One modest four-game winning streak has at least temporarily subsided the collective panic that swept the Detroit Tigers' franchise last week. From the fans, to the players, manager and no doubt all the way to one apoplectic owner, there rose an inescapable sense of desperation and anger. And more than just the 2016 season appeared at issue.
While the ire revolved around manager Brad Ausmus and a rotating cast of meltdown relievers, leaky starters, or an offense that was seeing ghosts at the plate, there was an unspoken assumption at its core. Rookie general manager Al Avila was in over his head and had spent owner Mike Ilitch's largesse on a proverbial lemon.
If that proves to be the case, the ramifications for the franchise could be long lasting.
BYB editor Kurt Mensching tackled that broader perspective in his Detroit News column on Monday. The initial reaction to Avila's first roster was widespread approval over the offseason. But the disastrous 2-11 stretch over May's first two weeks has tested the faith of ever the most diehard of fans.
After the Tigers signed Justin Upton in January, GM Al Avila appeared to have finished one of the best offseasons in baseball.
Nearly a quarter way into the season, with the losses piling up and the manager well on his way to being fired by the end of the year, the shine is off. If you had to judge Avila’s decisions way too early, you’d judge him harshly.
It’s pretty harsh to judge an offseason by the first 40 games or so of several multi-season contracts. If you do that, you’re going to get a lot of things wrong.
Still, there are reasons for concern here. Avila’s mindset may have been right on a few of these deals, but the potential is there for trouble.
We’ll see if Avila’s thought process pays off better down the line.
The starting rotation is the Tigers' central issue
The Tigers have a problem that stands out like a sore thumb, and it has nothing to do with Brad Ausmus. Yes, it's Mike Pelfrey. And Anibal Sanchez too. The two simply aren't good enough to carry the load the Tigers need from them. The Tigers currently rank 21st in innings pitched by their starters, and 23rd in ERA, at a dismal 4.54 mark. There's little reason to expect major improvement either, despite Justin Verlander shaking off the rust to pitch like an ace in his recent starts. Two good outings per rotation turn is not going to get the job done.
Despite Sanchez's past track record, the decline in his stuff and stamina is presumably here to stay. The Tigers needed him to be a solid middle of the rotation starter, and while he's been better in his recent outings, he's also served notice that he can no longer work his way through a batting order three times a game. Pelfrey has come back from the brink to provide a few decent outings, but isn't the solution either. At minimum, the Tigers needed quality starts from Pelfrey, and as of yet, he's provided just one.
One of the central debates in the fanbase last November was whether the Tigers would be wiser to sign two solid starting pitchers, or try for one excellent one like Zimmermann, and a fifth-starter type. So far, Zimmermann has been great. However the money allocated to Mike Pelfrey -- and, it must be said, Justin Upton -- instead of a good starting pitcher clearly looks like a shared mistake between Avila and owner Mike Ilitch that could sink the Tigers' season.
Let Al Avila play his cards
It does bear remembering that Avila does still have some players up his sleeves. Cameron Maybin, an afterthought for many, suddenly burst on the scene. Spider Maybin has returned to the franchise that raised him, and he brought a welcome dose of speed, enthusiasm, and a couple of key hits right when the team needed a lift. Unlike in previous years, there is enough depth at the top of the farm system to provide an occasional spark, as slugger Steven Moya has contributed in the past week.
More importantly, between Shane Greene, Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris and Michael Fulmer, the Tigers have a set of young starting pitchers a lot of major league teams would envy. Fulmer has shown some flashes, but probably needs more seasoning. Greene and Norris are the two that have had at least a run of success at the major league level. The task at the moment is to get them all healthy and figure out how best to deploy the Tigers' young arms.
A healthy Greene or Norris is capable of being the piece that stabilizes the rotation, but neither can yet be depended on. At very least, the Tigers have to see what they have in those young starters in order to assess the need for another acquisition.
In Avila's first season as general manager, he appears to have done a solid, if flawed, job in a very difficult situation. The Tigers' record so far this year isn't pretty, but the problems this team has are still fixable without doing anything crazy. I certainly don't get the sense that they have played their best baseball yet this season.
The Tigers are not going to go into a full tear-down and rebuild while Mike Ilitch owns the franchise. Frankly there's no need if Avila's experience and stated goals lead to the improvements in the Tigers scouting, player development and use of analytics. And either way, such a move is clearly off the table. The Tigers have the potential to rebuild their farm system on the fly with the No. 9 overall pick in this year's MLB draft. Additionally, an aggressive approach in an international market with several typically big-spending teams limited by their previous spending could provide the franchise with a solid collection of talent to work with as the team's current veterans age out.
For now, Avila and the Tigers have one major task: to find a way to stabilize the starting rotation, and give one of the most high powered offenses in the game the opportunity to get them back in the race for a divisional title and postseason birth. Their success in that regard is the key to the team's goals, both this year and beyond.