Wojo: Upton signing feeds Ilitch obsession

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
General manager Al Avila is obviously pleased to introduce another upgrade to the Tigers roster, outfielder Justin Upton, at Comerica Park.

Detroit — It was deep into the winter and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was worried about his offense, restless for more. It was the classic Ilitch Itch, and Al Avila had seen it and heard it many times.

But now it was Avila’s responsibility to act on it, to satisfy the owner’s spending impulse. In many ways, the Tigers’ blockbuster signing of outfielder Justin Upton wasn’t different, in timing or impact. It’s what Ilitch does, which makes him one of the most fascinating and unpredictable owners in baseball.

The difference was, Avila was the one receiving the calls and making the calls, after 13 years as Dave Dombrowski’s assistant GM. And in his first offseason as GM, Avila has delivered decisively, capped by the introduction of Upton Wednesday. Avila has orchestrated — on paper at least — one of the boldest, sharpest revampings the Tigers have gone through, and after finishing last in the Central division, they’re back in the thick of the mix.

Dombrowski was terrific here, and will be just as good in Boston. But if the concern about Avila was whether he could be the deal-maker that Dombrowski was, well, there’s no sign of a drop-off. Before landing Upton, Avila already had added a top closer (Francisco Rodriguez), a top-line starting pitcher (Jordan Zimmermann) and several key pieces for the bullpen.

It wasn’t a one-splash effort, but as always, the January splash is the biggest.

“We meant what we said as far as just tweaking, and we actually had good plans,” Avila said. “But when Mr. Ilitch said he really wanted to improve it, he didn’t want to tweak it, he gave me the straight order basically to get it done. I’ve been through it every year, except I wasn’t the person in charge. It obviously puts a little more pressure on you, but when you have a good staff, everything falls into place.”

Tough-love from Gibson helped kick-start Upton�s career

Upton and former Tiger Yoenis Cespedes were the top free agents left, but indications were the Tigers were tapped out at the $189 million payroll luxury-tax threshold. The thing is, Ilitch doesn’t tap out, not as long as he’s still hunting for his first World Series championship in his 23 years as owner.

At 86, Ilitch remains relentlessly aggressive, prudence and fiscal convention be damned. While Avila had witnessed it for years, this was his first trip through the Ilitch Money Machine as GM, and he managed it well.

Ilitch was in Florida and didn’t attend the news conference, but there was a respectful appreciation from Avila, Upton and Upton’s agent, Larry Reynolds. Avila called Ilitch “the driving force” behind the six-year, $132 million deal, and no one denies the money (and two-year opt-out for Upton) was the overriding factor.

But Upton, 28, also seemed relieved, as his free agency had dragged on. Avila said Upton was his No. 1 choice, but he wasn’t sure he’d get a chance to act on it. When Ilitch pushed harder, Avila and manager Brad Ausmus hopped a plane to Arizona and recruited Upton.

“When Al and Brad came to town, what sold me most was them talking about Mr. Ilitch as a guy who wants to win a championship,” Upton said. “I want to be in a winning situation, and I think that’s the atmosphere they created here.”

What luxury tax?

Upton said he actually hadn’t yet met Ilitch, but the owner’s reputation and contract offer did the talking. Avila quizzed guys like Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell, who were with Upton on the Diamondbacks, and the reports were glowing, despite some tension during Upton’s early years.

It’s not as easy as writing big paychecks, as the Tigers have painfully learned. But to continually lure prime free agents to Detroit, even on 20-degree days, is still amazing. Other teams offer lucrative contracts but the Tigers often go beyond to get it done.

In this case, Ilitch didn’t view the luxury tax as a hindrance because he didn’t view a slugging outfielder as a luxury. He saw the Tigers were going to start the season with a significant hole in left field, where Tyler Collins or Cameron Maybin was the potential answer.

Ilitch began prodding Avila at the company Christmas party, and after Jan. 1, the calls became more persistent.

“At that point, I thought anything was possible, he’s got the history of that,” Avila said. “He started mentioning to me that he’s worried about our offense, and that never stopped. He kept telling me, ‘You’ve done a great job, but I’m still worried about the offense.’ ”

And Avila’s response?

“I understood completely — I was worried too,” he said with a laugh. “We thought the team was improved, but we still were trying to get better.”

Trust in Avila obvious

The Tigers are considerably improved, although that guarantees nothing in the ultra-competitive Central. They have to stay healthy, from Victor Martinez to Miguel Cabrera to Justin Verlander, and if they do, they’ll be contenders again.

Remember how low they sat last August, after Dombrowski dealt David Price and Cespedes at the trade deadline? Ilitch fired Dombrowski and promoted Avila, and ripples of uncertainty rolled through the franchise. The four-year stranglehold on the division was over, and the notion stirred: Was Ilitch ready to concede the fight and dial down the payroll?

Wrong question.

The right question was, would Ilitch trust his new GM to spend wisely? The answer has been emphatic. Avila is gregarious and well-connected, and wisely has expanded the Tigers’ analytics department.

But after Dombrowski’s stealthy persona, you wondered if Avila would be bold enough to handle the top job and complete the huge deals.

Well, the Tigers have committed $272 million in contracts this offseason, second-most behind the Cubs. That’s faith from the top, from an owner who knows only one way to compete. Avila understands that way, and is showing he can execute it.