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Al Avila’s biggest mistakes in his first year as GM

The Tigers’ second year GM has plenty of mistakes to learn from in his sophomore year.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Succeeding as a first year general manager in the constantly evolving world of Major League Baseball is tough. Succeeding as a first year GM when your team has been in win-now mode for the last eight years, with all the expectations that implies, is even tougher. But let’s not sugarcoat it: Al Avila made plenty of mistakes in his rookie season. Mistakes he’ll have to learn quickly from. Some can be chalked up to bad luck or circumstance. Others can be blamed on his lack of experience. But overall, the free-wheeling myopia that has characterized the Tigers’ organization in recent years was on full display in many of Avila’s worst moves.

5. Signing Jordan Zimmermann

Characterizing the Jordan Zimmermann signing as one of Avila’s worst moves might raise some eyebrows, but there are good reasons for his inclusion. As we all now know, the Tigers are attempting to cut their spending going into the 2017 season. With Justin Verlander as their ace and a fine young core of developing starting pitchers, Zimmermann isn’t really needed anymore. Particularly not for the kind of money he commanded in free agency.

Zimmermann is owed $18 million next year, $24 million in 2018, and $25 million in 2019 and 2020. When you add that to the salaries of Verlander, Sanchez, and Pelfrey you get a total of $70.8 million in 2017 for four starting pitchers, two of whom aren’t likely to crack the starting rotation out of spring training. Meanwhile, the Tigers have two solid starters making pre-arbitration money in Daniel Norris and Michael Fulmer. Fulmer in particular looks to have usurped Zimmermann as the team’s second best starting pitcher. Even the fifth starter role appears to be Matt Boyd's to lose. As a result, the Zimmermann deal looks very short-sighted since the front office saw a likely payroll cut coming in the future. It was a desperation move by a rookie GM under mandate to try to win a title, a perfect example of the Tigers’ win-now posture colliding with their underlying goal of greater fiscal responsibility.

To complicate matters even more, Zimmermann has a full no-trade clause so he cannot be moved without his approval. Neither can Verlander. The Tigers are on the hook for $46-52 million each year through 2020 for Verlander and Zimmermann’s services. The Tigers have to hope for a strong rebound season just to begin to recoup their deep investment in Zimmermann. Right now he represents another immovable long-term contract that ties the organization’s hands as they try to restructure the team under a somewhat more restrictive budget.

4. Signing Casey McGehee & Bobby Parnell and Trading Jose Valdez for Cash

At first glance this may not seem like a big deal, but signing aging veterans while letting young arms go for literally nothing is not a smart way to use valuable roster spots. Jose Valdez was designated for assignment on June 1 to make room for Bobby Parnell on the 40-man roster. Valdez was then traded to the Los Angeles Angels for cash. That is why these three moves are lumped into one bad move, because if not for signing Casey McGehee and Bobby Parnell, The Tigers would not have needed to DFA Valdez, who may have actually had a future in the organization.

Jose Valdez didn’t set the minors on fire when acquired by the Angels, but he didn’t have a terrible season either. At Triple-A Salt Lake, Valdez posted a 0.70 ERA in 25 23 innings, allowing only a pair of earned runs on 13 hits, 11 walks and 28 strikeouts. This led him to being called up near the end of the season. He posted subpar stats in the majors with a 4.24 ERA in 23 13 innings. While the walks continued to plague him, he did maintain a strikeout rate of nearly a batter per inning. For someone who just turned 26 in March, that’s not too bad, especially considering that he only had nine innings of MLB experience before the trade to the Angels.

Certainly, this review has the benefit of hindsight, but many envisioned that Parnell and McGehee would amount to nothing in a Tigers uniform. At the time it seemed foolish to sign them while we could have saved money and prospects by promoting someone like Valdez from within. Sure enough, both players accomplished nothing beyond blocking a 40-man roster spot. In the grand scheme of things this is a minor mistake. However, it’s indicative of the kind of move that becomes a problem when an organization is tasked with becoming more efficient with its roster spots and resources.

3. Signing Mike Aviles and trading Jefry Marte

The Mike Aviles signing was bad for several reasons despite the fact that the Tigers were able to turn him into Erick Aybar late in the season. There just wasn’t a need for Aviles since the Tigers already had a solid utility man in Andrew Romine. Perhaps just as importantly, the signing indirectly led to the loss of infielder: Jefry Marte. Even though they didn’t move Marte until signing Justin Upton, the Tigers would not have needed to make room on the 40-man roster for Upton had they not signed Aviles in the first place. Aviles took up cash and a roster spot, and was entirely redundant.

In case you don’t remember, Marte was a 25-year old prospect who played first and third base. He excelled with the Angels, posting a .791 OPS across 284 plate appearances at the major league level in 2016, which translated to a 114 wRC+. My stomach aches just typing that, knowing we lost a prospect of that caliber only to endure Mike Aviles for most of the season.

2. Signing Mark Lowe

Another doozy by Al Avila was the signing of Mark Lowe to be the Tigers’ setup man. This one really came back to bite them. Lowe’s two-year deal and lack of options left the Tigers little choice but to burn a 25-man roster spot for the entire year or eat the rest of Lowe’s contract. As a result, the Tigers were left with a reliever spot specifically reserved for blow-out games. Lowe’s average leverage index (aLI), which calculates the leverage of each situation the pitcher appears in, was 0.61, his lowest leverage since 2012 and the third-lowest he’s had through a full season. That’s not a relief role, it’s a festering sore on the roster.

Lowe finished lower in the reliever ranks than anyone else in his free agent class. By the end of the season, among 176 relievers with at least 40 innings pitched, Lowe had the worst ERA and ERA-, ranked third-worst in HR/9 and RE24, and seventh-worst in FIP and FIP-. Here are a few relievers who signed for as much or less than Mark Lowe and ended up pitching better:

  • Joe Blanton
  • Jerry Blevins
  • Trevor Cahill
  • Steve Chisek
  • Tyler Clippard
  • Shawn Kelley
  • Gavin Floyd
  • Tommy Hunter

The only pitcher mentioned that made more than Lowe was Tyler Clippard, and he only made $625,000 more than Lowe did. Of the pitchers listed, only one of them had an ERA greater than 4.00. That was Gavin Floyd, who basically replaced Lowe in Toronto.

Free Agent Relivers ERA FIP WHIP aLI Yearly Salary
Mark Lowe 7.11 5.66 1.58 0.61 $5.5M
Jerry Blevins 2.79 3.05 1.21 1.11 $4M
Joe Blanton 2.48 3.33 1.01 1.15 $4M
Trevor Cahill 2.74 4.35 1.28 0.73 $4.25M
Steve Chisek 2.81 3.57 1.02 2.03 $4M
Tyler Clippard 3.57 4.21 1.27 1.29 $6.1M
Shawn Kelley 2.64 2.97 0.90 1.10 $5.5M
Gavin Floyd 4.06 3.89 1.00 1.24 $1M
Tommy Hunter 3.18 3.06 1.26 0.92 $2M

1. Signing Mike Pelfrey

I don’t think there’s a single person in the Tigers audience who can defend the decision of signing Mike Pelfrey, who was signed for two years at $8 million per season. He finished worst in the league in batting average against, worst in WHIP, third-worst in SIERA, worst in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and ninth-worst in FIP among 131 starters who pitched at least 110 innings this season.

There were several starting pitchers who were signed for less than Pelfrey who were far more useful. Among those starters were, Doug Fister, Bartolo Colon, Rich Hill, Bud Norris, and Colby Lewis. Doug Fister, a former Tiger, was signed for $7 million by the Astros. He finished 28th worst in FIP and 31st worst in WHIP. Bud Norris, who was signed by the Dodgers for $2.5 million, finished 49th worst in FIP and 26th worst in WHIP. Colby Lewis was signed by the Rangers for $6 million. He finished 27th worst in FIP and 21st best in WHIP. There were several other viable options, even if you ignore guys like Rich Hill and Bartolo Colon who had excellent seasons, something not many predicted.

There wasn’t a single starting pitcher on the free agent market that had a worse season than Mike Pelfrey. In fact, the only pitcher whose numbers were even close to as bad as Pelfrey was Yovani Gallardo who signed with the Orioles for two years at $11 million per year. He finished five spots above Pelfrey in both FIP and WHIP. That is why this was the biggest mistake made by Avila in his first year as GM. Not only did Pelfrey finish bottom of the barrel among starters, but the Tigers are also stuck with him through the 2017 season. Below is a table comparing the stats in 2016 from these 2015 free agent starting pitchers.

Free Agent Starters FIP WHIP FIP Rank WHIP Rank Yearly Salary
Mike Pelfrey 5.24 1.73 117th 131st $8M
Doug Fister 4.75 1.43 104th 101st $7M
Bud Norris 4.33 1.46 83rd 106th $2.5M
Colby Lewis 4.81 1.13 102nd 21st $6M
Yovani Gallardo 5.04 1.58 111th 119th $11M

The Tigers needed a lot of work from Avila in his first offseason in order to consider themselves a legitimate contender. There were several hasty decisions prior to the 2016 season that cost the Tigers when it counted. The price tag wasn’t the worst aspect of most of the moves, it was the fact that the Tigers were stuck with several overpaid and under-performing veterans who took up roster spots from younger, up-in-coming guys in the organization. Meanwhile, Jordan Zimmermann’s contract could remain an albatross on the franchise’s neck if he’s unable to rebound in 2017. To better manage the Tigers’ conflicting priorities, Avila will have to be much more calculating and less risky with his personnel moves in the future.