Early in the offseason, the Detroit Tigers hung up a "For Sale" sign. Turns out when you flip it over it says "Just Kidding!"
OK, that's an exaggeration.
First, the winter isn't over. Detroit could still offload one or more of its tradeable veteran assets. Plus, the Tigers never committed to a full-scale fire sale.
"I've talked to all the guys—[Miguel] Cabrera and [Justin] Verlander and [Ian] Kinsler and guys like that—just to let them know, Hey this is just the way it is and it's part of the business but not to worry about anything unless I call them," Detroit general manager Al Avila said Nov. 8 on MLB Now (via MLB.com).
That's not a promise to sell, sell, sell. It sure sounds like a GM who's prepared to entertain offers, though.
Instead, it's been silent as a Tesla in the Motor City. Yes, the Tigers sent center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels for minor league right-hander Victor Alcantara on Nov. 3.
All of their big pieces remain on the roster, however, and they seem increasingly likely to go for it in 2017.
That's a mistake. There's no other way to put it.
Sure, Detroit could sniff the playoffs. It won 86 games in 2016, good for second place in the American League Central. FanGraphs projects an 83-79 record for the Tigers in 2017 and another finish just outside the money.
The Central is winnable. The defending AL champion Cleveland Indians haven't made any major offseason splashes. Neither have the Kansas City Royals, who could be sellers. The Chicago White Sox are definitely sellers, and the young Minnesota Twins took a big step back last season.
Hanging around the fringe isn't enough for Detroit. The Tigers aren't some burgeoning up-and-comer; nor are they a franchise starved for a taste of the postseason.
Between 2011 and 2014, Detroit advanced to the playoffs four times, to the American League Championship Series three times and to the World Series once.
Add another unsuccessful trip to the Fall Classic in 2006, and Tigers fans have been treated to their share of October action in the past decade.
What they deserve now is either a full-bore run at the franchise's first championship since 1984 or a strategic, unambiguous rebuild.
What they're getting instead is the equivalent of treading water.
Detroit isn't going to spend on any of this year's first- or second-tier free-agents. That much is obvious.
To truly contend, the club needs to upgrade a bullpen that finished 24th in baseball with a 4.22 ERA. Yet the Tigers weren't even an also-ran on top free-agent closers such as Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon, and they haven't made any impact relief additions.
They could also stand to fortify their rotation. Verlander is fresh off a superlative season that should have netted him the AL Cy Young Award, and reigning AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer is an exciting building block.
Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, whom the Tigers signed for five years and $110 million last November, started strong but battled groin and neck injuries and finished with a 4.87 ERA.
Mike Pelfrey (5.07 ERA) and Anibal Sanchez (5.87 ERA) are likewise questionable. Daniel Norris went 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA, but the 23-year-old left-hander also dealt with injuries and has yet to prove himself over a full season.
Detroit ranked fourth in the majors in OPS last season, but its offensive core is aging. Cabrera will turn 34 in April, and Victor Martinez will be 38 on Friday. Each played more than 150 games last season, but at some point, injuries and decline will hit.
Maybe it won't be next year. Maybe the Tigers could make one more run if they bolstered their bullpen and rotation. They don't have the monetary flexibility, though, as ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick noted:
Jerry Crasnick @jcrasnick
#Tigers would love to sign Alex Avila as LH bat to complement James McCann. But Avila made $2.5M in 2016. Even that's too rich for Detroit.2016-12-17 21:02:56
When you can't pony up for a backup catcher, it's safe to say the budget's busted.
Instead, Detroit should look to the White Sox and New York Yankees, who have unloaded veteran assets to shed payroll and restock their farm systems.
The Tigers' farm, which Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter ranked No. 25 in the game in September, could use an infusion of talent.
Right fielder J.D. Martinez will be a free agent after this season. Kinsler is signed through 2017 with a team option for 2018. Their stock will likely never be higher.
Moving Verlander would be a trickier proposition. Given the paucity of pitching available this winter, though, it's worth wondering what the Tigers could have gotten for their ace and whether they'll regret not exploring it further.
Again, the offseason isn't over. There's time for Detroit to swing a swap or two. If the club is floundering at the trade deadline, the pressure to deal will increase.
Verlander, or Cabrera, might have as much value then as they do now. On the other hand, they might not. The same, and then some, goes for Kinsler and J.D. Martinez.
What the Tigers don't want, and can't afford, is to delay the inevitable until it's too late. Painful as it is, when you hang up that "For Sale" sign, at a certain point you've got to keep it there.