Why Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila can see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’

Detroit Free Press

Heck yeah, you’ve had a reason to be ticked at the Detroit Tigers.

They stunk for several years and it was painful to watch. It’s understandable if you are skeptical about owner Christopher Ilitch. He hasn’t put any money into this roster, other than paying for his father’s sentimental mistake (see: Miguel Cabrera extension).

And general manager Al Avila? You have asked the same question over and over: “Why has this rebuild taken so long?”

Of course, you questioned it. Of course, you were mad. Rebuilds suck. And it has felt like forever.

But you know something else? It has progressed exactly on the timeline that Avila predicted.

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Back in 2017, I had a long, private conversation with Avila and he laid out his five-year plan. He explained who he planned to trade, who he wanted to keep and cautioned the Tigers would not have a shot at the playoffs until 2022. Or maybe, 2023.

I wrote a story on Oct.4, 2017, was headlined: “Meet the 2022 Detroit Tigers: Rebuild could last 5 years or more.”

You can question Avila’s decisions, but he is honest. Maybe to a fault. He’ll tell you exactly what he’s going to do.

And this was his vision: He wanted to completely remake the organization because the minor league system had so little talent. He wanted to dump salaries, focus on developing draft picks and pump up the analytics side. At that point, the Tigers owed Cabrera and Jordan Zimmermann a combined $258 million — think about that, a freakin’ quarter billion — so they had to ride that out.

But Avila wanted to keep young players like Jeimer Candelario. Back in 2017, Avila envisioned that by 2022, Candelario would be a young, cheap veteran who could anchor the infield on a team of youngsters.

And that is what has happened. Love him or hate him, Avila has this team positioned to become a winner, if they make some smart moves in free agency.

During that conversation, Avila highlighted several players who he expected to be important in 2022:

Matt Manning, who has solidified himself in the rotation.

Gregory Soto, now the team’s closer.

Alex Faedo, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and should arrive sometime next summer.

Jake Rogers, who would be the starting catcher going into 2022 but for his own Tommy John surgery.

Others, of course, haven’t panned out, including Franklin Perez, who came over in the Justin Verlander trade with Rogers, and former first-rounder Beau Burrows.

But most of the other players on the Tigers’ roster were just placeholders.

Almost all of them are gone now.

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Laying the foundation

As the Tigers struggled through the last few years, several significant things happened in the background.

The Tigers created an analytics department, basically starting from scratch, as Ilitch pumped resources into the team’s infrastructure.

They shed salaries and, yes, they lost. But all those losses brought in high draft picks: Casey Mize, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson.

Everything Avila did — getting rid of older players and trying to develop youngsters — was to prepare for this moment.

Now, after all the trades, after all the losing, after all the drafts, the Tigers believe they have a shot at the 2022 wild card and becoming legitimate playoff contenders in 2023.

Just as Avila predicted back in 2017.

“There’s a long way to go,” Avila said last week. “As a matter of fact, I’m more motivated now because you can see that light at the end of the tunnel.”

You can dissect every trade Avila has made — and he has certainly nailed some and missed plenty of others — but you can see where the pieces are starting to fit together.

Other than Cabrera, the Tigers have a roster made up almost entirely of draft picks and players acquired by trades. Only Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Schoop were free agent pickups.

And somehow, AJ Hinch got that group to play basically .500 ball since May 1.

That’s beyond encouraging. And yes, a great deal of the hope centers on Hinch.

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Adding the next pieces

After talking to Ilitch, Avila and Hinch, I’m convinced the Tigers are planning to spend this winter in free agency. And this is the perfect time because they have to plug some holes in free agency; namely, finding a shortstop.

“The resources will be there,” Avila said. “But I will caution you, this is not going to be spending like a drunken sailor. This is going to be a very measured process.”

After he said that, some fans freaked out, thinking he meant they won’t spend at all.

But let me try to decode it.

Carlos Correa will be a prime target for the Tigers in free agency. But the Tigers are not going to spend $300 million for a shortstop. If they can get Correa at a more reasonable number, they will.

Otherwise, they will look at the other shortstops available.

Personally, I’m intrigued by Corey Seager, who is 27. Seager hit .306 with 16 homers in 95 games for the Dodgers during the regular season, playing on a one-year, $13.75 million contract.

If the Tigers could get him, it would be a huge upgrade. And he is the perfect age for this rebuild.

But the Tigers need more than a shortstop. They need a catcher and a couple of pitchers because of injuries to Rogers, Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull.

They will also be shopping for a top-line starting pitcher. Sorry folks, it won’t be Justin Verlander — he is expected to be looking for a big-time contract.

But they will go after at least one high-end starter.

“Getting another proven starter is as important as a shortstop, at this point,” Avila said.

The plan to continue rising

Hinch said something telling during a news conference last week.

“I think you guys are going to have to have patience,” Hinch said. “But I’m going to put pressure on you by telling you, ‘Just be patient with what we’re trying to do.’”

Translation: While the goal next season will be adding talent and fighting for a wild-card slot, they are not going to turn this team into a World Series contender this winter. For one thing, they will be counting on too many young players in 2022 who will inevitably have ups and downs.

“We’re going to make sure whatever decisions we make free agent-wise don’t sink the organization for years to come,” Avila said.

That doesn’t mean they are going to be cheap and it doesn’t mean they are going to go crazy. It will be somewhere in between. Besides, the most important thing is not how much they spend, but how smart they are.

Some of the youngsters will arrive this summer.

Greene will be playing center field in Detroit next summer and he is going to be an outstanding major leaguer. Torkelson will spend time in Toledo before moving up. He hit 29 homers and 30 doubles this summer.

Joey Wentz, a lefty who was acquired in the Shane Greene trade and is coming back from Tommy John, will make his debut in 2022 if he stays healthy. So will Faedo, assuming he can continue to progress from Tommy John surgery.

Ryan Kreidler, who has shot up through the Tigers system, could hit Detroit by 2023. (If the Tigers have a shortstop and if Kreidler continues to mash, they could slide him in at second base.)

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Dillon Dingler, a talented catcher drafted in 2020 out of Ohio State, could arrive in 2023.

And we could see a trio of interesting pitchers in Toledo next summer.

Beau Brieske, who was taken in the 27th round of the 2019 draft, was named the organization’s 2021 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. You would expect to see him in Toledo next year. The same goes for Garrett Hill (28 strikeouts in 19⅔ innings in Double-A) and Reese Olson (acquired from Milwaukee in the Daniel Norris trade). All three of them will be knocking on the door.

Yes, it seems like it’s taken forever. But the plan is coming together on the timeline that Avila laid out four years ago.

He deserves criticism for some of the trades, but he also deserves credit for where this team is positioned. If he adds the right couple of pieces this winter, next fall could get interesting.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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