Gallons of virtual ink have been spent chronicling Al Avila's failings as a General Manager, bemoaning our lack of present clarity, and condemning the club's overall 477-656 record since his debut as GM 7 years ago. For reference, only one team, the Oakland Athletics, has performed worse since August 4th, 2015. But the question I've always wondered is why? Why has a man with such a successful tenure as another's "right hand man" been so unsuccessful at his most important and prestigious job?
The answer lies in the steps not taken.
There's little question that Avila's trades have been a mixed bag. Alex Avila and Justin Wilson for Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes? Good! Justin Verlander for Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, and Jake Rogers? Not good!
Market pressures exist; it's undeniable that Avila took over right as front offices became exceedingly stingy with their prospects, favoring 6 or 7 years of likely mid-grade production at below market pricing than a few months of established, highly paid performers. In a game increasingly prioritizing return on investment over raw performance, rentals don't stick around long enough to create surplus value. Even so, the trades of notable veterans for so little has been increasingly painful as a few top prospects emerge, only for the team to collapse thanks to a dearth of viable depth pieces.
One might think the solution would be for Avila to never trade again, but that's no good.
A team can't be built without talent from outside of the organization.
Every postseason, MLB.com runs an article examining playoff team's rosters and how teams obtained their talent. In 2021, the average playoff team accumulated 48.21 total WAR. Look closer, and on average, 19.54 of that WAR was acquired via trade, while only 13.51 was acquired via the domestic draft. That means over 40% of an average playoff team's total talent is obtained via trade, but only 28% is obtained through the domestic draft... also known as the primary avenue of acquiring talent during Avila's rebuild.
Suffice it to say, a GM can't be scared to trade. That will never lead a successful organization. And yet, that's exactly how Avila has operated. A recent article on the Detroit Free Press pulled two old Avila quotes explaining his grand vision.
In 2021, Avila observed that "[w]e don’t have the type of high-salary, aging player that we need to trade to rebuild, per se,"and he was exactly right. Outside of the Miguel Cabrera monstrosity, the highest paid player in 2021 was an injured Matthew Boyd earning $6.5million in arbitration. Not exactly a big fish. However, the comment's underlying message hints at the issues behind the Tigers' rebuild.
Avila himself implies that he sees players in binary: they're either old and need to go, or young and need to stay. Baseball isn't that simple; the best GMs walk a tightrope, balancing surplus value with production as their club pursues talent from all angles.
Going back even further, in 2016, he noted the trick to building a successful team was "through drafting good players, developing those players, and bringing them up through the system, then — as needed — making some wise trades".
Herein lies the issue. Taken together, the quotes reveal Avila's process. Trades are a last resort, a pitfall to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, and to him, it's never necessary to trade a young Major Leaguer.
Unfortunately, that's not true.
Flash back to July 31, 2019. The Tigers are 30-71, the worst in baseball. The team is abysmal, despite young pitchers Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris posting 3.2, 2.8 and 1.8 WAR in just over 100 games. Amidst all that mediocrity, those three were on pace to earn 5.1, 4.5, and 2.9 WAR, and just entering their physical primes. However, only Turnbull was truly a long-term piece. With the farm in disarray and no help on the horizon - per FanGraphs, our top prospects in 2019 were Casey Mize and Matt Manning, who opened the year in High-A and AA, respectively - controlling Boyd and Norris through 2023 simply wasn't long enough. In the best case scenario, the two prospects rise quickly, and the final season of club control over Boyd and Norris coincides with Mize and Mannning beginning to blossom in 2022, to form a fringe playoff contender likely outmatched by the big market behemoths.
If you're reading this, you don't need me to tell you that's not how it went.
One needs look no further than this most recent deadline to see what value controllable, high-upside starters have on the trade market. Tyler Mahle's 2022 and Boyd's 2019 are similar enough that a return for Boyd could likely have included a backend top-100 prospect or two and a one tool project prospect. Speculatively speaking, this might have included Brennan Davis and Justin Steele from Chicago, or Luis Garcia (no, not that one) and Jackson Rutledge from Washington. A hypothetical Norris return should have been less than Boyd, and while the theft of Reese Olson at a later date partially redeemed this, dealing him at his highest value should have returned even more to the organization.
Look back even further, and there are reports that 2016 Rookie of the Year, Mr. Michael Fulmer, drew substantial trade interest during the fateful 2017. The Los Angeles Dodgers were said to be involved before they pivoted to Manny Machado at the deadline. Years later, disaster struck. Reports surfaced that the Chicago Cubs offered a three player deal centered around Javier Baez, while the Houston Astros dangled Alex Bregman as the centerpiece to acquire both Fulmer and Justin Wilson.
Yet Avila said no, clutched Fulmer, watched him return from injury after injury to emerge as a strong reliever on a bottom feeding 2022 Tiger team, and traded him for Sawyers Gipson-Long at the last minute. Another opportunity wasted.
The situation is different now, with the drafted core all having touched the Majors, and all 5 giving reasons for both concern and optimism. Well regarded veterans like Austin Meadows, Eduardo Rodriguez and (ironically) Baez are under retention for years to come. Fast-rising Tiger prospects dot the Midwest. Selling an arm like Skubal would have been over reactionary, a flawed attempt to make up for one mistake by making another.
But that doesn't change the past.
Avila's biggest failing has been his inability to honestly asses the Tigers. Help has been a long ways off; while Boyd, Norris, Fulmer, etc, made the Tigers more bearable to watch from 2018-2021, they weren't enough. The difference between 64 wins or 56 in 2018 simply isn't worth giving up on the potential for so much future talent.
In order to succeed as GM without trading, Avila would have to have been the most accomplished drafting GM in recent MLB history. He's not. Thanks to his self-imposed limitations, he has never accumulated enough talent at one time to bump the Tigers from pretender to contender. A few pieces here and there is all well and good, but a truly talented team is built on an impressive foundation of floor-rising depth and ceiling-pushing superstars, with above-average veterans filling in the cracks.
For the Tigers to have any chance of achieving success with some of the pieces they have now, a new face needs to take charge. Otherwise, they risk doing with Skubal and Greene what they've already done with Boyd and Norris.