“I’m very pleased with the progress of the Detroit Tigers”- owner Chris Ilitch
After four consecutive seasons of winning the American League’s Central Division from 2011 to 2014, owner Mike Ilitch let general manager Dave Dombrowski go as the 2015 season wound down. Al Avila was installed as general manager, with Chris Ilitch taking over as President and CEO. Since Mike Illitch passed after the 2016 season and left the team under the control of his son, Chris, the team has a record of 305 wins and 476 losses, with a winning percentage of .390. That averages out to 63-99 for a 162-game season. Worse yet, they’re right on pace for that record in 2022.
The 2016 season would be the last hurrah for the Tigers, and for Ilitch the elder, as they won 86 games and finished second in their division, eight games behind Cleveland and tied for sixth overall in the American League. The season never had the feeling of a playoff run, as no moves were made in-season to assist with a final playoff push. When Mike Ilitch passed away the following winter, the great purge began that would plunge the team into oblivion for at least the better part of the next decade. Chris was in charge, with Avila by his side to oversee the destruction.
The Tigers lost 98, 98, 114, and 97 games (pro-rated for 2020) over the next four seasons. Attendance plummeted to just 1.5 million fans in 2019, down from over 3 million in 2013.
TV ratings also plunged, as fans were not buying the “rebuild” that the front office was selling. The method, up to that point, was to rely almost exclusively on the draft- reaping the rewards of losing with top-five picks in four straight years. Spencer Torkelson, Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Riley Greene would be the center of the rebuild.
As we discussed at length here, the real problem was flying under the radar. The Tigers were far, far behind in terms of player development, and Avila’s old boys' network was out of touch as a revolution in data and advanced training methods swept the more advanced teams in the game. During three years of tanking, they didn’t find and develop a single starting player, and the farm system, particularly on the hitting side, languished in ruins for most of the last decade.
After a mild resurgence in 2021, with the team posting a winning record after Mother’s Day following an abysmal start, there was optimism heading into the off-season. The team plugged a glaring hole at shortstop, their worst position offensively and defensively, but their choice was the fifth-best free agent available at that position in Javier Báez, who is currently slashing a cringe-worthy .211/.249/.316. Detroit is now the only team in the major leagues with below replacement level production on offense.
Examination of the rosters of playoff teams every season shows that a mix of draft picks and free agents, but more so some savvy trades are features of a contending ball club. This is true for teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees. It’s true for the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Chicago White Sox. It’s true across the board. The Tigers have more than their share of draftees in the major leagues, and they have a quantity of free agents but not the quality of production that is required, and certainly not enough production from players acquired by trades.
Free Agent failures
Avila was allowed one season of spending to try and “win one for Mike”. He made more bad free agent signings during the 2015-16 off-season than Dombrowski had made in his 15-year tenure with Detroit. Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton, Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe, and Mike Aviles were signed to free-agent contracts. All would fail before their contracts expired except for Upton, who was dealt before he could opt out of his contract.
Any free agent signings from 2017 to 2021 would be only stop-gap measures mostly veterans that drew little interest on the market from other clubs.
Along with Báez, the latest free agent signings include:
- Eduardo Rodriguez, who was signed for $77 million to lead the pitching rotation, and is currently on a personal, indefinite leave of absence after missing most of the first half with an oblique injury.
- Andrew Chafin is a six-million-dollar man who started the season on the injured list but has pitched brilliantly most of the first half and should be a nice trade chip in the coming weeks.
- Michael Pineda has been on the injured list since May 14, and only just returned to the rotation.
Meanwhile, the two stop-gap free agent hitters on the roster, Jonathan Schoop and Robbie Grossman, are hitting .198 and .211, respectively, with eight homers and three stolen bases between them.
It seems that every free agent Avila signs immediately goes bad.
What has been sold to fans as a “rebuild” has been a nightmare for baseball fans in Detroit. Payroll was slashed by 60 percent, from a peak of $200 million in 2016 and 2017, down to $80 million over four years. Players such as Justin Verlander and J.D. Martinez were traded for whatever prospects they could get with none of them becoming major contributors to the team in Detroit.
- Jake Rogers began to contribute, but was injured and is out following Tommy John surgery last season. We should see him later this summer.
- Daz Cameron was called up but is now buried on the depth chart in the minors, and hasn’t done anything at age 25 to look like a future piece.
- Franklin Perez has not pitched in more than four games at any level in a season since being acquired in the Justin Verlander trade.
- Sergio Alcántara was waived and hasn’t made an impact with any team.
- Dawel Lugo was released after the 2020 season and hasn’t resurfaced.
- Jose King, now 23, is at West Michigan and is Rule 5 eligible.
- Jeimer Candelario led the lineup in fWAR the past two seasons, which isn’t saying much, but is currently slashing .188/ .246/ .313, and looking more like a non-tender candidate than a trade chip to be cashed in. He came to Detroit with Paredes in the deal that sent Alex Avila and Justin Wilson to the Chicago Cubs in 2017. This was arguably Avila’s best trade as general manager in Detroit.
- Tucker Barnhart has missed time and returned to match Baez’s .211 average, but without the power.
- Austin Meadows began the season leading the team in getting on base, without a home run to his credit, but has been out with everything from vertigo to COVID to dual strained Achilles tendons. We won’t even go into the Eugenio Suarez-like production of Isaac Paredes since being dealt to the Rays for Meadows.
- Nick Castellanos was traded for pitchers Paul Richan, who is in Lakeland, and Alex Lange, who is in the Tigers’ bullpen.
- Finally, Daniel Norris was dealt last summer to Milwaukee in what looks like a steal for the Tigers in getting prospect pitcher Reese Olson, but the right-hander is still likely a year from the majors.
Lange and Willi Castro are contributing, but certainly nothing worth talking about by comparison with the production from former Tigers who have been traded away. The net production of all the players acquired is below replacement level.
Before his departure in July of 2015, Dombrowski dealt David Price and Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline. In return, he acquired Daniel Norris, Michael Fulmer and Matt Boyd. That’s more production in a week than Avila has brought in trades over six years.
I used to say — somewhat tongue in cheek — that Dombrowski had a keen eye for spotting proven major league talent. Whether by trades or free-agent signings, he was largely successful in building a winning team. Avila apparently does not have that skill. One can come up with excuses or reasons such as injuries for certain players, but ultimately the buck stops with the GM and the owner.
Ken Rosenthal wrote an article in the Athletic entitled “Tigers’ mess of a season is the consequence of multiple failings by the organization”.
One take from the article sums it up:
“Rival executives, however, question whether Avila is creative and savvy enough to build a consistent winner.”
The Tigers are not without any signs of hope for the future. They have a proven manager in AJ Hinch and they’ve overhauled the front office decision-makers with the exception of Avila over the past year. They have a full starting rotation on the injured list and their replacements have held their own under the circumstances. Torkelson and Greene are promising, but the organization is woefully short on position talent after that. Six years into the rebuild, the lineup is historically bad and they don’t appear to be close to contending any time soon.
Chris Ilitch declared at the beginning of the 2022 season that the rebuild was finally over. Now, he says that he is pleased with the “progress” of the team, even as they’re on pace for another 98-loss season. Well, fans are not pleased with the lack of progress. If Ilitch can’t see what is obvious to the national media and to fans in Detroit; that his team needs a better general manager, then Tiger fans may have to wait until the team gets a new owner before winning baseball will return to Detroit.
More immediately, with a club flush with relievers to trade and in dire need of some big wins on the trade front, how are fans supposed to be hopeful heading into the trade season with Avila still in charge? Al Avila has already fired or retired most of his initial front office staff long after it was clear they weren’t getting the job done. He’s the last of the old group left, he’s presided over one of the worst stretches in the team’s history, and a change is long overdue. But we don’t expect to see that change in time for this trading season. We can only hope for the best.
How the Tigers were built
|Player||Acquired||Cost||rWAR with DET|
|Player||Acquired||Cost||rWAR with DET|
|Casey Mize||Amateur Draft||2018/1st||2.7|
|Matt Manning||Amateur Draft||2016/1st||-0.1|
|Spencer Turnbull||Draft (DD)||2014/2nd||4.8|
|Spencer Torkelson||Amateur Draft||2020/1st||-1.2|
|Tyler Alexander||Draft (DD)||2015/2nd||3.2|
|Riley Greene||Amateur Draft||2019/1st||0.6|
|Derek Hill||Draft (DD)||2014/1st||-0.2|
|Tarik Skubal||Amateur Draft||2017/9th||2.6|
|Kyle Funkhouser||Amateur Draft||2016/4th||0.7|
|Bryan Garcia||Amateur Draft||2016/6th||-0.8|
|Javier Baez||Free Agent||140M/7yr||0.4|
|Eduardo Rodrigues||Free Agent||77M/ 5yr||-0.4|
|Michael Pineda||Free Agent||5.75M/ 1yr||0.4|
|Robbie Grossman||Free Agent||10M/ 2yr||2.7|
|Jonathan Schoop||FA extension||7.5M/ 1 yr + opt||0|
|Andrew Chafin||Free Agent||6.5M/ 1 yr + opt||0.4|
|Drew Hutchison||Free Agent||700K/ 1 yr||-0.2|
|Wily Peralta||Free Agent||1M/ 1 yr||0.7|
|Jose Cisnero||MiLB FA||Arbitration||0.4|
|Eric Haase||Purchased||Minor League||0.6|
|Miguel Cabrera||Trade/ extension||240M/ 8 yr||0.1|
|Tucker Barnhart||Trade||Nick Quintana||-0.5|
|Jeimer Candelario||Trade||Avila, Wilson||5.4|
|Michael Fulmer||Trade DD||Cespedes||12.7|
|Willi Castro||Trade||Leonys Martin||-0.2|
|Gregory Soto||Int'l FA||Minimum||2.5|
|Harold Castro||Int'l FA||1.27M||-0.8|
|Joe Jimenez||Int'l FA||1.8M||-0.9|
|Jason Foley||Amateur FA||Minimum||0.8|
|Rony Garcia||Rule 5||-||-0.5|
|Akil Baddoo||Rule 5||1.7|
|Victor Reyes||Rule 5||0.7|
Note: rWAR totals are for Avila’s tenure as GM