Everything went downhill — and fast — in 2022.
The Detroit Tigers aren’t damned, but the organization has a lot of work to do. Owner Christopher Ilitch spoke Wednesday about the past, present and future of the franchise. He mentioned the word “progress” at least 20 times. It’s apparent, based on their 43-69 record, the Tigers haven’t made enough progress this season, but the dysfunction runs deeper than the on-field product in the big leagues.
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The Tigers fired general manager Al Avila.
“Once I made the decision, there was no reason to wait until the end of the season,” Ilitch said Wednesday, about an hour after Avila had been officially dismissed. “I wanted to get a jump right now on the search process.”
Entering this season, Ilitch was completely supportive of Avila’s plan.
The top prospects — position players Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene — appeared ready for their MLB debuts. The former top prospects — pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning — appeared ready to ascend as frontline starters. So, the Ilitch-funded Tigers spent a whopping $235.5 million on four free agents, along with trading for catcher Tucker Barnhart and outfielder Austin Meadows.
“We did not see progress at the big-league level,” Ilitch said. “That’s a big reason why I decided it’s time to make a change.”
The big-ticket free agents: shortstop Javier Báez (six years, $140 million) and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez (five years, $77 million).
Báez, who blasted 31 home runs last season, is batting .218 with 10 homers and a career-worst .631 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 97 games. Rodriguez, the team’s Opening Day starter, has been on the restricted list since June 13 due to a marital issue and won’t return to the Tigers until the third week of August.
“Things just progressively got worse throughout the season,” manager A.J. Hinch said Wednesday. “There’s two ways to this. There’s the injuries and some underperformance. They both coincided, so you can’t really blame one or the other. It’s all excuses until you change your behavior and play better.”
Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick, earned a spot on the Opening Day roster but has since been demoted to Triple-A Toledo (and is batting .186 with 26 strikeouts in 18 games there). Greene is batting .249 through 46 games since his June 18 debut, delayed by a broken foot in spring training. Meadows, under team control through 2024, has played just 36 games because of poor health and injuries.
All three young pitchers, Mize, Skubal and Manning, have spent time on the injured list; Mize underwent Tommy John surgery after two starts and two failed throwing programs. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick might not pitch again until 2024.
“The organization has made so much progress over the last few years,” Ilitch said. “We just need to reestablish that momentum that we had heading into this season and keep building toward accomplishing each of our objectives. I think we keep building. We just have to get our momentum back.”
‘Al gave me his best’
The progress Ilitch is referencing truly began in late October 2020, when Avila phoned Hinch (freed from a one-season suspension for his role in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal), set up an interview and swiftly hired the 2017 World Series champion.
“He was the first person that called me and wanted me to come in for an interview,” Hinch said. “At a time where I was on the outside of the sport looking in, that meant the world to me. That support is more than any support a man’s ever going to need. We worked tirelessly to move the ball forward.”
Hinch — a Stanford man and former MLB catcher who also spent time in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ and San Diego Padres’ front offices — is one of the most forward-thinking managers in baseball. His makeup is the blueprint of what the Tigers want and need in a new general manager.
But Hinch won’t leave the manager’s chair.
“I’m the manager,” he said. “I plan on being the manager.”
The Hinch-led Tigers surged in the 2021 season, posting a 68-61 record after May 7 and finishing at 77-85 for third place in the American League Central. In the offseason, Hinch and Avila traveled the country together, pitched their plan for the future to prospective players and signed free agents with Ilitch’s blessing. All three leaders — Ilitch, Avila and Hinch — announced the end of the rebuild in spring training and believed the team could compete for the postseason in 2022.
Instead, the Tigers are on pace for their fourth last-place finish in the AL Central over the past six seasons. The offense, averaging 3.18 runs per game, is the worst in baseball. Ahead of the Aug. 2 trade deadline, the Tigers overvalued certain players and failed to add MLB talent or high-end prospects. And Wednesday, the general manager was canned after spending more than two decades in the organization.
Avila joined the Tigers as an assistant general manager in 2002 and became the general manager in August 2015.
“Last year, we had a little bit more momentum,” Hinch said. “This year, we’ve hit a roadblock. Al and I communicated effectively. We interacted a ton. We bounced everything off each other. We had, as every GM and manager will have, our agreements and disagreements. It’s the nature of the relationship.
“But I felt like Al gave me his best.”
‘I didn’t trade those players away’
The rebuild began in 2017, when Avila had two superstars on the trading block: outfielder J.D. Martinez and right-hander Justin Verlander. The players Avila received in return for Martinez (Diamondbacks) and Verlander (Houston Astros) extended the length of the rebuild.
The two trades netted the Tigers six prospects.
For Martinez? Sergio Alcántara, Jose King and Dawel Lugo.
For Verlander? Daz Cameron, Franklin Pérez and Jake Rogers.
“I didn’t trade those players away,” Ilitch said. “Our general manager did. Al did. I’m not going to comment on past activities or go through a litany of moves that Al has made over the course of the past years. You can all assess that on your own.”
As a product of the rebuild, the Tigers controlled top-five selections in four consecutive drafts from 2018-21. Scott Pleis has been the Tigers’ director of amateur scouting since 2010. With those first-round picks, the Tigers selected, in order, Mize (No. 1), Greene (No. 5), Torkelson (No. 1) and prep right-hander Jackson Jobe (No. 3).
But what about the second-round choices?
Outfielder Parker Meadows, from the 2018 draft, is in Double-A Erie. Infielder Nick Quintana, from 2019, was shipped to the Cincinnati Reds in the Barnhart trade. He performed miserably for the Tigers but is batting .295 in 28 games for the Reds’ Double-A affiliate this season. Catcher Dillon Dingler, from 2020, hasn’t lived up to expectations, especially with his bat, and is stuck in Double-A Erie working through swing changes. First baseman Reynaldo Rivera, the second-round pick in 2017, was released in May 2022.
“I try to let our leaders lead and run their areas of responsibility,” Ilitch said. “I feel very comfortable that I’ve given Al the time and the resources to accomplish our mission. He’s made good progress, up until this year when our progress stalled. That’s really why I made the decision to make the change.”
The draft examples don’t paint the full picture, but the point is, the Tigers need to improve their evaluation of draft-eligible players because the talent in their farm system is already running dry. The same is true for the Tigers’ international scouting department, which has put just two regulars on the roster this season: closer Gregory Soto and utility player Harold Castro.
The Boston Red Sox have Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. The Cleveland Guardians have José Ramírez. The Atlanta Braves have Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies. The Astros have Jose Altuve, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and Cristian Javier. The Seattle Mariners have Julio Rodríguez. The Minnesota Twins have Luis Arraez. The Chicago White Sox have José Abreu and Luis Robert. The Los Angeles Dodgers have Julio Urías. The Tampa Bay Rays have Wander Franco. The Washington Nationals had Juan Soto before a blockbuster trade in August sent him to the Padres in exchange for a handful of top-tier prospects.
The list goes on and on.
The Tigers simply don’t have the same caliber of international talent, at least not compared to most MLB teams. That’s a problem, and although the organization has upped its international spending in recent years, the entire operation has been influenced by Tom Moore, director of international operations, since 2005.
Again, the Tigers have a lot of work to do.
‘I’m focused on looking forward’
The Tigers’ organization, in its current state, is broken. But fixable.
One person, though, won’t change the trajectory. A new general manager, one with a modernized approach that aligns with Hinch’s philosophies, should have the freedom to reconfigure the front office and the culture of its members.
“Our search is going to be thorough; it’s going to be wide, it’s going to be deep,” Ilitch said. “I’m going to leave it wide open at this point in time.”
There must be a team of people in place to get the most out of every player within the organization. If the Tigers search internally, assistant general managers Sam Menzin and Jay Sartori will be candidates; vice president of player personnel Scott Bream is a close confidante of Hinch.
An external choice seems more likely.
The Tigers, despite some advancements in the analytics department, operated as an old-school organization under Avila’s reign. Only recently, upon hiring Ryan Garko as vice president of player development to replace Dave Littlefield in September 2021, did the Tigers revamp the player development department. A slew of other player development moves — such as onboarding pitching director Gabe Ribas and others from the Dodgers — ensued.
Turns out, last year’s player development changes were only the beginning.
The firing of Avila signifies a new direction.
“I’m focused on looking forward,” Ilitch said. “I believe bringing in a new leader in our baseball operations area is going to give us fresh perspective. It’s a real opportunity reevaluate everything that we’re doing and bring new ideas and a fresh perspective as we move forward.”