The era of big government [or big payroll] is over
Those TV fans who remember The West Wing might recall the headline above (well, ok, not the payroll part). It was the phrase that the President’s staff debated putting into or taking out of his State of the Union speech. Eventually, they changed course and took the phrase out of the speech.
As Tigers general manager Al Avila searched Tuesday for a term to describe the plan upon which the team is embarking, he didn’t come up with that phrase. But other terms came to mind.
“I can’t call it a rebuild, because we haven’t broken anything down,” Avila said. “So no, I’m not comfortable with the word rebuild. People can use rebuild and I don’t think it’s the right term. I’ve read retool; I don’t know if that’s the right term. I don’t know if there’s a term for what I want to do here. I really don’t. If you guys can come up with a slogan, let me know and we’ll go with it. In describing the process, you guys can probably name it however you want to name it.
“Hey, we want to get younger and we want to get leaner. We want to run the organization without having to go over the means of the organization. We want to run the organization more responsible or efficient. In all seriousness, you try to run the organization in the right manner and try to get the team more efficient. When I say efficient, you want to improve your baserunning and defense, you want to balance out that lineup a little bit better. But that’s a lot to do, and a lot of changes, so it’s not the kind of thing that you’re going to see happen overnight.
“It’s going to be a process and in some cases, it might seem painful. But it could be fruitful, too.”
If the plan is followed, it’s a change in the long-term vision of how the Tigers operate. The era of big — ok, huge — Tigers payrolls is over. It was fun while it lasted, watching the Tigers outbid big-market teams for a big-name player, but it was going to end sometime. When even teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers have to watch what they’re spending, the Tigers weren’t going to put it off forever.
It’s the transition that was always going to be the hard part. The Tigers put it off for years, hoping to get a World Series title the old way first, but eventually it had to happen.
“That’s a tightrope that we have to walk,” Avila said. “We certainly want to stay competitive. We certainly want to be able to try to get back in the playoffs, But at the same time, this organization has been working way above its means as far as payroll for many, many years, and it [has] put us in a situation where quite frankly, it’s difficult to maneuver.
“It’s no secret obviously of the tax consequences that we’re going to have to pay, and if we continue that trend, it only gets worse and higher. So it would be foolish. And my opinion, my recommendation is that we don’t continue on that trend, because it would definitely be detrimental to this organization as we move forward. So in saying that, yes, we want to win, we want to be competitive, we want to try to get back into the playoffs. But at the same time, we have to see how that’s done. …
“I can’t say: ‘Here’s a plan of action, we’re going to go and get this guy.’ This year is going to be different. This year it’s we’re going to go out and talk to 29 other clubs and see how we can start, little by little, making this team leaner, younger, more efficient, and at the same time, staying competitive, trying to get to the playoffs, so that’s where the tightrope is that we’re walking on. Not the easiest thing in the world to do, obviously … but it has to be done. And it’s not a process where it’s going to be done in one winter.
“What we want to do ultimately may not be done between now and the Winter Meetings. It may not be done between now and the end of Spring Training. It may not be done between now and the next trading deadline. So it will be an ongoing process as we try to get better, but at the same time we try to make some changes that just make sense overall for this organization.”
This offseason’s trading market will determine in part how abrupt a transition this is for the Tigers, whether Avila makes a slew of deals this winter and remakes this team around a young core, or begins a slower process that sees much of this team intact for next year before several prominent players hit free agency next winter.
Here’s what it means for now:
- The Tigers are not going to be big players in the upcoming free-agent market, aside from six-year minor league free agents. “If there’s one thing I learned last year,” Avila said, “it’s that the best way to build a good foundation and organization for the long term is not through free agency, but it’s through drafting good players, developing those players, and bringing them up through the system — then, as needed, making some wise trades. … Then, every once in a blue moon, if you have to add a free-agent player to take you over the top, then that’s what you do. That’s really the essence of how to make things work in the long haul.”
- The Tigers will at least listen to most any idea on the trade market. “That doesn’t mean that we’re dangling Player A out there and seeing what happens,” Avila said, “but it does mean that in our conversations with other clubs, we will be open-minded, and if somebody has interest in a certain player, we’ll take a look at it. If it makes sense for the Detroit Tigers present and future, then we certainly will consider things that we feel will make us better.”
- Avila has not ruled out picking up contract options on Francisco Rodriguez or Cameron Maybin, though he could end up trading them (he didn’t say that, but you obviously get the idea). “We have until just after the World Series,” Avila said. “We will be making a decision obviously before then, and we’ll probably wait all the way to the final day [to announce]. But no, we have not made a decision yet.”
- A long-term extension for J.D. Martinez, who’s in line for free agency next winter, is not on the offseason to-do list. “I don’t foresee any talks of a long-term contract at this point,” Avila said. “In saying that, we’re going to keep any open mind in what possibilities come across this winter, this coming summer. I’m not going to rule [it] out … but sitting here today, we’re not thinking that way right now.”
- The Tigers will be looking to keep and develop the prospects they have, rather than dangle them in trade talks. “If you’re looking for trading those players for a young guy that’s going to be around for a long time, that’s already a proven commodity, maybe that’s a different story,” Avila said. “A guy that’s under control, going to be around for a long time, then that’s a different mindset. So you can’t say an absolute no. But the philosophy here, the main focus, is keep your main guys, the ones that you’re thinking are going to help you at the Major League level.”
- The analytics department that Avila began to build last year will continue to expand, including a software system the Tigers are calling Caesar that they hope to have operational in January. “It’s in its infancy, as analytics departments [go],” Avila said.