Henning: Tigers GM Avila feeling bullish about 2016

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — He drove into Tigertown on Monday, four or so hours after Al Avila had left the family’s dual residence in Miami. Al and wife Yamile had been babysitting son Alex’s two daughters ahead of Alex and Kristina and the girls departing for Arizona and for spring training with Alex’s new team, the White Sox.

Wednesday morning Al Avila sat in the glass-enclosed conference room at Tigers headquarters in Lakeland. It’s a dreamy setting, two floors above Marchant Stadium’s emerald-green outfield.

Next door is the Tigers general manager’s office. Avila is getting accustomed to new habits and to a new workplace.

“I keep finding myself walking into David Chadd’s office,” he said, speaking of his Tigers assistant GM. “I’m still trying to figure out where my office is.

“It is different,” he said with a nod. “It feels good.”

Avila sat across a table wearing a lilac-colored, short-sleeve polo shirt. He was as Avila seems always to be: relaxed, conversational, buoyed by baseball’s intricacies.

He understands the Tigers in 2016 are expected within their cosmos to win. He accepts that there’s a contradictory view, shared by many national assessors, which sees the Tigers headed for another last-place finish.

Hale and hearty

Avila believes the Tigers will be good for the simple reason they were so unnaturally socked with disabilities in 2015. Miguel Cabrera. Victor Martinez. Anibal Sanchez. Any team will lose a key player during the course of a season. The Tigers were slammed hard, and for long periods.

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Then came July trades that became the final acts as Tigers GM by Avila’s boss and predecessor, Dave Dombrowski. Those deals, a concession speech to 2015, cost the Tigers three more prime-time players: David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria. They finished 74-87.

The new GM is obliged in 2016 to add probably 16 victories, minimum, to last year’s record if owner Mike Ilitch’s team is to get a serious crack at the 2016 playoffs.

A case could be made that Avila made as many improvements, within reasonable bounds, as an Ilitch-owned team could have expected during four months of offseason power-shopping.

The biggest move was all Ilitch: a decision to sign left-fielder Justin Upton to a fat contract. Other pieces, authorized by an owner who will be paying luxury tax on a $200-million-plus payroll in 2016, were acquired in order of priority, beginning with Jordan Zimmermann, and leading later to Mike Pelfrey, as two new starting pitchers. Bullpen pieces, equally an imperative, also were collected: Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson.

And then, bench additions: Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mike Aviles.

Avila, by about any objective measure, did remarkable work within a budget that, ahead of Upton, had its limits. Moreover, he had few tradeable pieces to offer in any barter with other clubs. The Tigers could not afford to hand over essential young parts a team had gotten in Dombrowski’s skillful work ahead of last July’s trade deadline.

Now it is February and a roster partially assembled by Avila and fully his responsibility is gathering at Tigertown. Pitchers and catchers report Thursday. The full team begins workouts Tuesday.

“I’m happy that most of the players already are in camp,” Avila said. “More than 40. That’s good.”

Depth is key

Whether they and their cohorts can win is everyone’s question. But a new GM believes, with reason, that a healthier crew buttressed by more pitching depth than typically has been showing up in Lakeland in recent years, and by Upton’s bat, could be the formula for winning a division. Not easy, not for a moment, when clubs that finished ahead of the Tigers in 2015 also believe they’ll be better.

It’s in the hands of players and a manager, Brad Ausmus, who are hoping to build something to match all that new construction that is spring camp’s major conversation piece in 2016.

Avila talked more about Tigertown’s changes than he talked about his team during Wednesday’s chat. About, for example, the way in which Tigers players will still pass along a walkway, lined with fans, even with all the disruption to the usual fan venues.

He mentioned early fears that the Tigers, in temporarily losing batting cages and a weight room to the new blueprint, might be getting short shrift during spring workouts. Nothing of the kind has occurred. The fill-in facilities are even better than the old — and this is before new digs are built this year.

He talked about construction staffs and their deference to Grapefruit League fans. None of the sawing, and drilling, and clank-clank of steel and cranes will occur during home games at Marchant Stadium. The crews will knock off and allow baseball to be played, undisturbed.

Concrete will be poured and heavy work that might inconvenience or distract will be done during the night.

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Another plus: the Tigers have a new synthetic-turf field as one-quarter of the quadrant of fields they and minor leaguers use for workouts. The turf allows them to have one facility on days that it rains in Lakeland, which will be particularly useful for the Single A Lakeland Tigers who must contend with Florida’s summer showers.

“What I like is, during all of this, the fan experience will be no different from last year,” said Avila, whose team knows the fans’ pilgrimages to Lakeland are a sacred start to any baseball season.

One experience, of course, Avila hopes will be different in 2016. He wants his baseball team to win more games.

That would be agreeable with Tigers Nation, of course, as it would be for an owner hoping his World Series dream might yet be within reach.