June 30, 2017
Hold the phone: with futures in doubt,
Tigers, Wings face definitive weekend
By KEITH GAVE
On the eve of one of the most pivotal sports weekends in years, two of the busiest executives in Detroit is no doubt logging a lot of phone time.
With the vultures circling overhead as his team’s playoff pulse weakens, Tigers general manager Al Avila’s phone is ringing non-stop while Red Wings general manager Ken Holland may be hoping somebody, anybody in the free-agent market, might return his calls.
In late May, Avila announced he was giving his team until the end of June to prove it was a playoff contender. If it wasn’t, he said, he’d start dismantling his high-priced roster, dump salary and, hopefully, begin a long-overdue rebuild. Since then, the Tigers have gone backward in the standings.
On the final day of the month, and after a mini-run of success with three wins in four games, they own a 10-16 record in June. Yet the most optimistic among us point to the four-game series with Cleveland that begins tonight at Comerica Park and says, “if only. . .”
A successful weekend – and by that, we mean a 3-1 series win or, preferably, a sweep – would put the Tigers close enough to the Indians in the Central Division race to give Avila pause regarding parting with any of his team’s biggest pieces. Especially since the trade deadline isn’t until July 31.
But that’s a big “if” considering Detroit’s starting rotation for this series includes two guys who spent a big chunk of their summer in the minors trying to figure out how to win again at the major-league level. Anibel Sanchez gets the start tonight, still looking for his first decision of the season. Matt Boyd, recently recalled from Toledo, will start the second half of a doubleheader Saturday.
Meantime, the rumors already are rampant linking Detroit players to other clubs:
- Closer Justin Wilson to the Washington Nationals, a team so desperate for relief pitching they signed Francisco Rodriguez after the Tigers released him last week.
- Catcher Alex Avila to Toronto or the Chicago Cubs, two teams badly in need of a quality backup – which the son of the team’s GM has been for Detroit this season.
- Ace pitcher Justin Verlander, to a top contender like the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs or, perhaps most likely to the Boston Red Sox.
- Slugging outfielder J.D. Martinez, whose contract expires at the end of the season, to any of a number of playoff-bound teams in need of a right-hand bat with power.
Players have been saying since the early days of training camp in February that they like this team, enjoy playing together and were grateful for one more shot at delivering to the city of Detroit what has been expected of them for years. They’re quickly running out of time to do something about it. In fact, they could be down to their final three days before Avila starts breaking up the band.
Holland faces an even greater dilemma with the NHL’s annual free-agent derby set to begin at noon on Saturday.
Many Wings fans will remember this as being like Christmas in July. Holland would identify the top players in the market and, armed with owner Mike Ilitch’s fat checkbook, go out and sign then. Last summer, the most coveted free-agent was center Steven Stamkos, who didn’t even return Holland’s calls before re-signing with Tampa Bay.
A year later, Holland is well into a renovating a roster that failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1991. He promised big changes in this off-season; so far it’s not going well.
And most of the damage has been self-inflicted.
Holland’s biggest problem is not having enough money under the salary cap to even begin negotiations with the best puck-moving defenseman like Washington’s Kevin Shattenkirk. Holland will likely have to settle for – and still overpay – a guy like Pittsburgh’s Trevor Daley, at best a second-pair defenseman.
He’d also like to add a guy like Tomas Vanek, who signed as a free agent with Detroit last July and found some nice chemistry alongside Frans Nielsen. Vanek played well enough to bring some value as a trade rental late last season.
Problem is, Holland won’t have enough money to sign Vanek because the Wings have more than $10 million in the three goaltenders who are likely to start the season in Detroit – Jimmy Howard, Petr Mrazek and Jared Coreau. Mrazek, who started last season as the team’s No. goalie, will command $4 million this season even though the Wings put him on the trash pile last week, hoping he would be claimed by expansion Vegas.
The Golden Knights wisely turned their noses up on Mrazek and instead took Tomas Nosek, a center who had a breakout season leading Grand Rapids to the Calder Cup title this spring. Nosek looked like he could be the net-front presence the Wings have been searching for since Tomas Holmstrom retired in 2012.
A number of goaltenders have found new homes this off-season. Teams that once were desperate are no longer, meaning the market is soft and Holland’s position continues to weaken as he seeks to make a trade.
Holland should have packaged some of those 11 picks in last week’s weak entry draft to ensure that Vegas took Mrazek. It might have made this weekend more interesting for Wings fans, and it sure as hell would have made it more likely that some of those free agents would phone Holland back.