Henning: Tigers’ front-office moves may signal line of succession for Avila

Detroit News

For those who can’t help but peek over hills and horizons, wondering what’s ahead for a professional sports team, the Tigers offered some potential, if not probable, clues Tuesday.

They made a string of front-office promotions that carry more than average portent and perhaps establish a line-of-succession when Al Avila, who earlier this month turned 63, decides he has had enough of being the Tigers full-time GM —  assuming Avila makes the call there in however many years.

The biggest moves came when they made Sam Menzin, their director of baseball operations, a vice president and assistant general manager. Do not be surprised if Menzin, who is all of 31, steadily adds luster and becomes the team’s next GM.

The Tigers bestowed the same VP/assistant GM title on Jay Sartori, who has been heading an analytics department that during the past six years has gone from Dark Ages staffing and data-research to one that’s in line with upper-tier teams and metrics.

They also shook up their minor-league oversight. Dave Littlefield, who has been running the Tigers developmental corps for six years, is giving way to Kenny Graham in a move that Avila clearly saw as essential to harmonizing his farm system.

For subscribers: Henning: No spot with Tigers, Christin Stewart should consider overseas with next move

Noteworthy in this realignment is Avila sidekick and assistant GM David Chadd, who is shifting to the on-field developmental side. Note, also, that Scott Bream, whose professional scouting department is considered across baseball to be one of the Tigers’ strong suits, remains firm in his VP post.

What it all means for the Tigers as long as Chris Ilitch and his family own the team is, quite likely, this:

Avila will stick as Tigers GM until he retires. The team has made obvious progress in 2021, the farm is one of MLB’s better systems, and the long-range forecast is in line with what reasonable rebuilds tend to construct. The Tigers should be a plus-.500 team a year from now and might be chasing a playoff shot by 2023.

It’s been a long and miserable reconstruction, but it was going to be just that because of debt, old players, and Mike Ilitch’s shoot-for-the-moon urges ahead of his death in 2017. Avila hasn’t pulled any miracles or magic, but the Tigers are being bolted together with a product that should be solid for the long haul.

What must be repeated is that Avila is 63 —  and this GM job is a killer. It is relentless, virtually around-the-clock in baseball, because of its long season —  February through November —  and equally intense offseason when rosters and free agency, and Winter Meetings, and GM Meetings, and organizational confabs, result in nothing close to a break.

Yes, the Tigers offices close during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. But ask former Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski how much rest he got that last week of December when he and the family headed somewhere remote for skiing or beach time in Hawaii. Dombrowski’s phone still rang, incessantly, as it does for all GMs.

It is why a move once viewed as feasible —  Tigers manager AJ Hinch moving into the Tigers GM office —  is at best unlikely.

Hinch knows what the GM job is all about. He has enough front-office background to know it is merciless in terms of time and demands. He knows how being GM differs from his own role as skipper.

A baseball manager gets a chance to breathe at the end of a season. He can knock off, at least for meaningful stretches, once the season and/or playoffs are finished. He can have an actual life before it all begins anew in February when a manager is fresh and the team has at least theoretical promise.

Hinch loves managing. He always will have teams in line who will want him in their dugout. Sitting in a GM’s seat isn’t in his immediate galaxy of comfortable or imaginable moves.

That leaves the Tigers to ponder, beginning from within, their next front-office general when all teams always carry a short-list of potential hires. Keep in mind that Hinch no doubt also has in mind a few folks and that his opinion might matter most if he still is in Detroit and a new boss is being considered.

Ask those in the know within MLB’s corridors and they’ll tell you Menzin is going to be some MLB team’s GM. If it doesn’t happen in Detroit, it will be a reality elsewhere. And probably sooner rather than later.

He played college baseball at Swarthmore and has done nothing but soar since he broke in with the Tigers in 2012 at age 22.

Menzin now joins Sartori as one of Avila’s flanking lieutenants. There is no doubt both Menzin and Sartori lust for a GM’s job. And while Sartori is brilliant on the analytics and metrics side, Menzin’s all-around game is compelling. Keep an eye on how all of this plays out in coming months and perhaps years.

Menzin, if he wins out — and bear in mind this could be long from now — would bring quite the picnic-basket of experience and pluses to Comerica Park’s third-floor GM chambers. This assumes another team doesn’t pick him off ahead of any future Tigers appointment.

Not, of course, that there’s any 911-call planned to anoint a future GM when no one can be sure a few years from now if the Ilitches still own the Tigers.

But for now, with family ownership still the reality, and with Tuesday’s promotions more than significant in terms of timing and responsibility, it would be reasonable to expect that Avila will eventually do what Jim Campbell did nearly 40 years ago when he gently arranged for his assistant, Bill Lajoie, to take command as Tigers GM in 1983.

It should be remembered that Campbell, by then, had done the dirty work during a long rebuild that began in 1975 and wrapped up with a World Series trophy in 1984.

History isn’t always into specific repeats, but it’s amazing how parallels tend to evolve.

Whatever happens as the Tigers work to reacquaint themselves to baseball in October, keep in mind Tuesday’s news-release as these ensuing seasons — and some eventual personnel decisions — take shape.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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