The Detroit Tigers shocked the baseball world in August 2015 when they relieved Dave Dombrowski from duties as the team president and general manager. In his place, they promoted his first lieutenant, Al Avila, giving him a five-year contract to run the Tigers’ organization.
But first, Dombrowski left the organization with some valuable parting gifts. Having stared into the abyss of the 2015 season, he traded players who would be free agents after the season. Gone were David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria. In their place were five young pitchers and position player JaCoby Jones.
Avila took over the reins of an organization with a payroll pushing maximum density, right up against the luxury tax threshold. The Tigers had a roster of well-paid veteran players, and their fate would depend largely on those players performing. The Tigers would still be Dombrowski’s team regardless of what Avila did to the roster over the winter. But the team had many vacancies to fill.
Before Avila could do that, there would be more free agent departures. Alfredo Simon left another hole in the rotation. Alex Avila would left a vacancy behind the plate. Rajai Davis left a gap in the outfield and on the base paths. Four veteran relief pitchers — Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz and Tom Gorzelanny — left the bullpen empty.
Avila’s shopping list entering the offseason included two starting pitchers, five relief pitchers, a catcher, and two outfielders, with not much in the pipeline to fill those vacancies other than the recent trade acquisitions.
Avila also had budget limitations. He could spend only up to the luxury tax threshold. Owner Mike Ilitch was prepared to blow past the tax threshold in 2015 while the team was contending, but the July trades brought the payroll back down. Avila had more money to work with than most GMs, but not quite what he needed to fill all the roster vacancies. Here’s how he fared.
Roster moves: Alex Avila was loved and respected, but was also frequently injured. This was one spot that could be filled at minimum salary, so Alex was let go in favor of James McCann. In addition, Al Avila signed veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who had a guaranteed salary of $8 million from the Miami Marlins, but could be had for the major league minimum.
Result: The Tigers’ catching duo hit .199/.275/.348, ranking 11th of 15 American League teams in fWAR for the season. McCann did a great job controlling the running game, but the pair were almost an automatic out in the lineup with a 53 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers.
This is a position of weakness for the Tigers, even cutting Avila some slack because of budgetary limits.
Roster moves: Avila made it known that he was looking to sign two starting pitchers as his top priority, but there would be no replacement for David Price or Max Scherzer. He signed Jordan Zimmerman from the next tier of free agent starting pitchers at a cost of $22 million per season for five years to slot behind Justin Verlander at the top of the Tigers’ rotation.
Avila knew that the chances of getting young pitchers with less than one season of experience to fill multiple holes in the starting rotation were not good. As promising as the trio of Norris, Boyd, and Fulmer were, he would acquire another free agent starting pitcher with his limited resources. He signed Mike Pelfrey to a two-year deal at $8 million per season.
Result: Zimmermann was one of the better starters in the game early in the season, but injuries sidelined him, leaving a large hole in the starting rotation. Pelfrey gave them what they paid for — an average No 5 starting pitcher who would require solid run support to win games, and eat some innings until the young guns were ready to take over.
Judging the signings based on 2016 numbers, they failed. Going forward, Zimmermann still promises to be a top of the rotation starting pitcher, while Pelfrey is on the outside looking in, and the Tigers will either keep him for depth or try to move his contract.
Roster moves: Avila could do a total makeover of the bullpen with the departures of Nathan, Chamberlain, Soria, and Gorzelanny. He would not rely completely the free agent market, where relief pitchers are overpriced for the value they provide. Instead, he non-tendered Al Alburquerque and made some trades to fill the many holes.
First, Avila acquired Francisco Rodriguez for prospect Javier Betancourt. At a cost of $7.5 million, Rodriguez was a bargain closer. Next, Avila dealt two pitching prospects in Chad Green and Luis Cessa to the New York Yankees for Justin Wilson. Then, Avila turned to the free agent market to sign Mark Lowe to a two year contract at $5.5 million per season.
Results: Rodriguez was a solid closer, with 44 saves in 49 chances and a 1.13 WHIP. Justin Wilson was one of the best relief pitchers in the league for the first half of the season, but one of the worst in the second half. Mark Lowe was a liability all year long. Detroit’s bullpen ranked 13th of 15 AL teams in ERA, but fifth in save percentage.
Cessa and Green were both in the Yankees’ starting rotation at points this season before Green was injured. Rodriguez will likely be the Tigers’ closer for another season. Wilson gave then half a good season and may be a productive pitcher, but Lowe is not what they needed and holes remain in the bullpen.
Roster moves: Avila had little money left to replace Cespedes and Davis after blowing the budget on pitching. He acquired Cameron Maybin from the Atlanta Braves for relief pitchers Ian Krol and Gabe Speier. Atlanta paid $2.5 million of Maybin’s salary, so he cost the Tigers $5.6 million in 2016.
After saying there would be no more major acquisitions in December, Avila signed Mike Aviles to platoon with Anthony Gose, mostly in left field. Seeing an obviously inadequate outfield, owner Mike Ilitch authorized the late signing of Justin Upton in January to a six-year contract for $22.125 million per season.
Results: Maybin did everything expected of him and more, when healthy. He hit .315/.383/.418 with a .352 wOBA and 15 steals. However, he logged just 391 plate appearances, leaving a void in center field when he was injured. Gose and Aviles were total busts. Upton didn’t show up for four months, then mashed for two months.
Overall, the Tigers’ outfield ranked 14th in the league in fWAR, but fourth in wRC+ and 12th to 14th defensively, using UZR or DRS. An injury to J.D. Martinez contributed to those problems. If Avila had Upton’s money to spend in November, he could have spent it more wisely in several areas. Still, relying on Aviles was a poor strategy that did not pan out.
Avila was working in a financial straitjacket all season, so he had to sink or swim with what he had. Any other moves would be very budget conscious.
Avila signed Bobby Parnell, Logan Kensing, Alex Presley and Casey McGehee to minor league contracts. Jefry Marte was lost on waivers, and posted 1.4 fWAR with 15 homers in 284 plate appearances in Anaheim, while McGehee managed -0.5 fWAR in 96 trips for Detroit. Aviles was sent to Atlanta for Erick Aybar in a budget-neutral move that cost the Tigers catching prospect Kade Scivicque, but gave them another reliable bench player for the stretch run.
Al Avila’s first season as general was unsuccessful by definition, as the team failed to make the playoffs with a $200 million-plus payroll. Despite the large salary numbers, he was limited in what he could do to fill the vacancies on the roster. The moves that he made were mainly unsuccessful, in part due to injuries and in part due to poor choices, but the future may be brighter. With 23 of 25 players on the major league roster under team control for next season, Avila has things in place for another run at the postseason in 2017.