DETROIT – The Tigers fought it off for as long as they could, but the end is finally here.
Fans have heard for years that the Tigers' aging roster was on the brink of a full rebuild. Their best players are well into their 30s and the team is collapsing under several massive contracts.
It's been a decade of winning in Detroit, but the Tigers are facing a different challenge now.
When the end of July rolls around, the Tigers' roster should look completely different. J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila will almost surely be playing for contenders, and veterans such as Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler might also find themselves shipped out of Detroit.
It's all part of the process. When a team's run comes to an end, it tries to salvage whatever it can before there are no resources left to play with.
Even more important than who the Tigers trade is what they get in return.
One of the Tigers' greatest needs as they head into the rebuilding era is in the outfield, where Martinez will likely be gone and Justin Upton has an opportunity to opt out of the final four years of his contract. Even if Upton stays in Detroit, center field and right field will be left hopelessly empty.
Fortunately for the Tigers, the outfield landscape is rich and bountiful across baseball. On the other hand, that means there's an even larger gap between the rest of the league and the Tigers.
Center field is the main concern. The Tigers have tried to piece together a combination of JaCoby Jones, Mikie Mahtook, Tyler Collins and Andrew Romine this season, but it's been predictably ineffective. Tigers centerfielders have a .690 OPS this season, which is 25th in MLB.
In right field, Martinez will leave behind a massive gap that was also a major problem during his time on the disabled list. The Tigers hope prospects Christin Stewart, Michael Gerber and Derek Hill can step into major-league roles, but general manager Al Avila would be wise to solidify the position with another young player at the trade deadline.
It's no secret the Tigers have lacked athleticism throughout their 10-year run at a World Series title, instead opting to rely on sluggers such as Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez and many others.
But in the current baseball landscape, many of the top teams have a mix of power and athleticism. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series with athletes like Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler. Houston rebuilt their roster to feature young stars such as George Springer, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve.
The Tigers' most athletic everyday player is Kinsler, who is 35 years old and could be off the roster in the next several weeks.
Power is important, but the Tigers have neglected speed and defense for too long. If they can turn Verlander, Martinez and their other trade chips into young, athletic players at critical positions like center field, shortstop and second base, it would go a long way toward building a strong core for the future.
It's not the most important goal, but the Tigers should also free up plenty of salary if they approach the trade deadline correctly.
Throughout Mike Ilitch's tenure as team owner, the Tigers have become one of the heaviest spending teams in baseball, but the result is a bloated payroll that isn't performing up to its financial standards.
Even if the Tigers have to pay part of Verlander's contract as part of a trade, his $28 million would be significantly lightened. That, along with the contracts of Francisco Rodriguez, Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe coming off the books at season's end, could save the Tigers nearly $50 million.
If the Tigers buy out Sanchez for $5 million and move Verlander and Kinsler this month, they would go into the rebuild with much more roster flexibility. Upton's $22 million could also vanish if he elects to test the free-agent waters.
The $11.75 million owed to J.D. Martinez this season figures to be off the books by season's end either way.
A lighter payroll would help the Tigers prepare for their next run. Whether it's targeting veteran players after they're back in the hunt or locking up their young stars -- Michael Fulmer, for example -- the Tigers need more financial flexibility before they can truly turn the page on this era.
Thanks to the 2015 trade deadline and the last several drafts, the Tigers have rebuilt the young pitching in their farm system.
But there's no such thing as too much pitching.
As Daniel Norris' and Matt Boyd's struggles proved this season, it's difficult to know which pitching prospects will pan out at baseball's highest levels. Norris was one of the game's elite left-handed pitching prospects, but he's still trying to figure out how to win in his age-24 season.
As you dig deeper into the minor leagues, the Tigers have an exciting trio of right-handed hurlers from the last three MLB drafts. Beau Burrows, Matt Manning and now Alex Faedo are centerpieces of the Tigers' future plan. With them in the mix, the starting rotation could be very good in the foreseeable future.
But all three of those youngsters are years away, and it's not a given that any of them will pan out. This month, Avila has a responsibility to shore up the future pitching outlook, even if some of the pieces become major-league relievers.
Miguel Cabrera is going to be on the Tigers' roster for a long, long time, but that doesn't mean he'll have to stay at first base.
When Victor Martinez's contract runs up after 2018, Cabrera will be entering his age-36 season. He's already below average defensively at first base, so a move to designated hitter is definitely in the cards, especially if the Tigers hope to keep him healthy through 2023.
The Tigers' farm system is completely devoid of young first base talent, so the spot will need to be filled outside the organization or through a position change. Would Nicholas Castellanos be a candidate to move to the other infield corner? If so, third base is a position of need at the trade deadline.
Avila probably believes the Tigers won't be in contention the next couple of seasons, so his outlook needs to project to the 2019 season and beyond. By then, Cabrera will probably be filling the DH spot regularly, and the Tigers need a formidable bat at both corner infield positions.