Henning: Why it never worked for Al Avila, and what must work for new Tigers GM

Detroit News

What could Al Avila have done differently during his seven years as Tigers general manager?

What can a new GM do that might end eight years of playoff-exile for a baseball team from Detroit?

Begin with Avila as his Wednesday dismissal is dissected following 20 years in the Tigers front office:

He was a natural choice when then-owner Mike Ilitch decided in August, 2015, that Dave Dombrowski had, after a 14-year run, taken the Tigers as far as he could. It had been a 14-year run and Ilitch decided it was time for a new front-office commander.

Avila made sense for several reasons Tigers fans might have forgotten during a season as damaging, as distressing, as 2022 has been for a MLB team.

Avila had been a strong co-pilot for Dombrowski during the Tigers’ rebirth and playoff heyday from 2006-14. When a baseball team has been delivered from disorder and has gained stability and a couple of World Series tickets, it’s often wise to stay within the existing framework.

Avila first and foremost was a scout. He had baseball in his DNA, as his father had been an accomplished MLB scout. He knew the game. He knew how to assess players.

Avila was responsible for the Tigers signing J.D. Martinez, and, of course, had been integral to the Marlins getting Miguel Cabrera at age 16. Those were but two personnel decisions that explain why Avila was a Dombrowski lieutenant at two MLB venues.

Ilitch knew of Avila’s value, and his personal decency, and trusted Avila to reconstruct the Tigers once Dombrowski had moved on and an enormous clean-up and reconstruction began.

It didn’t work out.

A little help, please

A couple of long-held views here might offer explanations.

► 1. Avila got too little help during seven years from a domestic draft and from international signings that should have provided a core-group of roster mainstays. Instead, the Tigers are playing with a semi-patchwork lineup that only now is beginning to integrate the likes of Riley Greene, and eventually, Spencer Torkelson. Not enough help was provided in the interim due to a deficient intake of young talent.

► 2. Avila was not into aggressive personnel moves. This can be debated, with vigor, beginning with Avila. But what always seemed a necessity for the Tigers was to deal and deal and deal, as much as possible, hoping that volume and trade-parlays could upgrade a roster, incrementally, particularly when that roster wasn’t getting enough help from drafts and Latin America markets.

It’s easier said than done. Imagining trades is a seduction into which we all fall. But I believe there’s room for criticism there.

There you have it. Had either of these two spheres paid off, in reasonable fashion, Avila would be in charge today of a team making the same relative progress it made in 2021 when it looked as if the Tigers and a GM had put this rebuild into fruition.

Payroll? Free agents?

They’re the common bogeymen served up by fans who believe the Tigers’ trauma has been tied to finances and to owner Chris Ilitch’s cheapness.

No.

No.

No.

The payroll and Tigers obligations to elder players were a disgrace when Avila took control. Moreover, free agency was not going to be any solution, not on a playoff-worthy basis.

Any resuscitation of baseball in Detroit was going to be dependent largely on fresh, young, talent arriving within three or four years of each other in forming a roster that could compete with playoff-grade teams.

That didn’t happen.

A general manager does not do the drafting in baseball. He is involved with first- and maybe early-round choices. But that responsibility otherwise belongs to the amateur scouting director.

Same on the international side. An international director and staff are in control there, for the most part, with the nasty underworld of international signings acknowledged.

Trades: They could have helped had Avila been a derring-do, rose-in-the-teeth GM who believed wholesale deals could result in annual net gains.

He instead was more conservative — inclined to ask a lot in return, disinclined to risk selling a player at lower retail. He can, and will, dispute that point, but it stands here as a fair critique, with one big caveat:

The market in MLB changed in 2017 the way Michigan weather changes that first week of November. The bottom fell out.

In an instant.

Put it all together, and it was not going to click. Not during these past seven years. This was tough enough of a job when Avila took command and when Dombrowski, candidly, was fortunate to have left the makeover in other hands.

I don’t know that any GM would have survived fan furor and an owner’s impatience as these now-hollow rebuilding years unfurled.

A GM’s to-do list

Which brings us to the new GM and to what he, or she (hello, Kim Ng) is expected to deliver once Chris Ilitch hires a fresh Tigers steward.

In order:

There will be trades, perhaps a bunch of them. The new GM will not sit still because that person will not have been hired to oversee a status-quo product.

Expect to see the Tigers’ one documented asset — pitching — dealt in multiples. Tarik Skubal, Joe Jimenez, Andrew Chafin, Alex Lange, Gregory Soto — or a prospect who could become something special, Wilmer Flores.

All the Tigers arms and cards will be on the table.

Free agency? You see what that got the Tigers last offseason, and don’t overly blame Avila there. Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodriguez are what you get if you’re relying heavily on free agency to be anything but an expensive proposition that mostly benefits contracted players.

Free agency is for filling in. For augmenting. For adding complementary parts. And they should be added only if reasonably priced and if the contracts are manageable. Otherwise, they can, are, and always have been, poison, on balance, at least when the money has gotten silly.

Other changes will be in place that have little to do with the 40-man roster. At least as it’s currently configured.

The next GM will take stock of what this team has done with its drafts and with incoming talent and might choose to do what Avila was not disposed to do during the years he carried over Dombrowski’s crew.

It is anticipated there will be significant changes on the amateur front, unless the internal candidate, young Sam Menzin, ends up as Ilitch’s choice. It’s difficult to know in such a case what Menzin would identify as changes that need to be made if he’s handed the keys.

Otherwise, a new GM, with a different background, is likely to act in the manner GMs do whenever they take over a pro-sports team. They incorporate a good many of their own people.

There are other issues to be decided.

Miguel Cabrera, as has been discussed, is a particularly ticklish subject. He is owed $32 million for a final full contract year in 2023. It is a given, however matters play out, that Cabrera will get full salary, no matter what he and the Tigers subsequently decide about 2023.

Note that Cabrera a week ago talked loosely about his health and about performances that are beneath his prideful standards and that, well, the implication was 2023 might be in jeopardy.

The next day, a new tune. He was fully on board for 2023. It is not being overly suspicious to believe an agent was on the phone with him about as quickly as those earlier musings had been made public.

So, a new GM, not wanting to all but forfeit the brand of offense a team rightfully expects from a designated hitter, would be of a mind to have a new DH next year.

Fine. But what about a town and a team’s respect for a superstar who will be entering the Hall of Fame as a first-ballot certainty?

A couple of possibilities there:

Cabrera, doctors, and the Tigers will discuss this autumn where he is, physically, and prospects he can swing a bat with authority as he turns 40 next April.

They could decide then and there: It’s been a career, a glorious career, but neither party needs 2023. Cabrera is paid in full, a gala Miguel Cabrera Farewell is scheduled for spring of 2023, and a new GM gets on with the business of finding a new DH.

Scenario two: Cabrera decides to at least give it a go during spring camp. He makes it through, decides he’s capable of helping and earning his pay, and goes north with the team.

If he can’t contribute, he can decide to call it a wrap. The Goodbye Miguel Festival will dwarf anything Lou Whitaker last weekend experienced.

Either way, this would seem to be a percentage bet on how Cabrera’s problematic final year might be resolved.

Other questions loom ahead of Chris Ilitch’s choice as new supreme allied commander for Tigers baseball:

► AJ Hinch. It is believed he will stick as manager. But anything’s possible. It will depend on how he and the new GM view each other.

► Ryan Garko, the new director of player development. He has less profile than any lieutenant in the Tigers galaxy, but he has one of its most important jobs and is less than a year into reconstructing the team’s minor-league tooling and teaching.

Not a big issue, but it’s an example of the uncertainty, as well as the possibilities, that loom a day after the Al Avila Era met its end.

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

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