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Al Avila’s big year has Tigers poised to make some noise in 2022

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There are certainly no guarantees, but a new coaching staff and several smart moves have the club in much better position than most imagined.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press / USA TODAY NETWORK

When Al Avila took over as general manager of the Detroit Tigers in August of 2015, the organization faced a host of difficult challenges. Six years later, with a last ditch effort to win, a painful teardown, and a slow, but comprehensive overhaul of the farm system now behind them, the 2021 Tigers finally took a big step toward a brighter new era for the club.

In the process, Avila landed the manager the organization needed in A.J. Hinch, hit on numerous player acquisitions that helped the Tigers to their best baseball since 2016, and largely completed the overhaul of their front office and player development system. Avila and the Tigers needed a big season to restore confidence to the fanbase and get people invested again, and they pulled it off with a very entertaining season of change.

Of course, major league baseball is structured to heavily favor a tanking club. Getting back in the neighbor of .500 ball is the easy part. Now comes the bigger test: taking a solid, near-average baseball club and developing the organization into an eventual World Series winner and a sustainable contender, the stated goals of Avila and owner Chris Ilitch. This may be the halfway mark, but now they have to take it the rest of the way without top draft picks and some of the other assistance provided to each season’s losing franchises. The progress made this season went a long way to improving confidence that they can eventually deliver, but this is still a front office without a track record of trading for major league talent or signing notable free agents. There is a lot left to prove.

A.J. Hinch

Avila now has a great partner in his goals, and the biggest move of the last year has to be the hiring of A.J. Hinch to manage the Tigers. He brought plenty of managerial experience, a strong background in player development and analytics, combining those elements into a nice mix of cutting edge and old school on the field. Just as importantly, he brought the connections to attract players, good coaches, and player development staff.

Avila and owner Chris Ilitch could’ve shied away from Hinch’s baggage, but instead recognized the major opportunity he represented and made the right call. Assuming things go as planned in the years ahead, the day Hinch was hired will be remembered as the turning point. His coaching staff had more success developing their players than any unit the Tigers have put together since at least 2006. Of course, having young talent makes that more likely in the first place.

Key Tigers Acquisitions

The first and biggest of these was obviously landing Akil Baddoo in the Rule 5 draft. Any full teardown and rebuilding project, leaving aside the big market teams with money to burn, requires that a team find and/or develop a couple of pop-up players who become much more than expected. The 22-year-old outfielder fit the bill perfectly, showing an outstanding set of tools and the mentality to handle an enormous leap in competition from A-ball to the majors with almost two full years without game action in between. The Tigers now have an outfielder with elite speed, plus power, and hard-nosed plate discipline who is hopefully just beginning to tap into the deep well of talent he possesses.

The second best acquisition was probably Robbie Grossman. Picked up at Hinch’s recommendation for just a two year, $10M deal, the veteran outfielder posted the best season of his career, cracking 23 home runs and stealing 20 bases. He provided a steadying force for an inexperienced team with his plate discipline and consistency. In the process he set the tone for the type of player the Tigers want to develop.

Beyond any specific player, another promising development was the buildup in depth, particularly in the pitching staff. The Tigers kept their eye on the bargain bin, but they did a good job with it and didn’t stop with one or two starting pitching possibilities. While Julio Teheran went down to injury after looking great in spring camp, and Jose Ureña’s fast start devolved into injury and ineffectiveness, Avila had more in the bank. Wily Peralta, stashed in the minors to begin the season, emerged under Chris Fetter and Juan Nieves’ tutelage to put together arguably the best stretch of his career. Derek Holland had a good camp, but struggled in the first half. The Tigers stuck with him anyway, and with some adjustments he was effective just as the bullpen started to fade under a heavy workload.

On the positional side, the signings of catcher Wilson Ramos and first baseman Renato Nuñez went poorly. The 2020 deal with Cleveland for catcher Eric Haase went much better as his hot streak in the middle of the season helped boost an inconsistent Tigers’ offense for two months. However, if there was one secret ingredient to the Tigers relative success this year, it was the amount of veteran pitching depth Avila built during the offseason, and Hinch and the coaching staff’s ability to optimize them and plug holes as roster attrition took hold.

Draft and Trades

The Tigers 2021 draft wasn’t all that well received, but it’s impossible to judge a draft with much accuracy at this point. Passing on Marcelo Mayer was surprising, but Jackson Jobe is a very talented young pitcher. Stepping back and looking at the larger picture, if you’d known going into the draft that we’d come away with Jobe, Ty Madden, and Izaac Pacheco in the first 40 selections, most would have considered that a pretty good draft. It was only the availability of Mayer that left a bad taste for some.

Many were skeptical when the Tigers spent top picks on Matt Manning and Casey Mize in years past, but spending serious free agent dollars on top free agent pitchers is usually bad business unless you have a top payroll to absorb injuries and find replacements. Growing your own pitching staff allows for safer large investments in free agency, focusing on top position players. With an awful lot of pitching know-how added to the organization over the past two years, the Tigers will hopefully produce good pitching and be largely spared from risky investments in star free agent starters.

The one notable trade that went down this year was a small trade deadline deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. Tigers’ left-hander Daniel Norris went to the Brewers in exchange for a solid starting pitching prospect in Reese Olson. That move provided a pretty nice return, particularly as Norris wasn’t having a very good walk year to begin with. He was just one of the few experienced lefties available at the deadline.

Otherwise the likeliest candidates for a trade, Matthew Boyd and Michael Fulmer, were hurt in July, and the Tigers chose not to deal any of their top relievers. There was reportedly interest in outfielder Robbie Grossman, but the Tigers didn’t find a deal to their liking there either.

Front office reshuffle

Finally, Avila made several moves in an ongoing reshaping of the front office and player development staff that were a sight for sore eyes. Some of this started after the 2019 season, when the Tigers began overhauling their player development staff by hiring Kenny Graham from the Milwaukee Brewers as Direct of Player Development. The Tigers brought in Dan Hubbs from USC as Director of Pitching and Strategies. They topped that off by hiring Dr. Georgia Ghiblin as Director of Performance Science.

That was only the appetizer however, as late this season, a whole new phase of restructuring took place within the Tigers’ front office. Jay Sartori, who built the Tigers analytics department over the last few years, was promoted to Vice-President and Assistant General Manager, as was Sam Menzin, formerly the Director of Baseball Operations. Avila’s two long-time VP’s, Dave Littlefield and David Chadd, were moved to scouting roles. Those moves had barely sunk in when the club hired Ryan Garko as the new Director of Player Development, followed by Gabe Ribas, hired last week as the Director of Pitching. Presumably more changes are to follow.

The plan is starting to come together

Avila has packed a ton of big changes and several smart player acquisitions into the past year. An evolution that was slow to materialize in the front office and in player development has finally kicked into high gear. At the major league level, the emergence of Jeimer Candelario, the acquisition of Akil Baddoo, a strong crop of young talent beginning to establish itself at the major league level, and the makings of a quality bullpen, gives the Tigers a foundation to build a winner.

As for Avila’s assessment of the Tigers’ time frame, the entire tone has changed from a year ago. There is acknowledgement that it’s time to build a winner.

“By no means am I satisfied at all,” Avila said. “As a matter of fact, what I am is more motivated now because you can see that light at the end of the tunnel. These next couple steps, the next year or two, will be very important for our major-league club as far as getting back to the playoffs and bringing back our fans with the optimism that we have a chance.

The club has a long way to go yet, but for the first time in a long time, the signs are largely positive and leadership is talking about aggressive pursuing talent to improve the club, even if that doesn’t include the huge free agent shortstop of our dreams. Every year they don’t give themselves a realistic chance to compete for a playoff spot, is now a failure. Avila and the Tigers raised the standard in 2021. Now it’s time to start delivering.