Five years into Al Avila’s rebuild — the rights, wrongs, and how much longer Tigers fans must wait

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

As report cards go, the five-year Tigers rebuild carries a grade of “incomplete.” And that probably saves Al Avila and Co. from the “F” a team’s win-loss record mandates.

It has been 50 months since Avila got a Saturday morning call from late owner Mike Ilitch, informing him he was replacing his boss, Dave Dombrowski, as Tigers general manager. The Tigers were about to miss the playoffs for the first time in five years, the roster needed a tear-down, and Ilitch-Dombrowski had reached their 14-year expiration date.

It was going to be long, and ugly, as some of us said at the outset. It would be a rebuild that would take, minimally, five to seven years, all because there were old players, owed lots of money, with more baggage ahead as Ilitch tried until his last breath to win that Tigers trophy he never knew.

Detroit had baseball’s worst record a year ago and third-worst in this summer’s 60-game cameo. There is nothing approaching a playoff baseball team at Comerica Park. At the same time, if this new 16-team playoff tournament sticks — and it has been superb theater — October baseball becomes more feasible for the Tigers in seasons ahead.

A personal view is 2022 will be Detroit’s earliest crack at a playoff ticket as new blood and a mostly new roster begin to bring Comerica Park’s team back from the dead.

Step by step, here’s where the Tigers have been, here’s where they are in 2020, and here is where they appear to be headed as Avila and his extended contract begin work on 2021.

General manager

This isn’t a popular take, but the belief here is that things wouldn’t be dramatically different had another GM been brought aboard in 2015 for a demolition-and-redesign project as complicated as Detroit’s stood to be 50 months ago. The team then was old and had turned south. It needed restoration. Ilitch instead doubled-down. Heading into 2016, when he should have been dismantling, Ilitch opted for the best free-agent starter on the market (then Jordan Zimmermann) at market price. He wanted Justin Upton, who was expensive and about to own an elephantine contract the Tigers were fortunate a year later to unload on the Angels.

It was the wrong way to go. But it was an owner’s decree and not in the best interests of fans, or a front office.

It compounded problems for Avila in two ways. Not only did it set back the rebuild by an important year, it made his appointment politically tougher to sell Tigers fans who, after 14 years of the Dombrowski administration, were in the mood for new faces.

Fans keen on numbers and analytics were particularly irked, and for them, not much has changed. They wanted the next Theo Epstein or Andrew Friedman. They wanted Erik Neander or Chaim Bloom or another of those young, M.I.T.-caliber wizards who would bring all the technology and sorcery that sophisticated baseball front offices demand.

And that particular Tigers crowd had legit reasons, then and now, to want such brains in charge.

A counterpoint should be considered. Any of those young Einsteins taking on the Tigers in 2015 would have been stuck with a miserable job. It’s a wager here that even the hardcore analytics crowd would be griping in October 2020. Everyone, it’s suspected, would consider the Tigers to be shy of expectations.

Also possible, if not probable, would have been these howls from Comerica Park’s customers: “Why didn’t the Tigers give the job to Avila and Dombrowski’s guys? They only presided over the best 10-year stretch of baseball in Tigers history. And then you got rid of them? Dombrowski wasn’t the only influence there. He had help. Instead, you threw them all out and went with this new gang!”

That, in fact, is why Ilitch — and a fair number of fans — wanted Avila and his team to stay aboard. Continuity, and the low risk of bad surprises, seemed the way for an owner to go.

But it wasn’t going to be a popular choice, not widely, and not only because numbers-crunchers have become so enmeshed in a game’s inner workings.

Which leads to …

Avila — what he’s done right

Working the margins, making an occasional Rule 5 draft work, grabbing waiver-wire help, signing minor-league free agents — these aren’t high-profile, or high-dividend moves. But for all the audience snorting, Avila has done rather well. Remember that it was Avila, as Dombrowski’s assistant, who coaxed J.D. Martinez to Detroit. Niko Goodrum, Jose Cisnero, Nick Ramirez and Eric Haase were added as minor-league free agents; John Hicks, Dereck Rodriguez and Troy Stokes came via waivers; Victor Reyes arrived from the Rule 5 draft, as well as Rony Garcia, which is two more roster pieces than the Rule 5 typically offers.

You’re not going to win a lot of fans with these deals. But they’re low-cost adds that help, sometimes a lot.

Ironic, that the man most Tigers students thought was the cat’s pajamas, Dombrowski, wasn’t big on analytics. But his successor is.

The Tigers analytics “staff” during most of Dombrowski’s years was one man, Mike Smith, who was the team’s operations chief, and who later was joined by Sam Menzin.

But it has been under Avila that the Tigers’ math-baseball cosmos has surged. The analytics team totals 10 and the Tigers no longer are seated in steerage compared with other clubs when it comes to data-digesting and developmental science.

Still, analytics need to show up where it counts — in personnel moves, in the dugout, and in drafting. The Tigers probably are paying a price for being so late to the game. Missing on moves that could have been made in terms of trades and acquisitions is a suspicion that isn’t going away. The analytics conversion also lagged during Ron Gardenhire’s earliest days as manager, even though Gardenhire warmed to the new-wave stuff and learned to process and implement much of what landed each day on his desk.

What can be said with near-assurance is that the Tigers probably missed in previous years on draft picks who would have been subjected to an entirely different battery of scrutiny and projections that now are in place at Comerica Park.

Regarding that latter point, the reason Detroit’s drafts have impressed the last three years — and especially in their six picks in June — is because the team is up-to-speed in applying science to draft-day selection. Earlier drafts and opportunities were lost because the Tigers and their numbers acumen married late in life.

But the conversion, among other basics — like draft position — is why this team, at last, has a chance to be competitive and have a crack at playoff baseball. The incoming talent is breathing life into a high-grade farm that until the last couple of years was about as fruitful as the Sahara.

A footnote there: It should be recalled that most of Dombrowski’s vaunted playoff-era deals were set up by Tigers draft picks and international signings. That talent, identified by Tigers scouts and coveted by other clubs, is what induced Dombrowski’s trade partners to ship Carlos Guillen, Gary Sheffield, Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez and others to Comerica Park. Those scouts remain, for the most part, in place.

Another point that can’t be discarded: Playoff teams of the Tigers’ elevation from 2006-14 pick later in a draft. And playoff teams that said goodbye to early draft picks, as compensation for signing free agents (Victor Martinez, Jose Valverde, Prince Fielder, etc.), lost prized first-round turns that mightily influence fortunes and rosters down the road. Important points, these reminders, in any serious reviews of the past five years.

Avila — what he’s done wrong

Too few trades. And if I were Avila, I’d have apoplexy over this criticism. Because he’s right: The Tigers have had few tradeable parts, with a market in recent years that wasn’t anywhere near as cooperative as it was a decade ago when MLB prospects were viewed more as barter.

Still, and this seems fair, If a GM has faith in his trade expertise, he’s going to gamble more, banking on a net gain. He’ll deal and deal and deal, figuring on getting a steady, if incremental, edge in swaps. It’s not a fair comparison, because the Marlins had guys like J.T. Realmuto who were worth trade bundles, but Miami GM Michael Hill has his team in a playoff second-round series in part because he has made so many swaps, big and small, with generally nice gains (Christian Yelich excluded) as an overall product.

To which Avila fairly would counter: Fine. You make the trades. Tell me what clubs wanted our guys for any kind of defensible return. Point accepted.

On the flip side, Avila had a couple of opportunities early on to trade Michael Fulmer. Some good offers were on the table. Detroit declined, for one big reason fans would have appreciated then more than now. Avila deemed the offers too light to send a pitcher with Fulmer’s weaponry elsewhere.

Definitely, at the time, had he made the Fulmer deal, fans would have screamed at the “underwhelming” players Detroit got as its haul. In hindsight, and knowing the talent that got away — a guy named Javier Baez was one of those names on the table — it was a blown opportunity.

But the market indeed became Avila’s enemy, and whether another GM could have significantly altered realities there is questionable. J.D. Martinez, as one primary example, sat in the 2017 mid-season shopping aisle for weeks and drew nothing, nothing, to match the light parcel that finally sent Martinez to Arizona. The fault there lay with contending teams who were miserly with prospects and indifferent to his exceptional bat. They got so carried away with a new front-office ethos that they backed away from pure gold.

Same with Justin Verlander. He was waiting in 2017 to deliver some playoff-bound club precisely what he brought the Astros — a World Series party — but was iced until ownership and Astros manager A.J. Hinch prodded GM Jeff Luhnow into a last-minute deal. The trade, in this view, brought to the Tigers way more than would have been expected: three good prospects (little to show from the three in 2020, but better to wait on final verdicts), with much of Verlander’s big contract assumed by Houston.

Avila had different leverage, rare leverage, that July in shopping Justin Wilson and his son, Alex Avila. Multiple teams were chasing. Avila waited and got the Cubs to part with Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. What was different in making a deal that today would be judged a win for Detroit? More than one team was bidding for some choice Tigers inventory.

Same story a year ago with Shane Greene: Suitors, in the plural, were hunting Greene. Avila was able to spin him to the Braves and got a better pitcher than most fans know — Joey Wentz, a left-hander, and a good one, who is healing from Tommy John surgery. You might include here Mike Fiers, who fetched Logan Shore and Nolan Blackwood. Blackwood is a reliever who next year should find his way to Detroit.

As for Upton, he netted little from the Angels — Elvin Rodriguez is a young arm who yet has a chance — but to have gotten rid of his horrific contract (conceived by Ilitch, and since made worse by an Angels extension) was as much an imperative as it was sound work by Avila.

Consider, also, Leonys Martin. The Tigers wisely poached him three winters ago as a one-year free agent after he and Fiers had been non-tendered (and, importantly, had a couple of years of team control remaining). Avila swapped Martin at the 2018 deadline for Willi Castro, who, at least for now, is a starter and who until further notice looks like a steal.

Matthew Boyd is another case. Everyone in Detroit figured 15 months ago that Boyd was headed elsewhere. Boyd was hot, the Tigers were desperate for a blue-chip kid hitter, and a deal was going to be made. One problem: Teams that three or four years ago would have seen Boyd as a prize and prospects as dispensable weren’t interested in the Tigers’ plea for a big-league-ready bat. Not until Boyd built a broader portfolio.

It’s fair to wonder what might have happened had Avila’s sticker price been lowered, or even discounted. Maybe then the deal gets done. But you can imagine what the fans’ response would have been: Avila gave away Boyd.

All of this history, these explanations, these caveats, do not cancel a view that may not be entirely fair. But more swaps of any range or substance might have, and perhaps should have, been engineered by a GM and club that needed stem-to-stern remodeling. The fact Avila has turned his few leverage opportunities into gains reinforces thoughts he should have been dealing more of that leveraged talent to the extent possible.

A most mysterious failing

The international market. Note how little help the Tigers have pulled from Latin America. And nothing from Asia.

Avila can be absolved of stuff that didn’t happen under his watch, but consider some history and you see a long-term deficit.

Avisail Garcia, a decent player, since traded and an outfielder prone to move around, fetched Jose Iglesias. Eugenio Suarez (wince) was traded to the Reds for the immortal Alfredo Simon. Meanwhile, Willy Adames six years ago was shipped to the Rays in a deal for David Price, who later fetched Boyd and Daniel Norris.

It was handy that the Tigers had those tradeable players in supply, even if Dombrowski wishes Suarez-for-Simon could be purged from history and his memory.

But where in Detroit’s past and present doings is the international inventory? Or is pulling All-Star talent from Latin America, or Asia, simply the province of the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Astros, Indians, Blue Jays, Twins, A’s, Giants, Royals, Mariners, Angels, Rangers, et cetera, et cetera?

The Tigers are due and payoffs are all but inevitable. Maybe it happens with Adinso Reyes (shortstop), or Jose De La Cruz, or Roberto Campos, the latter two of whom are brawny outfielders with bats that might match their biceps.

But one fact lingers. Dating to Dombrowski’s time, dating to years before and after, the Tigers have been light on adding help from other spheres. Low returns there along with some shaky drafts is why this team has had so many ongoing personnel holes.

Which leaves another issue for critics of Avila and owner Chris Ilitch to forge upon …

Free-agency’s temptations

You want a winner? You buy a winner. And if you’re not winning, you clearly are a MLB owner who’s cheap and in the game only to someday sell it for a couple of billion bucks. Or, so the various cynical and conspiratorial theories tend to go.

Here’s what free-agency is, and should be, about: Making good investments in helping your club. And that isn’t a matter of traipsing down a free-agent aisle and loading the cart with a shopping list of goodies. You need to gauge expense, probable returns, and mutual interest.

Free-agency consists of a two-way street. It’s incumbent on the player being romanced that he sees in your team an opportunity that probably extends beyond raw dollars. He wants to win. He wants to become part of a contending team, with playoffs, and maybe a World Series, in the picture.

This is why the Tigers during the Avila rebuild’s crash-and-construction weren’t going to be terribly productive at the free-agent bazaar. Good players weren’t interested in Detroit unless there was going to be some kind of overpay. Not with a team that was losing 100 games a year and wasn’t about to lose many fewer, even with an All-Star free-agent’s help.

The Tigers have been so busy clearing payroll brush from Mike Ilitch’s profligate days that there wasn’t going to be much chance, or frankly, much benefit, to signing billboard stars.

Now, things have changed. Somewhat.

The only serious baggage the team carries is Miguel Cabrera’s contract. It’s a load, but it’s not a prohibitive load.

The trick is to attract quality players — either on short- or long-term deals — that a club can defend when, as best can be determined, it’s still spilling a yearly barrel of red ink.

That opportunity could be now, just as the Tigers begin to tick upward after cratering in 2019.

The pandemic has crushed free agents. Team finances are way down. Celebrity players had only 60 games this year to show off. And now, a year before the player-owner contract expires, COVID-19’s anxieties have not eased. Not for owners, front offices, or for players and agents.

But because baseball’s world is still so nervous, bidding this autumn and winter figures to be light. It doesn’t mean you can step right up and grab yourself a George Springer, a Marcus Semien, a Marcell Ozuna, a DJ LeMahieu, or a Realmuto. But it doesn’t preclude a surprise. One of the above could be open to a nice, one-year deal — or longer — ahead of next year’s new CBA and hopefully a farewell to coronavirus.

The Tigers are moving closer to signing the kind of free agent that helped ramrod their long playoff run. It’s more likely they’ll have an easier time a year from now, after another 12 months of roster remodeling.

But they’re at a point now where Chris Ilitch, who is not the miser popularly portrayed, can give Avila more room to roam.

Which leads us to a final matter …

How long does Avila get?

These are not lifetime appointments, these Tigers front-office jobs. They can’t be. Not when this town’s baseball history is 120 years old and when the big-league game is integral to people’s lives, in Detroit, in the suburbs, and across a two-peninsula state.

One question is whether the GM is doing a good enough job overseeing his own staff. There are too many complaints, from too many trusted observers, about how department heads deal with quality people and professionals they supervise, to not be concerned.

All of these needs, responsibilities, and mandates are why a general manager gets a while, even a long while, to show you’re the answer. But time’s running short.

Avila got an extension a year ago, undisclosed as far as years. With this year’s zaniness, some modest improvement, and with a couple of promising drafts feeding a farm system ranked anywhere from third to sixth, he deserves to take into 2022 what he’s overseen since 2015.

Of all the reasons this would be fair, and even smart, the biggest is that this team isn’t far from being competitive.

If a new GM were to arrive today, next season, or in two years — this job would be regarded as clover. The dirty work has been done. The team is young. The farm is healthy. The payroll isn’t cluttered.

For the same reasons it’s a lovely opportunity for a new manager. And whoever takes over can thank Ron Gardenhire for crawling through three years of barbed wire, mines, and machine-gun fire to leave a managerial beachhead for the new skipper.

As for Gardenhire’s replacement, the Tigers have a chance to make a great hire. A.J. Hinch, who seems to be everyone’s darling — just bring that old Astros roster with you, A.J. —could get the job. And he very much could want this job. He and Avila are well-acquainted, which helps, and Hinch, by all assessments, is a savvy chap who brings all the requisite dugout and office skills.

But manager is never as important as who’s putting together a roster. It’s in personnel that games are won and lost.

The Tigers have a chance to follow, roughly, their timeline from 40 years ago, when a couple of mid-‘70s drafts became the groundwork for 1984’s grand prize.

Comparisons, though, in time, teams, and situations are similar only to a point. There were Hall of Famers from that 1970s gang (Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, and another guy who should be in Cooperstown, Lou Whitaker). They were at the 1980s heyday’s center, along with Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Dan Petry, etc.

That’s a tough talent blend to duplicate, no matter how good the 2020 or 2019 drafts prove to be.

The Tigers also are staring at the teeth of a divisional white shark, the White Sox, who could be in the early stage of a mini-dynasty.

What’s important is that good baseball — competitive, entertaining, interesting baseball — returns to Comerica Park. And that’s within reach.

Mike Ilitch, bless his soul and his generosity, helped Detroit to an exceptional playoff era by virtue of his largesse, and some good luck to match, combined with Dombrowski and his partners’ wits. Ironically, Ilitch’s expansive checkbook helped dig a hole deeper than most rebuilds typically experience.

But the worst is past. Better nights and days at Comerica are ahead, probably beginning next season when something approaching a .500 club should cue a string of ensuing years when playoffs (16 teams is a must) are at least in the cards.

Avila gets two more years to show that just such a timetable is realism and not illusion.

If it hasn’t turned around by then, Chris Ilitch needs to hire his young genius and get on with a better baseball life. Until that is, the young genius, whoever he is, confirms that building a winning baseball team is the hardest task in professional sports.

Former Detroit News sportswriter Lynn Henning is a freelance writer.

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