealing trade targets have been dealt over the last couple of years. Detroit will listen to interest in Matthew Boyd, but his late-season struggles and the depth of starting pitching on the market this offseason will likely prevent Avila from getting what he perceives as fair value for the lefty. Closer Joe Jiménez continues to draw interest with one more pre-arbitration season remaining, but the Tigers are hesitant to trade players so early and would have to be very impressed with an offer to break that trend for Jiménez. Keep an eye on Buck Farmer as a potential dark horse for teams looking for versatile relief help on a budget.
Prospects to know
Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal are the big names among the Tigers' Top 30 Prospects, and they’re expected to open 2020 on Detroit’s doorstep at Triple-A Toledo as the wave of young pitching nears Comerica Park. More intriguing for now are Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser, both former first-round picks who struggled in Toledo this past season but were added to the 40-man roster last month to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft. If the Tigers wanted to trade prospects for prospects and try to bring in young hitters, they could be among the pieces.
Rule 5 Draft
The Tigers have the top pick in the Rule 5 Draft for the second time in three years, and are likely to seek an advanced hitter or versatile position player to bolster their depth for 2020 and beyond. But Avila and his crew have gone away from pre-Draft rankings for their picks the last couple years, including athletic outfielder Victor Reyes as a surprise first pick two years ago.
The Tigers are currently projected for an $86 million payroll for 2020, according to Baseball-Reference. Nearly three-fourths of that, $61 million, is tied up in guaranteed contracts to Cabrera and Zimmermann, plus a $6 million payment to cover Prince Fielder’s salary after his 2013 trade to Texas. Detroit has room to spend, but it won’t likely go much above $100 million. Once Zimmermann’s contract and Fielder’s payments expire at season’s end, the Tigers could have quite a bit of space with which to fill needs and begin to contend, though not like their days of pushing the luxury-tax threshold under late owner Mike Ilitch.
Where is the Tigers’ rebuild headed? Detroit’s 114-loss season in 2019 was by far its worst since the process began in 2017, and another 100-plus losses are possible in '20. It’s a heavy price to pay for the free-spending days of division titles earlier this decade, but while many fans in Detroit have understood the need to replenish the farm system, their patience is being tested. By most evaluators, the Tigers have the young pitching on the way to eventually find better fortunes, but maybe not the hitters to compete with top clubs. How the Tigers eventually address that gap, whether with big signings or trades, remains to be seen.