Detroit Tigers' Al Avila won't seek winning baseball in 2021. He seeks something bigger
Underneath his mask, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila smiled.
He stood outside The Corner Ballpark, the old site of Tiger Stadium, and tended to the needs of families by gifting coronavirus protection supplies, baseball gear and food.
One man asked him for an autograph. "Of course," Avila responded, picking up a blue pen and signing the back of a COVID-19 screening form. "This is going in the Hall of Fame," the man shouted. Avila had made his day. The man offered up another comment: "You should lead the Detroit Lions."
Avila awkwardly chuckled. Avila has enough of his own problems to sort out. A few minutes later, the leader of the Tigers' rebuild discussed his offseason plans.
"I look at it as being disciplined this year and resisting an urge to really try to step up," Avila said Friday. "The last thing we want to do is go out and spend some money that we're trying to get rid of next year or the year after that."
Another awkward moment, seemingly portraying Avila's fear of the unknown. Because if you read between the lines, it becomes clear Avila isn't bringing winning baseball back to Detroit during the 2021 season. Though it doesn't mean the Tigers will flounder forever.
Avila's comments have nothing to do with the logistics of spending or not spending. Rather, his words reflect the franchise's dilemma: Does it inch closer to a .500 record in 2021, while still standing several prospects and moves away from the playoffs? Or does it stand pat for another marquee draft pick and keep its options open for next winter's star-studded free-agent class?
Avila blames the team's inability to spend big in free agency on money problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic (such as no fans in the Comerica Park stands in 2020).
"I am very optimistic about (fans) next year," Avila said. "As we move forward into the summer and into 2022, I think things will be back to normal, hopefully. Right now, as we move forward from the (financial) losses that we came from, and the possible losses we're going into at the beginning (of 2021), it's really difficult."
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Sure, that might be a problem, but I'm not buying that it's holding the Tigers back.
If Christopher Ilitch — one of MLB's richest owners — needed to sign Trevor Bauer, DJ LeMahieu, J.T. Realmuto or George Springer to win the 2021 World Series, finances wouldn't prevent it from happening. But right now, even with one of those players, the Tigers wouldn't be ready for the World Series, let alone the playoffs.
That's the point Avila is trying to convey, and it makes sense.
The on-field quality is expected to be poor in new manager AJ Hinch's first campaign. But it should allow the franchise to get a better idea of what it has at the top of its prospect ranks.
"We want some of the younger guys to get a little bit closer," Avila said. "The guys that are already there, we want them to feel a little more established. There's a timing factor from the economics and talent on the field."
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Avila knows fans are sick of losing: 98 losses in 2017, 98 in 2018, a whopping 114 in 2019 and 35 in the 60-game 2020 season. The Tigers have lost 64% of their games over the past four seasons. And in the past six years, they have four last-place finishes in the AL Central.
"We're looking at long-term sustainability, so you got to be disciplined to do that," he said. "You got to have thick skin because I know people want it now. You get a little attacked here and there, but you know what, we'll see it through. At the end, we'll make the right decisions and be successful."
Making the right decisions requires the Tigers to avoid the wrong decisions.
Jordan Zimmermann's $25 million salary came off the books after the 2020 season, as did the annual $6 million owed to Prince Fielder, who hasn't played for the Tigers since 2013. Both salaries, along with a few others, constrained the franchise and set it on course toward the current rebuild.
In November 2015, Avila called it a "dream come true" to sign Zimmermann, his top free-agent target, to a five-year, $110 million contract. It was his first major signing as the team's GM. But it quickly spiraled downward, as Zimmermann became a liability even when he wasn't injured.
Avila won't say it directly, but it's clear he's haunted by that acquisition and others early in his GM tenure.
"To go in here right now and make a big splash, and then all of a sudden it doesn't work out, and then you're trying to dump the salaries the following year," Avila said, "that's not what we're looking at."
The only guaranteed contract on the budget through 2023 is Miguel Cabrera's annual mega-payday — $30 million in 2021, then $32 million in both 2022 and 2023 — meaning the Tigers' payroll is one of the lowest in baseball. Plus, there's a new manager in town with previous postseason and World Series experience: Hinch won it all in 2017 with the Houston Astros.
Hinch wasn't hired to lose in Detroit. Not like former manager Ron Gardenhire, who was tasked with laying the foundation of the rebuild. But the Tigers also are a step behind the Astros team that Hinch took over in 2015 and guided to the playoffs. Houston won just 70 games the year before Hinch arrived, finishing fourth in the AL West. The next season, the Astros used the pick they got when their 2014 No. 1 overall pick, Brady Aiken, declined to sign to select Alex Bregman at No. 2 overall, adding another cornerstone player for years to come.
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The Tigers are still trying to figure out how many cornerstone players exist within the franchise.
Right-hander Casey Mize, lefty Tarik Skubal, third baseman Isaac Paredes and outfielder Daz Cameron made their MLB debuts in 2020, but they haven't experienced a full season. And right-handers Matt Manning and Alex Faedo, left-hander Joey Wentz, third baseman Spencer Torkelson, outfielder Riley Greene and catcher Dillon Dingler are still awaiting their turn.
It's unclear how many of them will become everyday big leaguers, but the Tigers are counting on them. Until Avila knows what he has in those investments from the draft, he has no plans to significantly upgrade the roster in free agency.
The waiting game can't last forever.
"I do believe that the organization understands that, in order to advance this, we're going to need to invest in players," Hinch said in November. "We're going to need some player development, to have some players come up and contribute. Takes a little bit of everything."
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.