The unofficial start of the Detroit Tigers’ rebuild has long been seen as the trade deadline in July 2017, when the team began to clean house.
That’s when they sat away JD Martinez, with Justin Verlander departing in August, as well as other key pieces in Justin Upton, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.
But looking back, the rebuild truly began on this day seven years ago, when Al Avila was named as the new general manager, taking over for his long-time boss, Dave Dombrowski.
The Tigers, who owned one of the top five Opening Day payrolls every season from 2008-17 (with the exception of 2011 when they were 10th), were no longer going to be spending at that level.
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Without an unlimited payroll — one that had three players each making more than $20 million per year, compared to 2022 when only two players are making more than $7.5 million — Avila would need to be shrewd.
It would call for him to maximize the return on trades and capitalize on free agents who others are undervaluing; staples of organizations such as the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Guardians, who consistently have payrolls in the bottom half of the league but have been to the postseason three and four times, respectively, since Avila took over.
Here’s what the team looked like then versus now, and how it happened.
The Tigers finished last in the American League Central in 2015, but still appeared to be trying to contend for a championship the following offseason. That’s when they acquired potential Hall of Fame closer Francisco Rodriguez and Javier Betancourt from the Brewers for Manny Pina, and got lefty reliever Justin Wilson from the Yankees for Chad Green and Luis Cessa.
Rodriguez was solid in 2016, converting 44 of 49 saves with a 3.24 ERA and 1.13 WHIP before imploding in 2017, his final MLB season. He had a career-worst 7.82 ERA and 1.658 WHIP converting just seven of 13 save attempts before the Tigers released him in June, just a month before the fire sale began.
Wilson was decent for the Tigers, especially in 2017 when he posted a 2.68 ERA as the closer and was flipped along with Alex Avila to the Cubs for Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes, viewed as one of the current regime’s most successful trades.
Ahead of the 2016 season, the Tigers spent big in free agency, but those moves left quite a bit to be desired.
Jordan Zimmerman signed a five-year, $110 million contract and went a perfect 5-0 in the month of April after his signing, with a 0.55 ERA.
“We just love this guy,” Avila said at the time. “People say he isn’t a No. 1 starter. We felt he is at the top end of a rotation, a horse who will take the ball and battle.”
The next four years were marred by injury and ineffectiveness. Zimmerman had just three months where he made at least four starts and had an ERA under 4.00 for the month and finished with a 5.63 ERA across 99 appearances from 2016-20.
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The other big signing of the offseason was Upton, for six years and $132.75 million. He would spend just 1½ years as a Tiger before getting traded to the Angels for Elvin Rodriguez — who is 0-3 with a 10.03 ERA for the Tigers in six games this season — and Grayson Long.
The Tigers signed Mike Pelfrey, who went 4-10 with a 5.07 ERA in his one year with the organization, Mark Lowe (1-3 with a 7.11 ERA in 54 games in what would be his final professional season) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit .171 (.284 OPS) with 12 home runs and 38 RBIs in 92 games.
‘Changes are coming’
Shortly after the Tigers missed the playoffs on the final weekend of 2016, Avila said “changes are coming.”
He said the team could not continue to spend “above its means as far as payroll” going forward, with the vast majority of the large contracts still on the books.
For perspective, the salaries of Miguel Cabrera ($28 million), Justin Verlander ($28 million), Upton ($22.125 million), Zimmermann ($18 million), Victor Martinez ($18 million) Anibal Sanchez ($16.8 million), JD Martinez ($11.75 million ) and Ian Kinsler’s ($11 million) combined for $153.675 million — 13.8% more than the Tigers’ current payroll ($134.98 million).
The team wasn’t competing under then-manager Brad Ausmus, sitting 10 games below .500 as the trade deadline approached, which made the mission plain: clear the books. And so they did.
Verlander — who started on the day Avila took over in a 5-1 loss at home to the Royals — was sent to the Houston Astros for right-hander Franklin Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers on Aug. 31, 2017. Verlander has since won a World Series and a Cy Young Award (and thrown a third no-hitter) in Houston; he leads the AL in wins and ERA despite being 39 years old and coming off of Tommy John surgery.
Perez, meanwhile, hasn’t played above Class-Al as he continues to fight injuries. Cameron has bounced between Triple-A and the Tigers with a lifetime .268 OBP in 70 games at the major league level.
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Rogers had an .802 OPS through half a season in 2021, but that season ended for him with Tommy John surgery.
Martinez was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara and Jose King in mid-July 2017. With the Tigers, Lugo posted a minus-1.1 WAR in 113 games across three seasons, Alcantara hit just .143 in 10 games (though he did homer in his first career at-bat) and King, 23, has yet to play above Double-A Erie.
2018 and beyond
The Tigers traded Ian Kinsler in December 2017 offseason for right-hander Wilkel Hernandez and Troy Montgomery, neither of whom have risen above Double-A.
Since then, the Tigers have ranked in the bottom half of baseball in payroll.
Even after this past offseason, after signing Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodriguez, they still rank 18th in salary.
There were few notable transactions from 2018-21 — the most significant was likely when the Tigers traded one of their few home-grown bats, Nick Castellanos, at the deadline in 2019.
His departure did yield Alex Lange, one of the team’s best relievers this season, and Paul Richan, who was released in late May.
On that same day they traded Castellanos, closer Shane Greene was sent to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Travis Demeritte and left-hander Joey Wentz.
Demeritte played in 66 games between 2019 and 2020; Wentz made his MLB debut this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and is the No. 10 prospect in the Tigers organization as he rehabs from a shoulder injury.
“If there’s one thing I learned last year, is that the best way to build a good foundation and organization for the long term is not through free agency,” Avila said following the 2016 season. “It’s through drafting good players, developing those players, and bringing them up through the system, then—as needed—making some wise trades.
“That is the ideal process, but it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take some time.”
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Tigers brass, namely Avila and owner Christopher Ilitch, declared the rebuild was over entering this season. Years of top prospects who had been percolating in the minor leagues were finally set to spend full seasons in Detroit.
“We don’t have the type of high-salary, aging player that we need to trade to rebuild, per se,” he said before the 2021 deadline. “We’re on the upswing. We’re actually hoping to acquire players at some point where and when it makes sense.
“We like our young players. We’re trying to bring in more talented players. And really, that’s where we’re at right now. We’re trying to get better. We’re not rebuilding anymore. We’re building.”
But many injuries — Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Riley Greene and recently Tarik Skubal — and some disappointing seasons (Spencer Torkelson) have put a damper on expectations.
The Tigers were again sellers at the deadline. They shipped veteran Robbie Grossman to Atlanta to free up playing time for young outfielders and sent one of their best bullpen arms, Michael Fulmer, to division rival Minnesota.
Seven years later, unless the team decides to start spending significant money again, the Tigers don’t seem to be in a better position than when Avila took over.
Contact Tony Garcia at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @realtonygarcia.