“Changes are coming,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said at his year end press conference in October. Avila has had a lot to say this offseason. In fact, he’s been downright chatty when it comes to discussing everything from the Tigers long-range plans, to goals for the team’s payroll, to which players he’d consider dealing and which ones have had interest from other clubs.
Avila talked so much that fans were worked into a frenzy, expecting this to be the year that the Tigers cleaned out their clubhouse and sold all the cash-heavy players, getting leaner and younger in hopes of competing a few years down the road. Then he went into the MLB winter meetings talking about how the team might be willing to exceed the luxury-tax amount after all, and people started thinking this might be a year for the Tigers to buy big again. Ultimately, he said he wasn’t surprised they’d done nothing.
Everyone else, however, was starting to question just which one of these narratives was the right one, and what exactly fans were supposed to expect for the coming year.
So let’s take a look at some of the major statements made by Al Avila in the last several months.
“... younger and more athletic ...”
This was Al’s first big comment to reporters back in October of this year, and was the inciting statement that left people thinking a big fire sale might be imminent. He said, “The way we’re approaching this off-season, it’s not going to really be an exact science. We have to be open-minded to anything.”
For a team that has spent several seasons going by the Dave Dombrowski approach of big trades and big-name free agent signings, standing pat is going to feel strange. Avila pointed out that in the 2015 offseason the team’s objectives were to find starting pitchers and a left-fielder, roles that were ultimately filled by Mike Pelfrey, Jordan Zimmermann, and Justin Upton.
Avila is plainly aware that the center field position will need to be filled, but he’s also gone on record saying that he doesn’t necessarily believe free-agent signings are the smart way to build a team, but rather good drafting and building from within. “We’re going to be more reliant on scouting and player development. We’re going to sign, develop and keep our good prospects, as opposed to utilizing them in trades.” All of this goes with the general theme of wanting a younger and leaner team going forward, but Avila’s Rule 5 Draft selections don’t seem to align with this way of thinking, and his hesitation to use players like JaCoby Jones and Joe Jiminez make some wonder how he plans to put this “younger and more athletic” mantra into action.
“We would like to reduce our payroll and get under the luxury tax.”
This is a respectable approach, especially for a team that has seemed to throw money around willy-nilly, and not always in ways that have paid off. Currently the Tigers have the heftiest payroll in baseball, and with the new collective bargaining agreement, the more they push themselves over the limit, the more it comes back to bite them. Avila is probably feeling a lot of pressure from ownership to win, but also to do so at a reasonable cost. This is no longer the all-or-nothing Tigers of the last several years.
Avila seems to be taking the long approach to trimming costs, however, saying “We haven’t had orders from management saying we had to get under it no matter what.” He’s acknowledged that the bulk of the Tigers expenses are being carried by just a few players, like Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton (if he opts out), and both J.D. and Victor Martinez, all of who will reach the end of their contracts in 2017 and 2018. Avila said point blank, “once that money falls off, don’t look for us to sign guys for $100 million or $200 million. That’s not what we’re going to do. We are going to be more prudent and more conservative in our approach.”
Because the luxury tax is based on where payroll sits at the end of the season, one thing Avila might do would be to pick up a short-term center field solution to buy time for JaCoby Jones, and then move that player for prospects at the trade deadline in July, thus negating some of the cost of their contract from his bottom line at the end of the season. They’d still need to eat part of the year’s expense, but it would be a sneaky, smart way to fix the Tigers problems at the start of the year, but only works if Jones is able to fit into a major league outfield by August.
“There’s nothing I would call hot and heavy.”
Avila said the Tigers would listen to offers on every player, including Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, both players that fans would like to consider Tigers for life. Going into the Winter meetings it seemed like a sure bet the Tigers would deal J.D. Martinez, likely to net some promising prospects. When the Dodgers were suggested as a possible buyer for Justin Verlander there were a lot of exciting options that could have come back to Detroit for the ace. If the Sale move to Boston is any indication, the Tigers might have been able to net at least three solid up-and-comers, really shoring up the minor league system for a long-term rebuild. Instead of hot and heavy however, the Detroit Tigers hot stove remains unlit.
Avila made the statement, “If it makes sense for the Tigers, present and future, we’ll certainly consider it.” Then he let Cameron Maybin go to the Angels, without considering any more logical trades at the Winter Meetings had the club picked up his option. This makes the early move all the more frustrating, because at the time it seemed to indicate Avila was motivated to cut cost and make changes, but as of today it is the only offseason move the Tigers have made, and all it has done is leave a gaping void in center field that Avila will now have to address. He’s as much as admitted that JaCoby Jones isn’t quite ready to step into the every day center fielder position, so the Tigers need to do more if they want a complete team by April.
“The winter is not over.”
He told reporters, “I was clear that nothing may happen this winter. I had a sneaky suspicion that this could happen — and it has. But the winter is not over. Other things could still happen down the road. It might be later in the winter, during spring training or later in the summer.”
OK, Al. Thanks for that. But unless this is winter in Westeros, spring training will be here before we know it, and frankly there are holes in the starting rotation that need to be addressed.
To be fair to Avila, Justin Upton was a January acquisition last season. However, prior to Upton being signed the Tigers had already made big moves, acquiring both Zimmermann and Pelfrey to shore up the starting rotation. As of right now, that Upton signing is the only notable move Avila has made all year, including the 2016 trade deadline in July.
Yes, there’s still a lot of time left before pitchers and catchers report in February. Yes, there’s the potential that Avila could be working on the kind of deal to absolutely blow our minds. Unfortunately right now it’s hard to believe that Avila knows what direction he’s going.
He says he wants to go younger and leaner, but didn’t make any trades that would have netted the Tigers amazing prospects or other young players who could be maintained for several seasons with inexpensive contracts. The Tigers farm system has some good players, but it also isn’t the force to be reckoned with that the Chicago White Sox system will be in a year or two. If Avila wants to compete in the long run, he should have sold more aggressively. And if he wants to compete this year, he should have pursued solutions to plug the gaps. Avila said, “Status quo looks good, but overall it might not be the best decision. That’s why we’re going into the winter with an open mind and see what changes we can make.” Except the status quo seems to be precisely where he’s standing.
He’s said things are going to be different, but right now the only difference fans are able to see is that where Dombrowski was a silent man of action, Avila is a guy with a lot to say but very little to show for it.