Mensching: Tigers’ Al Avila off to good start as GM

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

Stroke by stroke, the organization-building philosophies of Tigers general manager Al Avila begin to form a picture of the future — a good one.

The early sketches show commitments to international scouting and analytics, and an independent streak that allows him to go against the wishes of fans — and maybe his own team owner.

And while his former boss continues to revel in bold strokes in Boston, Avila has shown an understated quality to his work.

Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox traded multiple well-regarded prospects to the Padres for a closer. Not long after that, Avila sent a longer-odds bet of a middle infielder to the Brewers for a closer with a better ERA and strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015, and a nearly identical fielding independent pitching (FIP) figure.

While Craig Kimbrel might be the better of the two relievers, acquiring Francisco Rodriguez like the Tigers did will get you most of the way there at a much lower cost.

Better than that, the move makes short-term sense while giving long-term flexibility. He’s owed $7.5 million for 2016 and has a team option for 2017 at $6 million.

You can find a similar thought process behind the trade for Cameron Maybin last Friday. On paper the former and current Tiger might not wow. He hasn’t put together a high-WAR season since 2011 after suffering through injuries in 2013 and 2014. After a strong first half at the plate for the Braves in 2015, he fell off before suffering an eye injury that hurt his numbers late in the season.

Healthy, he’s potentially a multi-tool player who can hit, field and run the bases. Not a star, but an important piece.

Maybin came at a low cost to acquire — major league reliever Ian Krol, who few will miss, as well as minor league reliever Gabe Speier — and the Braves threw in cash to cover part of his $8 million salary in 2016. He, too, is covered under a team option for 2017.

So for a relatively low cost in prospects and reasonable cost in cash, Avila addressed two of the Tigers’ needs without doing a thing to muck up the organization’s future.

It might not be exciting, but it’s a smart start.

Detroit still controls all of its best prospects and young players, and can enter the winter meetings in Nashville in December not feeling as if there’s an entire grocery list of needs to address.

Avila has a long way to go to show doubters reloading on the fly is a better decision than a full scale rebuild that begins immediately, but he’s threaded the needle in an intriguing manner so far.

In between the two trades, the Tigers made a quiet announcement that bodes well for their long-term health: additions to their international scouting and analytics staffs that may do nothing in terms of widespread name recognition but can change how the team assesses and brings in talent.

The Tigers have often lagged behind in both areas, costing them in both money and depth. Avila, the son of a Cuban immigrant, has already stated a commitment to doing better in Latin America. And the numbers guys give a multi-tiered approach to a franchise whose approach was sometimes sabermetrically questionable.

No matter the outcome during the next few weeks of the offseason, Avila already has shown a commitment to doing things his own way, rather than trying to please fans, talking heads, headline writers or anyone else with short-term feel-good moments.

Even Avila’s most disagreeable move — retaining Brad Ausmus as manager — can be revealing. You could point to decisions made by a young, brainy manager who seemingly out-thought himself at every turn, and find a convenient scapegoat.

While the easy move would have been to fire Ausmus with a year remaining on his contract, Avila took a bigger-picture view: the manager was not given a fair shake with the 2015 roster and the myriad injuries that kept it from ever gelling.

Instead he chose to give Ausmus another chance, even as a local television station reported owner Mike Ilitch wanted to go with someone more experienced. That shows Avila felt confident he could put together a better roster than his predecessor did and that be believes Ausmus will know how to manage it properly. That’s some moxie.

Parting ways with Dombrowski might have been painful and left many scratching their heads wondering if Ilitch went mad.

Others thought Avila might just be getting an early start as a continuation of Dombrowski, whose contract was up at the end of 2015 anyway. Both thoughts were wrong.

Avila is proving to be more than just Dombrowski 2.0. Not four months into his reign, the future he’s painting already looks brighter for the Tigers.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.