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PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — What can be said after a 114-loss season that was only a few games from being the worst in modern history?
How about cautious optimism that 2020 won’t be as bad as 2019?
“If everything comes together, you would hope that we would have a better season,” said Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila during a break in the league’s annual GM meetings on Wednesday. “But (2020) is going to be challenging.”
While that slogan — “Tigers 2020: Probably better than the worst team in recent memory” — is unlikely to sell many tickets, Avila said the Tigers are trying to balance incremental improvement with the “big picture” goals of the rebuilding process.
The first order of business is upgrading their sluggish offense by signing a catcher and adding a run-producing bat — perhaps a first baseman or a corner outfielder.
But Avila pointed out that free-agent signings can be hit or miss. Two years ago, the Tigers did well with outfielder Leonys Martin and starting pitcher Mike Fiers.
“Last year we didn’t do as well in that category,” Avila acknowledged.
He was referring to winter signees Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, who collectively contributed little.
The Tigers have also had some trade discussions during the early parts of the hot-stove season, but other teams are primarily seeking low-cost, high-upside players (think Joe Jimenez or even Niko Goodrum) that the Tigers aren’t interested in dealing without a fair return.
While other teams are trying to unload veterans, Avila said he is loathe to part with even a borderline prospect at this stage of the rebuild.
“We’ve had some trade talks and a lot of teams will try to trade you an older guy or maybe even a guy that they’re going to non-tender,” Avila said. “And he might be able to help you this year. But if you’re looking at the big-picture, it’s not going to be a good trade: You’re going to trade a prospect for a guy that’s going to help you maybe win a few more games (in 2020)? You’ve got to keep the big picture in mind.”
On the free-agent market, the Tigers and most rebuilding teams will shop primarily for players willing to work on one-year contracts.
For example, it wouldn’t make sense for the Tigers to sign a starting catcher to a two-year deal if they envision his role only to be a short-term placeholder for Jake Rogers.
But Avila said the Tigers might be open to considering longer deals at positions where they anticipated a need beyond 2020.
Avila didn’t identify those spots, but first base is one position with no high-level prospect in waiting. Additionally, the club has some interesting outfield prospects scattered through the minor-league ranks, but no high-level power bat ready to take over a corner outfield spot in the near future.
So let’s say the Tigers sign a catcher and a first baseman and maybe add a starting pitcher to boot.
Will they be a better club in 2020?
Avila said the production of returning players like Niko Goodrum, Jeimer Candelario, Christin Stewart and JaCoby Jones would also play important role in the Tigers’ success in 2020.
“If these guys get better and produce like we think they can, it could make for a better season. If they don’t, it could be a really trying season,” Avila said.
But regardless of what happens in Detroit, Avila prefers to zoom out to the “big picture.” In 2020, the Tigers will have a large crop of prospects on the brink of the big leagues, with Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Isaac Paredes and several others expected to start the year in Triple-A Toledo.
“The exciting part is that you’ve got more guys moving from Double-A to Triple-A, so you’ve now got the expectation of, ‘Who can be the next guy up?’” Avila said. “That’s another part of the process.”