Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila gives free agency update, considering six-man rotation

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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When the 2020 season concluded, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila predicted a slow-moving offseason because of the financial ramifications amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But he couldn’t guess just how slow everything would unravel.

So far, the results are historic.

Many free agents in numerous categories of value — with just over a month until spring training begins — remain on the market. The esteemed free agents, such as Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, George Springer and DJ LeMahieu, don’t seem close to signing contracts.

“That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a lot of phone calls back and forth between agents and general managers, and things of that nature,” Avila said Thursday night on WXYT-FM (97.1). “I just think it’s one of those situations where some of the good clubs are where they’re at, and there are some making adjustments to their payroll, and there’s some that are rebuilding. It’s a little bit of everything right now.”

OTHER NEEDS: Here’s what else Tigers could, and should, do in free agency

THE FUTURE: What Tigers are telling us with the Robbie Grossman signing

The Tigers are still rebuilders. They signed right-hander Jose Urena to a one-year, $3.25 million contract just before Christmas. They added outfielder Robbie Grossman on a two-year, $10 million deal Tuesday.

Plenty of pitching was available, so Avila made that position his top priority. The front office ranked 52 free-agent pitchers and put them on an internal list. About 40 of them are still searching for jobs.

Avila wants to add another starting pitcher but did not share how aggressive he will be with other positions of need (catcher, first base, middle infield).

“You try to address whatever weaknesses you have, and every year is different,” Avila said. “We went into this year coming out of just playing 58 games with no fans, so that takes effect on your plans. What you want to do and what you can do are two different things. I think every organization has faced the same challenge.”

[ Tigers catcher Dustin Garneau preparing for any role he can get in the majors ]

Six-man rotation?

Manager AJ Hinch needs to juggle strict inning limits in his first year with the Tigers. He enters spring training with left-handers Matthew Boyd and Tarik Skubal and righties Spencer Turnbull, Casey Mize, Michael Fulmer and Urena.

The Tigers plan to use a combination of a five-man rotation and a six-man rotation. At times, they’ll also have starters operate in opener roles. For the back end of those short starts, Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander can help, as they possess long-relief abilities.

“That’s why it’s important to always have pitchers that have options, so you can bring guys up when you need them and send them back, get through the games that way,” Avila said. “We’ll be making adjustments and being creative from day one throughout the end of the season. We’re having a lot of analytics come up with some ideas with numbers.”

[ Tigers sign Jose Urena, but short-term pitching plan hasn’t worked recently ]

For individual innings, Avila thinks Boyd and Turnbull can build on their marks from two years ago. In 2019, Boyd tossed 185⅓ innings; Turnbull logged 144⅓ innings.

Mize and Skubal made their MLB debuts in 2020, reaching 28⅓ and 32 innings, respectively. Fulmer, in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, pitched 27⅔ innings across 10 starts.

“The younger guys, like Mize and Skubal, it’s case-by-case,” Avila said. “You might have to be a bit more careful in the total amount of innings, and you’re also evaluating the potential stress of the outing.”

What 3B logjam means for Tork

The Tigers have two third basemen in Jeimer Candelario — who also plays first base — and 21-year-old Isaac Paredes. Whether it’s late in this season or next year, 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson will arrive.

Since joining the Tigers, Torkelson has moved to third base, where he will remain for the foreseeable future. But he played his entire Arizona State career as a first baseman, and Detroit already has Candelario and Paredes.

[ Here’s where Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene may start 2021 ]

“The idea here is to develop guys that can play both,” Avila said. “Not too different than, if you guys remember, Miguel Cabrera. (He) was signed as a shortstop, outgrew that pretty quickly, moved to third base, and then came up to the big leagues as a left fielder. And then we moved him from third to first, first to third and back to first on multiple occasions. The more versatile a player can be, the better.

“If we can get Torkelson to play an average third base, and then all of a sudden down the road we need him to play first, that’s not a bad thing. A bad thing would be if all he is is a first baseman and you need a third baseman down the road. Then you’re stuck.”

Torkelson is the organization’s top-ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. He hit .337 with 54 home runs and 130 RBIs, plus 110 walks and 104 strikeouts, in 129 college games across two-plus seasons.

Paredes’ future

Coming off a batting title in the Mexican Pacific Winter League, Paredes is turning his focus to breaking camp with the Tigers. He was called up for his MLB debut in August and played 34 games as a third baseman, hitting .220 with one homer and six RBIs.

In his minor-league career, Paredes has experience at shortstop (246 games), third base (114) and second base (27). The Tigers want him to provide versatility in the majors.

“We know he can play third,” Avila said. “The body situation is more of a personal challenge for him. He’s actually a very strong, athletic guy, but if he keeps his body intact, he will be able to play second base as well as third.”

Paredes was signed out of Mexico in 2015 as a shortstop, but the Tigers transitioned him to third base beginning in 2019. He was acquired with Candelario from the Chicago Cubs in a July 2017 trade.

[ How Tigers’ Isaac Paredes was discovered in Mexico: ‘This guy’s got it’ ]

“He was a real good shortstop, but, obviously, it’s hard to have good range if you don’t take care of your body,” Avila said. “All indications are that he has been. We want guys to hit and hit really good, and the more versatile that you are, the better for everybody.”

This winter in Mexico, Paredes spent 39 games at third base and three as the designated hitter. Along with hitting .379 to win the batting crown, he had 17 doubles, four homers, 26 RBIs, 27 walks and 12 strikeouts.

Castro’s opportunity

When the Tigers take the field for Opening Day on April 1, Avila expects to see 23-year-old Willi Castro at shortstop. His bat put him in last year’s American League Rookie of the Year race, but his minus-7 defensive runs saved at his position revealed a flaw.

Avila and Hinch are giving Castro another chance.

“He’s shown some flashes that he can do it,” Avila said. “He has the athleticism, he has the coordination and he has the arm. … He has all the tools to be a shortstop. He just needs to make sure that he stays with the basic fundamentals that he showed when he was going good. He has to keep that going in a consistent manner. That takes discipline.”

In 2020, Castro went 45-for-129 (.349) with six home runs and 24 RBIs in 36 games, adding four doubles, two triples, seven walks and 38 strikeouts. Strong hitting will keep him in the lineup, but it doesn’t guarantee his defensive position.

“Shortstop is, other than catching, probably the most demanding position on the field,” Avila said. “Because of it, unless you’re a superstar natural athlete, you really got to be disciplined in your mechanics and how you approach every pitch. He’s got the potential to do it, and we think he can, so he’s going to have a chance.

“However, we also know he can play second and third. If he needed to play the outfield, I think he runs well enough that he can, but right now, his future is in the infield, whether it be second or short. Right now, he’s going to have the opportunity to prove he can play short.”

Coming soon: Spring training

Avila announced pitchers and catchers will report to the Tigers’ spring training facility in Lakeland, Florida, for their first workout Feb. 17, followed by the first full-team workout Feb. 22. After an exhibition Feb. 26 against Southeastern University, the team will play 34 Grapefruit League games, including split squads March 3, March 13 and March 25.

Spring training should begin as scheduled, Avila said. It’s unclear if fans will be able to attend games at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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