Is it time for Al Avila, Tigers to rebuild?

As the 2017 MLB season approaches June, the Detroit Tigers stand at 25-28, three games below .500. After a hot start from Minnesota and an average first two months from the World Series finalist Cleveland Indians, the Tigers’ recent run leaves them three and a half games out of first place. As the veteran stars of Detroit continue to grow older, the consensus from both the baseball media and those in the Tigers organization seems to be that the Tigers are in “win now” mode.

For a team with the second highest payroll in the league, this line of thinking makes sense. However, with that designation, fans are panicking about Detroit’s subpar 2016 season, where they finished eight games behind Cleveland and two and a half games out of a wild card berth into the playoffs. Mix that with a last-place finish in 2015 and a slow start in 2017, and it seems as though this current version of the Tigers are nowhere near a championship.

This line of thinking is only furthered by a tweet last week from MLB Network’s Jon Morosi:

If general manager Al Avila decides to pull the trigger on trading away players like Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez, it would likely mean the window is closed for a championship for Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, who are signed through at least 2023 and at least 2019, respectively. What’s more, while Verlander is putting together a decent season thus far, he’s being paid $28 million a year until 2019, which means the Tigers would definitely have to retain some of his salary if he was traded away.

While those two and designated hitter Victor Martinez are likely untradeable due to age, there are still plenty of pieces on this team that are valuable to a team looking to get over the top in October. If the Tigers don’t mount a serious charge towards an AL Central title in the next few weeks, Avila may be forced to sell. However, given the performance of players such as Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez, the money handed out a few years ago in search of a championship may come back to hurt the Tigers’ prospects of success in the short term.

Here are a few options for what Avila can do at the deadline should the Tigers become sellers:

JD Martinez, OF

After injuring his foot in spring training, Martinez was off to a hot start with the bat, hitting eight home runs in the month of May. In the 19 games he’s played so far in 2017, Martinez has been drawing walks at an elite rate, earning a free pass in 18.9% of his plate appearances. Increased power and patience at the plate makes him one of the best hitters in the American League when he’s on his game, and while his recent slump means he’s earned two hits in his last 24 plate appearances, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play, mainly a determination of luck) is at just .229, far below the league average of .296. Therefore, Martinez has started his 2017 with impressive power numbers, and may yet have a chance to get hot again and continue to hit for power at an impressive rate.

Martinez is due $11.8 million this year, before his contract expires. As a rental for an AL East team looking to add some power to the outfield (think Baltimore or Tampa), as well as the ability to negotiate exclusively with Martinez in the winter, Martinez might fetch among the highest values of the entire Tigers roster.

Justin Upton, OF

Upton has also hit for power in 2017, hitting nine homers in 50 games. Upton’s value is tricky to determine, as he has a player option after this season. If he doesn’t pick it up, he’ll be a free agent. If he does, whichever team has him will pay him $90 million through 2021. His WAR (wins above replacement) is at 1.3 through May, which is second-best on the Tigers behind Alex Avila. There’s value, but he has to continue hitting well for a team to trade away a solid haul to pick him up. Either way, the Tigers are in a sticky situation, especially if they have to pay him until he turns 35.

Ian Kinsler, 2B

Kinsler may be a bit too old to have “top prospects in return” trade value, but the currently-injured second baseman has had a solid bat in the 41 games he’s played in 2017. Kinsler did post a 5.8 WAR in 2016, making him one of seven players to post a WAR at second base greater than five at age 34 since 1947. So age may not be too much of a factor. That said, he does turn 35 in June, and his power numbers will eventually decline as a result. His team option for 2018 keeps his salary at $10 million, so if a contender needs an above-average, dependable second baseman at a decent value, the Tigers could receive a AAAA player and a prospect in return.

Alex Avila, C/1B

Avila is a name that most Tigers fans probably wouldn’t have considered for this list during spring training. That said. Avila has had the hottest start of any Tiger thus far, leading the team in WAR at 1.6, third-best in baseball among those with at least 120 plate appearances this season. His versatility in position makes sense as well, mainly due to Avila’s age. At age 30, chances are he will not be able to be an everyday catcher for a contending team. At $2 million, his value will remain high if he continues to hit for power.

The question remains as to whether or not the Tigers can make a rebuild work. Building around Jose Iglesias, Nicholas Castellanos, and Michael Fulmer is a decent start, but the huge contracts handed to Zimmermann and Sanchez will be very hard to eat, especially as Zimmermann continues to perform as the worst starting pitcher in the American League.

If the offense starts to produce runs against non-stud starting pitchers, as they failed to do in Chicago over last weekend, all hope is not lost. This lineup is still very strong when they’re clicking, but it has been rare to find performances in 2017’s first two months where both the pitching and hitting has come together.

Should the Tigers find themselves below the .500 mark on July 1st, Avila will have until the deadline on July 31st to come up with some value, and hope to do what the Cubs have done in recent years, and what the Yankees appear to be doing this season: come up with a half-rebuild that results in an instant contender. The only problem for the Tigers comes from their hard pursuit for a title during the start of this decade, where they traded prospect after prospect to find solid players that could add depth to the star power of Cabrera, Verlander, and Max Scherzer.

That pursuit left the Tigers with a relatively empty cupboard full of prospects, and there seems to be little “homegrown” talent left to make a run at the end of the Verlander contract. At that point, it may already be too late for Avila, manager Brad Ausmus, and the current crop of Tigers.

Stats for this post were gathered from fangraphs.com.