‘So far, so good’: Al Avila sees progress with Tigers prospects as long rebuild continues

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
 
| The Detroit News

 What he took from six days in Lakeland, Florida, was pretty much what anyone with a baseball eye might have seen on TigerTown’s back lots, or during a game at Marchant Stadium’s Publix Field.

There were big men, young men, who could swing a bat and throw a baseball with more style than has probably been the case in some earlier years at Lakeland.

How many of them might someday make it to Detroit is the question on which Tigers general manager Al Avila’s long rebuild – and probably his job review – rest.

“So far, so good,” Avila said Friday from his Comerica Park office, to which he returned this week after getting a long look at Instructional Camp, which runs through Nov. 8. “I’m really happy with the quality of talent, and I’m really impressed with our staff.

“I just wish we could play more games against other teams.”

The latter issue, Avila said, was a problem tied to everyone’s crisis in 2020: coronavirus. It canceled the minor-league season, which left teams like the Tigers to arrange a substitute seminar for 49 minor-leaguers at a five-week Instructional Camp approved by Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office.

Fine, and thanks for that extension, said the Tigers. But when it came time to schedule games against other clubs in their general radius, only the Blue Jays in Dunedin, and the Pirates in Bradenton, agreed.

“We’ve played them to death,” said Avila, whose team has split the past 10 days playing games either with those two teams, or more often, training on TigerTown’s six full fields.

That hasn’t been a serious downer. For several reasons.

One plus is that even this handful of games has had plenty of moments. A couple came Wednesday during a 4-2 victory over the Jays at Dunedin.

Bryant Packard, a fifth-round pick in 2019 who carries a high-caliber bat, slammed a long drive against the right-center field fence that he turned into an inside-the-park home run. Packard is a left-handed swinger who is getting work at first base.

Meanwhile, the two billboard names at Tigers camp– Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene – each had a double Wednesday to go with a walk.

Difference-makers

The games have confirmed something generally known: that individual skills are in rising supply in a farm system ranked nationally anywhere from third to sixth among 30 teams.

Greene in center field. Torkelson at third base. Daniel Cabrera, Gage Workman, Trei Cruz, and Colt Keith from June’s draft. Kody Clemens, Parker Meadows, Bryant Packard, Wilkel Hernandez, Jason Foley, Will Vest, Angel DeJesus, Ethan DeCaster, Max Green, Alex Lange, Paul Richan, Elvin Rodriguez – it’s a long list of hitters and pitchers that have a shot, validly, to help at Comerica Park – perhaps soon.

“There’s enough talent there right now,” Avila said, looking at the gist of Detroit’ minor-league crop. “Not all will make it, of course, but there’s enough talent that it should make a difference at the big-league level.”

Avila paused, and said with a dark chuckle: “If not, they’ll put a rope around my neck tied to a big heavy weight and throw me overboard.

“We’ve been working at this for the last three or four years.”

He was speaking there about a roster reconstruction that began, officially, in 2017, after late owner Mike Ilitch had tried for extended years to bring Detroit a World Series party. A lot of losing, and a lot of early draft picks set up by all that losing, have now combined to re-seed a farm with some first-overall draft picks (Torkelson and pitcher Casey Mize), as well as Greene, who in 2019 was a fifth-overall choice

“Special player, the prize (of Detroit’s outfield prospects), runs like a gazelle,” Avila said. “Look at the tools …”

Avila concedes that Greene and Torkelson might actually have gotten a boost from working at the July-through-September taxi squad at Toledo. The Toledo cast was an adjunct to the big-league team in Detroit and was part of a 60-man group Major League Baseball allowed as it salvaged a 60-game (58 for the Tigers) season with a late-summer schedule.

The makeshift season might in an awkward way end up as one of a terrible year’s consolation prizes. Torkelson and Greene, along with another of June’s draft grabs, catcher Dillon Dingler, worked at Toledo against older talent that was more sophisticated than they otherwise might have seen during early-stage 2020 farm seasons.

It was a jump-start, as it were, and might help push Greene and Torkelson, if not others, a bit more rapidly to Detroit.

Staff support

But there’s another reason, Avila said, that not only Greene and Torkelson, but others from Detroit’s recently lusher farm crops have a better chance at making it to Detroit, and sticking.

“I’m really impressed with our staff,” Avila said, and here he cited about 15 names of directors, coordinators, managers, and coaches who are busy schooling kid players.

It’s the long-maligned development side that has caught up, Avila insisted. There has been staff expansion with Kenny Graham and Dan Hubbs. There has been a five-year expansion on the analytics side, which has been influencing recent drafts – visibly so – as well as ramping up development.

Chris Ilitch, who followed his father as the Tigers’ ownership steward, gave the go-ahead for more staff – and just as importantly, invested in high-tech training and evaluating equipment that more avant-garde teams like the Dodgers and Yankees already had in place.

“We’re doing a lot of drill-work we weren’t always able to do before,” Avila said. “We’re either expanding infield drills, or using new pitching machines, speed machines, curveball machines, everything.

“There’s just a lot of drills work, a lot of intense drills work. We’re doing a lot of that.”

Avila is happy to elaborate.

There now are hitter-production reports, swing-decision analysis, contract rates, and quality of contact feedback, he said. There are “heat maps” that delineate areas and zones of proficiency, or lack thereof. Spin and spin-efficiency, degrees of vertical and horizontal break.

“We know what they’re doing good, and not so good, and more importantly,” Avila said, “what do we need to do make an adjustment? Now there’s a plan for each hitter, a plan for each pitcher.

“A few years ago, that was nonexistent,” he said, speaking of a time, even at the tail-end of the Tigers long playoff run, when Detroit was at the bottom of baseball’s high-tech order. “Quite frankly, if a player has any ability throughout this process, you now should be able to get to the big leagues and be an effective big-leaguer.

“That, to me, is what we’ve been working toward. We’ve finally got the technology and the analytics, and we’re getting the meat-and-potatoes data to the field staff. It’s a tribute to a lot of people.”

And yet it seems to be making a year even as bad as 2020 worthwhile. Avila last week found himself standing on the outfield grass at Publix Field dealing with a COVID-created adjustment.

He was addressing 49 players and a couple dozen staffers who were spread out and wearing masks.

“We had them all separated, and fortunately, my voice carries well enough,” Avila said. “I told them that one of the things I was happy about were classroom sessions (at the expansive, 3-year-old Tigers offices, which also features classrooms).

“We really didn’t have those before.”

Avila included an anecdote. It was about Nick Castellanos, who was the Tigers’ first pick in 2010 and who turned some rough early days on the farm into what already is a long big-league career, even if he now plays for the Reds.

But it was how Castellanos approached those days at camp and in the minors, Avila said, that put Castellanos in Detroit at age 21.

Avila’s message, as he talked to the masked men:

“If you expect to get to the big leagues and get there quick, you’ve got to come in every day, whether it’s to Instructional League, or once the season stars, always with a sense of urgency.

“You’ve got to do something to get better every day. Not just show up and take batting practice or a bullpen session, you’ve got to get something accomplished, with a sense of urgency, that gets you to the big leagues.”

Avila repeated that the same sense of immediacy applies to others. Specifically, to his job. And to his staff’s responsibilities.

Six years is a long time to go without playoffs being part of a team’s October ways, he said. A general manager understands fans would like to reunite with an old Tigers tradition.

The irony: Old habits require young talent. But that talent, if last week’s scene at Lakeland means as much as this fall’s Instructional League implies, might, at last, be coalescing.

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