Why Al Avila is preaching a ‘sense of urgency’ in Detroit Tigers’ rebuild

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila used a quick phrase during last year’s winter meetings to convince his followers that there’s hope on the horizon.

“Build it back up,” Avila said at the time, two months removed from a league-worst 114 losses.

In 2020, amid a pandemic, the Tigers finished last in the American League Central for the fourth time in six years.

[ Tigers now at crossroads after some bright spots in 2020: ‘Rebuild is almost over’ ]

A flirt with qualifying for the expanded postseason wasn’t enough; the Tigers fell apart in September with a 7-19 record in the final month. Positive signs showed up, however, in the major-league debuts of pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, as well as infielder Isaac Paredes and outfielder Daz Cameron.

The rest of the expected franchise cornerstones — namely, right-hander Matt Manning, third baseman Spencer Torkelson and outfielder Riley Greene — are patiently waiting to shine in Comerica Park. The three of them should be in the majors within the next two years.

So, Avila has a new phase, which puts pressure on himself to do his job: “Sense of urgency.”

“We want to get our big-league club up and running into the playoffs, into the World Series,” Avila told the Free Press on Friday. “That’s our goal. We don’t want to get there years from now. We want to get there ASAP.”

[ Where Tigers’ top prospects stand entering instructional league: ‘As advertised’ ]

Making good on his claim will be difficult in 2021. Avila doesn’t want to prematurely push prospects to the majors, and he won’t be able to measure their readiness until the minor leagues return. Also, it’s increasingly unlikely he will pursue All-Stars in free agency until the Tigers are confident in their post-pandemic finances.

Avila started the rebuild in 2017. But even if all goes as planned, the organization is unlikely to contend until 2022. And after that?.

For subscribers: Why Detroit Tigers fans should take this crop of prospects seriously

Sustainability — and multiple World Series appearances — is the organization’s goal.

“We talked about it (Monday),” Torkelson said Monday. “It rained a little bit, and (Hall of Famer) Alan Trammell is like, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to deal with a wet ball now and then, especially in October.’ That gave me some goosebumps. That was pretty cool.”

Greene had similar feelings the week before: “That’s just kind of the thing that is in the back of our head that makes us want to work that much harder.”

Meeting in Lakeland

Amid a managerial search, Avila had to get down to Lakeland, Florida, home of the Tigers’ spring training complex. He had to deliver his new mantra to the prospects and player development staffers in the instructional league, which began in early October and runs through Nov. 8.

Avila stood among his 49 players to convey the message as the rebuild lingers.

“We are all working with a sense of urgency,” Avila said. “Don’t come here to instructional league to go through the motions to get BP (batting practice) and your at-bats, your running, get your work in and then go home. You come here with a sense of urgency that you need to get to the big leagues. Like, right now. That’s how we’re working.”

[ Why Spencer Torkelson’s real development for Tigers is a secret to many ]

Torkelson and Greene, both playing in the instructional league, should force the front office to make tough decisions about their status coming out of spring training. The Tigers took Torkelson from Arizona State as the No. 1 overall pick in 2020; Greene was the No. 5 overall selection in 2019 out of high school.

Based on his in-game performance, Greene seems ready for his MLB debut. Torkelson might need more time in the minors, but a “sense of urgency” — when considering the Tigers aren’t projected to spend this offseason — could mean a quicker-than-expected arrival. 

Why Riley Greene might be the best Detroit Tigers prospect of all ]

In 2019, Greene hit .271 with five homers and 28 RBIs in 57 games, reaching Class-A West Michigan. Across 129 games in two-plus college seasons, Torkelson crushed 54 homers with 130 RBIs and a .337 batting average. Both participated in summer camp at Comerica Park in July and at the alternate training site in Toledo in August and September.

Avila said Torkelson and Greene are “advanced bats” and, barring unforeseen downfalls or injuries, should move quickly through the minors.

“There’s plenty of guys in the big leagues who are All-Stars that have had not only a bad week but a bad month, not to mention even a bad couple of months,” Avila said. “We feel good about the level of talent, but it’s about getting them through from the mental aspect, physical aspect and, hopefully, maximize their talents.”

Timetable of rebuild

Avila won’t give a definitive timeline of when the rebuild will end.

The Tigers aren’t likely to spend on anything more than a few one-year deals to plug holes in the lineup this offseason. If they were to make a run in 2021, it would need to be done on the shoulders of Mize, Skubal and former two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera, who continues to regress in the twilight of his career. 

Even if Greene, Torkelson, Manning and right-hander Alex Faedo crack the active roster at some point, the Tigers probably won’t receive major contributions from them until at least 2022. They need other prospects — such as second baseman Kody Clemens, outfielder Parker Meadows and first baseman Bryant Packard — to evolve into big-league contributors (or formidable trade chips).

“Maybe a Parker Meadows might take a little bit longer,” Avila said. “That doesn’t mean he’s not going to make it and make an impact. Just because we’re working with a sense of urgency, that doesn’t mean I’m going to will Parker Meadows to get to the big leagues at the same time that Riley Greene does.”

The point is that the window will eventually close on Clemens, Meadows and the crop of second-tier prospects, and perhaps even Greene and Torkelson if their play doesn’t force the Tigers to value production over an extra year of service time.

Likewise, if the Tigers don’t stick to a win-now mindset with their prospects and open the free-agency checkbook once the pandemic is over, the dark years of the rebuild may return in force without much to show for it.

“You can’t force-feed it,” Avila said. “You can’t make it happen faster than it naturally takes, but you can give certain messages to the players that the window of opportunity doesn’t stay open forever. It comes down and closes on you, so take advantage of this right now.

“We’re not here to wait forever.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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