Christopher Ilitch must own Detroit Tigers’ futility. He (sort of) did in firing Al Avila

Detroit Free Press

Decency has its place in life. Just not enough to keep trying to rebuild a baseball team when the footings continue to crumble. Chivalry has its limits.

Christopher Ilitch has his limits, too, and on Wednesday afternoon, after seven long years of fire sales and wrong-sided trades and overhyped prospects and losing — lots and lots of losing — the owner of the Detroit Tigers finally fired Al Avila.

“A good man,” Ilitch said of his general manager during a news conference at Comerica Park.

Three words that surely helped keep Avila around past his sell date. His longevity got a boost, too, from the organizational tatters he inherited, including a lagging analytics department, outdated scouting methods and a moribund farm system.

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Avila was charged with modernizing the franchise even as he was encouraged to keep it competitive after Ilitch fired Dave Dombrowski. For a moment, he was given the go-ahead to keep spending.

Then the money dried up. The rebuild began. And when the Tigers broke camp this spring with what appeared to be a potentially competitive team, well, the seven-year wait seemed to be forgiven.

The losing continued, though, immediately and mercilessly. Whatever life the Tigers showed — winning five of seven, say, or sweeping the occasional series — petered out quickly, often in a parade of strikeouts and shutouts.

When Cleveland beat the Tigers, 5-2, on Tuesday, it was the eighth loss in 10 games. Among the losses was another shutout, the squad’s 16th of the season.

Ilitch couldn’t abide. Not the futility at the plate. Not the fumbling in the field. Not the realization that the team he and his general manager hoped might compete for a playoff spot was down in the muck — again.

“Our progress has certainly stalled this season,” Ilitch said, “… at the end of the day, we didn’t make the progress we all expected. So, I decided to make a change.”

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Looking back, it was foolish to think this team was ready to compete for much more than another high draft pick. But then, looking back is easy. Looking ahead is the skill, and whoever Ilitch brings in as Avila’s replacement will need that kind of vision to get this franchise moving again.

Ilitch did his best to deflect Wednesday when asked if he’d regretted extending Avila’s contract three years ago or if he’d second-guessed moving the last great pieces to unofficially kick off the rebuild five years ago.

“I didn’t trade away those players away, right? Our general manager did,” he said.

This may technically be true. It’s also technically true I have hair. And while it would be nice if the few strands I have left covered the top of my dome, the mirror offers a less euphemistic picture.

Avila didn’t trade Justin Verlander and J.D. Martinez in a vacuum. But Ilitch had to have approved the moves. He may not have had an opinion on the prospects the team got in return, but he knows enough about baseball to have known what shipping off Verlander and Martinez meant.

In other words, the owner has a hand in the run of misery since he took over in 2017, the year those stars were traded. Avila made the failed swaps and blew most of his free-agent signings, but Ilitch is responsible for the person who makes those trades and signings.

And if he wanted a new perspective and a new way of doing business, as he said he did Wednesday, then why did he let Avila run the draft and run the team through the trade deadline this season?

Why not fire Avila a month ago?

“In fairness to Al and to our club … to make an assessment on the season, enough of the season has to transpire,” said Ilitch. “At this point in time, enough of the season has occurred.”

Avila only traded two role players with expiring contracts — reliever Michael Fulmer and outfielder Robbie Grossman. It would’ve been nonsensical if Ilitch had let Avila sell off the team’s best assets before the deadline.

Then again, maybe Avila had the green light and just didn’t like the offers. After all, that’s what he said to reporters  after the deadline a couple weeks ago.

If that’s the case, and he had free reign to reshape the franchise a few weeks before he was fired, then that tells you something about the uncertainty Ilitch grappled with regarding Avila. This is the same owner who said he liked the progress the team was showing as late as July 1.

Ilitch tried to clarify those comments Wednesday, saying he was referring to the “progress” of the “prospects.” Even if you believe him, that still suggests an owner who isn’t sure yet what he’s looking at … or for.

He’ll need to figure that out before he signs the next person to run his organization. For while Avila was the only one let go, he didn’t make moves based on information only he gathered.

He had help. Some of those who helped him may need to be replaced as well.

The franchise’s lack of talent evaluation and development for most of the last generation is staggering. Avila may have made the final decisions, but he had help deciding Franklin Perez, Jake Rogers and Daz Cameron were good value for Verlander, for example.

We don’t need to rehash the moves that haven’t worked. The record says it all. And though injuries and difficult life circumstances marred the beginning of this most hopeful of seasons, the talent level is still nowhere near where it needs to be.

There are some promising pieces, of course. Good health would lift the spirits — and perhaps lower the ERA, too.

But Ilitch has to find someone adept at finding players. That won’t be easy. A month ago, he liked the progress. Now he doesn’t.

He’ll need to figure out what he’s looking at to finally make this work.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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