Henning: Avila completes Tigers shopping list in style

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Nashville, Tenn. — Anyone running low on holiday shopping ideas, especially if bound by a reasonable budget, might want to toss the list at Al Avila.

He just knocked off a shopping trip in nearly record time that filled the Tigers’ bags and boxes with most of what they were hunting ahead of 2016. Three relief pitchers for their battered bullpen. Two starters for a rotation that needed heavy armaments. A left-fielder. A back-up catcher.

And he did it in his first autumn as Tigers general manager.

Wednesday’s final, essential prize was left-handed reliever Justin Wilson, a power-armed, probable set-up man the Tigers got in an affordable deal (Detroit’s trade goods: prospect pitchers Chad Green and Luis Cessa) with the Yankees.

“This is the kind of guy we were really excited to have,” Avila said Wednesday evening in the Tigers suite at Opryland, where this week’s Winter Meetings are about to wrap up. “If you want a quality arm, this is a major-league pitcher.”

Moving quickly

Dave Dombrowski was known as a trade artist extraordinaire during his 14 years in Detroit. Dombrowski always knew what his team needed, what owner Mike Ilitch could afford and would allow. A front-office ramrod of Dombrowski’s energy and drive generally worked quickly to get his chosen guys.

Avila’s deals the past four weeks have been done in a similar blur. It’s impressive and not a little bit surprising, given the quantity of needs and a market that again has been crazier than forecasts suggested.

“The first thing I told Mr. Ilitch,” Avila said Wednesday, flanked by manager Brad Ausmus and assistant GM David Chadd, “our No. 1 priority is going to be pitching.”

He had to begin by transplanting a couple of tall oaks in the Tigers’ denuded rotation.

On came Jordan Zimmermann, a thoroughbred starter, all courtesy of Ilitch’s checkbook that allowed a five-year, $110-million deal.

Less dramatically, the Tigers signed a back-end starter, Mike Pelfrey, whom Avila and Chadd see as bringing serviceable innings to Ausmus’ rotation.

Earlier, the Tigers had landed perhaps the most problematic pitcher they were obliged to find during this offseason safari, a bullpen closer. They got Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers in a relatively inexpensive trade.

This week, Avila chopped into the free-agent underbrush and found another desperately needed reliever, right-hander Mark Lowe.

And that led to Wednesday’s deal when the Tigers GM hooked up with Brian Cashman to finalize the trade for Wilson, whose mid-90s fastball and hard slider should make Comerica Park’s customers breathe easier during those always-tense eighth innings.

Avila, Chadd, and their scouts had earlier gotten a useable left-field option in Cameron Maybin, along with a left-handed hitting back-up catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia. It was solid, maybe laudable, bargain-hunting for a team that already was carrying too many payroll pounds and had to be careful with its dollars ahead of 2016.

Bullpen needed help

Avila acknowledged during Wednesday’s session a reality everyone from Ilitch to Comerica’s bleacher gang understood. Past seasons of turmoil and tears stemming from the Tigers’ incendiary bullpen had to finally, conclusively, be eliminated.

The Tigers lost a World Series opportunity, stretched across their doorstep, in 2013 when the bullpen collapsed at Boston during that season’s American League Championship Series.

They had dealt with too much anguish the past three years crafted by Jose Valverde, or Joe Nathan, or Bruce Rondon, or (on rare occasions) Joaquin Benoit, and others who turned late innings and noble work from starters into desolation as leads exploded and games were given away.

It had to stop. The bullpen stress, as well as the aches created by last year’s rotation stress.

Avila in his first lap as GM has done amazing work. In rapid fashion.

It should be an indicator of things to come. In which case Ilitch picked the right man to handle a new direction for a team that looks as if it’s steadily adding muscle. And maybe a return to contention.