Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila has been nothing if not forthright this offseason, so if you're shocked about Monday night's big splash, stick with me.
Soon after the season ended, Avila detailed a list of priorities in overhauling a team that finished last in the American League Central. And once free agency began, he was meticulous about checking off each box, addressing each void. Avila stressed the Tigers’ need for pitching and he was aggressive both before winter meetings and during the annual confab in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Tigers landed starter Jordan Zimmermann and soon after added Mike Pelfrey to the rotation. The club acquired a bona fide closer in Francisco Rodriguez via trade with Milwaukee and added fellow relievers Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe as setup men.
Even the team’s second-tier needs -- a backup catcher, a potential platoon partner in the outfield, a utility man -- were addressed with precision.
After an aggressive -- and decisive -- winter flush with roster revamping, Avila indicated that the Tigers had made their major moves. He shot down reports that linked the Tigers to Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon. Already the team had been among the most active in free agency and had spent plenty to show for it. Another long-term deal, especially one for a marquee free agent, could hamstring the Tigers considerably. Last month, Avila recently described the potential financial implications as “pretty ugly.”
This was not Avila playing coy or creating a diversion.
So, how to explain the apparent about-face, considering the Tigers plunked down a huge sum on Justin Upton?
An unusually slow-developing and stagnant outfield market might have been a factor, as some of the biggest names available saw their options decrease. The spectre of a "pillow contract" or a short-term deal might have ceded some bargaining power to those teams still prowling for help as well.
But make no mistake about the true impetus behind this move: team owner Mike Ilitch's aching desire to win.
Consider less what Avila has said this offseason, but rather recall what Ilitch brazenly proclaimed in a rare public appearance in Zimmermann’s introductory news conference at the end of November. The 86-year-old wasn’t exactly shy about his intentions:
“I don’t care about the money,” he said. “I want the best players.”
It seems as though Ilitch recognizes a narrow window of opportunity and is doing his damnedest to see his club contend for a World Series title. Back at that news conference, Ilitch admitted that winning a championship remained top priority.
“It’s all I think about,” he said.
Enter Upton, who not only provides an upgrade in left field (a position of weakness for the Tigers entering this winter), but a strong bat in the middle of the lineup. The 28-year-old is not only a solid (albeit streaky) producer (.271/.352/.473), he’s young.
It is no secret that some of the team’s top offensive weapons, such as Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler, are getting older. The emergence of J.D. Martinez, who led the Tigers with 38 home runs last season, has been a major coup for the club, but the Tigers need other young offensive players to whom Cabrera and Victor Martinez can pass the torch.
Though the Tigers only had to cede a third-round draft pick in compensation to San Diego to sign Upton, he still comes with a hefty price tag. According to ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick, the average annual value of Upton’s six-year deal, pending a physical, is $21.125 million. (It also includes an opt-out after the 2017 season.)
According to Baseball Prospectus’ payroll projections, the Tigers now have approximately $184.5 million committed to 2016, and that is with the arbitration-eligible Martinez still unsigned. (His camp and the Tigers reportedly submitted contract figures of $8 million and $6 million, respectively.) That puts the Tigers at the luxury-tax threshold, and though the first-time penalty (17.5 percent) is not terribly painful, it’s still significant.
Once a team crosses into that territory, consider the club all-in, and it is clear who is responsible for leading the way.
If we have learned anything from this offseason, it is that the Tigers are going for it. Avila has been the one to execute the plan, but there seems little doubt that Ilitch remains the driving force.