Will Ilitch allow Tigers to pursue star free-agent SS? 'Too early' to say

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For a couple months last year, the Tigers had their shortstop of the future. Willi Castro joined the team in August, hit .349 and finished fourth for AL Rookie of the Year. But Castro's defensive issues knocked him off short early this season, and then his struggles at the plate knocked him from the bigs. So it's back to Toledo for Castro, and back to square one for the Tigers.

Right now, Zack Short is doing the job. The 26-year-old is sound defensively but doesn't project as much of a hitter. Niko Goodrum hasn't looked anything like the Gold Glove finalist he was in 2020. And while six shortstops rank among Detroit's top 30 prospects according to MLB Pipeline, none crack the top 10. The Tigers are 'very high' on 23-year-old Ryan Kreidler in Double-A, but his offense has a long way to go.

In the outfield, the Tigers might have a couple young players to build around. Avila pointed on Wednesday to Akil Baddoo, Derek Hill and Daz Cameron as "outstanding athletes who are still developing at the Major League level who have a high level of talent." He said the Tigers "have a long, good future with those guys." Then he admitted, "In the infield, obviously we’re a little more challenged."

Nowhere is the challenge bigger than at short. And yes, we'd still be having this discussion had the Tigers drafted Marcelo Mayer over Jackson Jobe. Mayer -- just like Jobe! -- is a good three to four years from the majors. The Tigers expect to be contending before then. Based on the top three teams in each league right now, here's what a contender looks like at short: Tim Anderson, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Brandon Crawford, Corey Seager, Willy Adames.

You may have heard Correa will be a free agent this winter. So will Seager and Crawford, just three names in a loaded class of shortstops that also features Trevor Story, Javy Baez, Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons. You may have also heard the Tigers are positioned to start spending again. Whether they're prepared to spend is up to owner Chris Ilitch.

Has Avila received the go-ahead from Ilitch to pursue a big-name shortstop this offseason?

"This is too early right now, obviously in July, to be -- I can’t tell you what our payroll is going to look like in the wintertime," Avila told the Stoney & Jansen Show. "What I mean from a payroll perspective is, I don’t need to dump salary right now. We’re in a good position. We like where our team is at and we’re not going to weaken the team for financial purposes, is what I’m trying to say."

A team can be strengthened for financial purposes. Stars sell tickets. They win games and sell more tickets, and eventually sell playoff tickets. Every night, they defray some of their own cost. The Tigers haven't been in the top half of MLB attendance since 2016. They haven't sold playoff tickets since 2014. Avila cited lost revenue from a season without fans as a reason for spending lightly last winter, when spending more freely might encourage the fans to return.

Detroit's payroll is the eighth lowest in the game and about $45 million below the MLB average, according to Spotrac. Meanwhile, the Tigers are on track for their third winning month in a row. They're playing good ball with young players. A.J. Hinch is raising expectations. The clearing skies brighten the glare on Detroit's long-term needs. If Ilitch is serious about spending when the time is right, this winter is his first chance to prove it.

"Chris made it known to me when I got here that this was a change in direction of starting to build and not just continue the slow, methodical process," Hinch said Thursday on the Stoney & Jansen Show. "The pitching’s here and the young guys are still coming, and that remains the center focus. But of course as the manager, I want us to dabble into making our team better in different ways. There’s a lot of big names out there. Chris and Al and I will meet at the end of the year and figure out where we can improve and how quickly we can do it.

"Everybody’s on board to do it. It’s just a matter of where it fits into the finances and also your window of getting your young players up here and surrounding them with some real talent."

Look, only a few of those shiny shortstops would make sense for the Tigers. And fewer still would entertain the idea of joining a not-yet-contender in Detroit. But it's hard to ignore the potential match with Correa given his relationship with Hinch. It's hard to ignore that Correa is 26 years old and the top AL shortstop in WAR. It's easy to dream.

Maybe the Tigers are better off waiting until next offseason, when Trea Turner and Bogaerts are likely to hit the market. By then, Detroit should have the bulk of its top prospects in the majors. It should have a clearer picture at shortstop. But does anyone expect the picture to look much different than it does now? One way or another, this challenge is going to require the Tigers to spend.

A trade is the other option here. Avila could spend prospects, with a surplus of young pitching at his disposal. The Brewers acquired Adames from the Rays this season in exchange for two big-league relievers; of course, the Rays were making room for the top prospect in baseball to replace Adames at short. The price for the Brewers was right.

What's the right price for the Tigers? How much is Ilitch willing to spend to fill the organization's most glaring hole? Who is Avila willing to part with? These questions grow louder as Detroit's window creeks open. Answers aren't needed now. But letting time take its course won't be the answer much longer.