Windsor: Tigers' trade of Cameron Maybin shows dawn of cheaper era

Shawn Windsor
Detroit Free Press
Cameron Maybin

The Detroit Tigers traded centerfielder Cameron Maybin on Thursday to save $9 million. Whatever you thought of him as a player, the message is clear: This franchise is no longer going to operate like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers or Chicago Cubs or, yes, even the Los Angeles Angels, the team to which Maybin was shipped for Victor Alcantara, a Double-A pitcher who can’t throw strikes.

We’ve been spoiled the last decade with all of Mike Ilitch’s spending, a mid-market team acting as if it were housed in a coastal megalopolis. That largesse brought plenty of winning but didn’t secure the big prize. If it had, if all those division titles had led to a World Series championship, then the pivot we are seeing toward frugality wouldn’t feel so uneasy.

The problem is Al Avila, the team’s general manager, spent the last decade with the Tigers working under Dave Dombrowski with an almost unlimited budget. It’s hard to know what kind of team he can fashion with orders to trim the payroll.

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He’s also trying to keep the team competitive as he does it, because Tigers fans are used to a solid team, but mostly because Ilitch doesn’t want to give up hope for that elusive World Series ring. Asking Avila to dump salary and compete for the playoffs is a longshot.

The Tigers would be better served to start from the beginning. Like the Cubs did. Or even the Indians.

The two clubs that just gave us a seven-game classic both stunk four years ago. The Indians were wrapping up four years of sub-.500 baseball. The Cubs might have been the worst team in either league – they lost 101 games.

For different reasons, both teams were bent on getting better by drafting high, stocking the farm system and shipping off expensive, inefficient talent. The Cubs weren’t constricted by ownership looking to avoid the luxury tax. The Indians were.

In other words, the Indians had no choice. Not unlike the Royals, last year’s World Series’ champs, another team that rose up on the strength of young talent.

This straddling job demanded of Avila began in earnest with the move to trade Maybin. Yes, he played in only 94 games. And yes, he hit more than 50 points above his career average. So it’s certainly possible he’d return to the norm next season. Likely, too, that he’d battle injuries again. He had a long history of them.

In the past, though, the Tigers would’ve eaten the luxury tax and kept a player like Maybin because he helped the team win. With his bat. With his speed. With his presence in the dugout and clubhouse.

Jim Leyland, the former Tigers manager, often used to say that chemistry and camaraderie were overrated on a baseball team. That if he had the choice, he’d take talent over personality. In a vacuum, that’s true.

Yet to a man, the Tigers’ players specifically pointed to the effect Maybin had on the team. What the trade tells us is that the Tigers can no longer afford to pay for someone’s vibe. They must be ruthless. And hope a centerfielder emerges. Either one from their roster. Or one on the market.

“There will be a wide-open competition starting in the spring, and we will see how it plays out,” Avila said.

That doesn’t sound much like a plan. But it does sound like a general manager with an edict from above: cut costs.

Hey, it has been a long time since the Tigers have worried about such trivial things as payroll. Now they are. It’s a new era. And we’ll find out how effective Avila can be operating in it, even as he remains handcuffed because his ownership doesn’t want to start from scratch.

At least then you’d know the team would stink for a while. That a youth movement might lead to places the high-priced veteran movement never did.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.