Ominous silence at the deadline preceded Avila’s ouster

Bless You Boys

If it felt like the last bit of air was leaving the room last Tuesday as another trade deadline passed with quiet resignation from general manager Al Avila’s front office, your insight served you well. Two veteran players on their way out the door anyway were shipped off for minimal returns. The last major date on the MLB calendar in a disaster of a season passed with nothing accomplished that would give fans any hope of better days ahead. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, the ax finally fell on Avila’s tenure as GM.

As Avila’s final act as general manager, the deadline silence was an uncomfortably fitting end to his seven years running the Detroit Tigers. While teams around the league looked to get better now or for the future, the Tigers just flipped two players headed for free agency anyway for minimal return and called it good. The message has been pretty clear for a half-decade now, and it was reiterated in Avila’s comments. He rarely made trades unless he had to, and when pressed claimed there were no deals available that would really improve the team. Hence the problem.

A general manager’s job is fundamentally to evaluate and value players more effectively than most of the other 30 general managers around the game. We can certainly talk about his failures in building good player development and amateur scouting departments. Those two issues go hand in hand. But again and again, Avila failed to maximize the value of his own players in trade and was unable to pluck a single unseen gem from a rival GM in seven years running the Detroit Tigers. Avila never showed any confidence that he could beat other general managers in trades, and rarely tried, sticking to an incredibly conservative approach that prolonged the Tigers’ effort to tear down and build a winner from the ashes. The apparent self-assessment hidden in that lack of trading aggression quickly became difficult to refute as Avila’s tenure progressed.

The no aggression clause

The symmetries between the 2022 season and the early years of Avila’s tenure are pretty striking, bookended by the acquisition and trade of Michael Fulmer. Like Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris, Fulmer came to Detroit in former general manager Dave Dombrowski’s final acts before he was fired almost exactly seven years ago. And in the end, Al Avila’s Tigers played out the string with all of them. Boyd was injured months before free agency and Norris and Fulmer were traded away in their walk years, all long after their peak value in trade.

For a team that started tearing down in 2017 and didn’t declare even hints of an intention to compete until 2022, a bunch of fairly talented players have just ended up hanging around well beyond their sell-by date until Avila was forced to flip them before they walked anyway. Kudos on the Reese Olson and Alex Lange deals at least, but Nick Castellanos too, like the rest, was dealt past his sell-by date despite the fact that none of them were ever part of the club’s general timetable for a return to winning.

In the final analysis, Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, Nick Castellanos, Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, and Daniel Norris were all at one point or another valuable players. All are now gone, one way or the other departing in the span of this theoretical rebuild, and to show for them all, the Tigers have on their ledger a year of team control remaining over Jeimer Candelario, two over Austin Meadows, Willi Castro, and a good young reliever in Alex Lange to show for it all. The remaining few prospects left from trades are highly unlikely to amount to more than relief help.

Wasted roster spots

There’s another side of that coin when you look at who they have kept over the years. From August 2017 until October 2021, they could’ve tried anything and anyone. No one expected a thing in terms of competitive baseball. Yet not one of the various middling prospects, small free agent acquisitions, waiver wire adds, or Rule 5 picks, over all these seasons has amounted to anything of note.

When you invest lots of playing time in players that never work out, without moving on to try something else, you’re doing a bad job. To paraphrase Neil Peart, if you choose not to decide until you have no choice, you still have made a choice on each and every player that crosses the 40-man roster. The Tigers seem to live in fear that if they move on from a player, he’ll suddenly explode and embarrass them.

We’ve had a little fun here and there with guys like Mikie Mahtook, JaCoby Jones, Ronny Rodriguez, Niko Goodrum, Victor Reyes, and others. But in the final analysis, over four years with nothing to lose the Tigers struck with middling talents for far too long and didn’t find and develop a single major league average player out of any of them. Even while starting to brag on their high-speed cameras and new high-tech facilities in Lakeland, they hired as old-school of a coaching staff as they could find under Ron Gardenhire, when they had far more progressive minds openly available. As a result of all this, they got very little accomplished at the major league level from 2017 to the present. Instead, the same replacement-level guys got hundreds of at-bats year after year without one ever breaking through.

The path forward

Perhaps expectations coming into the deadline were too high, but only because their needs appear so great and because their own work has set a low bar. It’s entirely possible that Avila was already a lock to be fired, and under orders to make only the minimum moves required at the deadline. Certainly, Avila did nothing to encourage the belief that the Tigers could begin solving their many issues with a trade or two, but whether that was his decision or Chris Ilitch’s, it all felt very familiar. Add in another fresh pair of fairly expensive free agent signings over the offseason that have so far produced very little, harkening back to the first time Avila was allowed to spend back in 2016, and his tenure looks like a flat circle that has finally been broken.

So here lies the fundamental problem now facing owner Chris Ilitch. After a brief flirtation with hope following a fun and surprisingly decent season in 2021, the 2022 campaign finally broke fans’ patience with Avila. The question everyone has now is who they’ll replace him with, and how quickly can they get this thing back on the tracks?

On the latter point, the Tigers are not nearly in as bad a shape as their record indicates. With numerous talented players on the injured list, and a rapidly improving player development program on the pitching side, it’s perfectly likely that the Tigers will continue to pitch pretty well. With an entirely new group of executives and coaches now running the player development system, odds are good that the Tigers are already in a better position in that regard than they were a year ago.

The problem is obviously the offense, but as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, the Tigers came pretty close to an average offense in 2021, with no one of note in the lineup beyond Miguel Cabrera. A good GM might be able to turn this around more quickly than you’d think looking at the results this season.

On the former point, there are two paths. As part of the restructuring of the Tigers’ front office and player development system last summer, both Sam Menzin and Jay Sartori were promoted to Vice-President and Assistant General Manager roles. Menzin is the baseball operations guy, while Sartori was the architect of the Tigers’ analytics department. Menzin, as was announced by the Tigers today, will be the acting GM until Chris Ilitch and his brain trust, which will presumably heavily involve manager A.J. Hinch, decide on the next general manager. It’s not impossible that Menzin or Sartori could get the call. However, promoting either, including the Tigers’ long-time Vice-President under Avila, David Chadd, is not what the Tigers need in my view.

What needs to happen now, is exactly what we begged the Tigers to do years ago. Follow the path of the Baltimore Orioles, whose own rebuild is already well ahead of Detroit’s, and hire a top player evaluator from one of the best organizations in baseball. The Orioles hired Mike Elias, a former director of amateur scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals, and at the time, an assistant general manager of the Houston Astros. That decision is quickly bearing fruit, and Chris Ilitch should follow suit.

The Tigers need a sharp, aggressive salesperson who understands all the facets of the modern game. Someone who knows an opponent’s players better than they do. It’s going to take some slick trading and drafting over the next year to turn the ship around. They have to find someone with a great understanding of modern scouting, analytics, player development, and roster construction. The best place to look for such a candidate is in the front offices of organizations like the Tampa Bay Rays, Houston Astros, or Los Angeles Dodgers.

From the Dodgers, second in command Brandon Gomes, their current Executive Vice President and General Manager, is someone the Tigers should absolutely try to lure, although I suspect that would be difficult as he’s already got the GM seat under President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman. Josh Byrnes, former player and the Dodgers’ current Senior Vice-President of Baseball Operations, might be more viable and was already the general manager of both the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres. He’s someone who could certainly hit the ground running. Vice-President of Scouting David Finley could be an option. One slightly wilder idea with Tigers’ ties would be Dodgers Director of Player Development, and former Tiger, William Rhymes. Probably someone with a stronger scouting background with experience in making deals would be preferable.

Another popular idea would be to try and poach Erik Neander, current President of Baseball Operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. That would be a lateral move, so who knows if Neander would be interested, but perhaps he’d like to try something new for the right price. Probably any of the Rays’ Vice-Presidents in Baseball Operations would be interesting candidates to consider. Dana Brown, the Atlanta Braves’ Vice-President of Scouting is another who has long been thought a future general manager. Amiel Sawdaye, Senior Vice-President and Assistant General Manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks, would be another who should get an interview.

Many have suggested Theo Epstein, architect of multiple World Series championships for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. It’s hard to believe he’s particularly interested in returning to the GM chair, so I’d bet that is highly unlikely, but I suppose the Tigers could inquire.

You get the idea. It’s simply impossible to evaluate who the right candidate would be from the outside, but these are the type of folks who should be considered for the role of new Tigers’ GM. Find an organization that does it better, identify a rising star in their organization with the requisite skills, and get after them. There is still time to turn things around, but the upcoming offseason is going to be crucial. The Tigers need to have a new hand on the tiller well before the season ends if they’re going to hit the ground running when the offseason begins in November.

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