Niyo: For now, Tigers' rebuild nothing but blind faith

John Niyo
The Detroit News
General manager Al Avila's contract was set to expire in August 2020 before the Tigers gave him an extension earlier this week.

There’s just one problem with Al Avila casting himself as baseball’s version of Winston Churchill, which is something the Tigers’ general manager inadvertently did the other day while defending his own battle plan here in Detroit.

If this is, in fact, the Tigers’ “darkest hour,” as Avila suggested last Friday while effectively announcing his own contract extension, do you trust him to turn the lights back on? And beyond that, do you really believe his boss, Chris Ilitch, is serious about paying the electric bill?

If you do, fine. Go ahead and ignore the shade the Tigers threw at their fans this weekend as the major-league ballclub limped into the All-Star break with the second-worst record in baseball, losers of 37 of their last 47 games and 24 of their last 27 at Comerica Park.

And if not? Well, I’m not sure what to tell you. The Tigers’ brass isn’t, either, apparently. Other than repeating the party line that’s getting marketed now like a $5 Hot-N-Ready: Rebuild, rebuild.

“And these things take time,” Avila said again — and again — Friday. “I think you’ve probably heard it from other general managers in baseball. You’ve heard it from other general managers in other sports. It’s something that takes some patience, and something that takes some courage, and something that takes time.”

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Avila & Co. would seem to have plenty of the first and last items on that list now, given that new “multiyear” office lease the GM just signed — a move that undoubtedly reminded some around here of the Matt Millen-era Lions. As for what’s in the middle, I’m not sure how courageous it is to announce an extension for your GM, hold the press conference on the Friday of a holiday weekend, and then have the owner who signed off on the deal explain his rationale in a press release.

To be fair, Ilitch did speak briefly with reporters last month, albeit in a much different context, showing up to top draft pick Riley Greene’s introductory press conference at Comerica Park. And if you were listening then — “I have a high degree of confidence that we are headed on the right path and we are seeing great progress,” Ilitch said — you knew this extension for Avila likely was coming at some point.

But why now?

No reason to rush

That’s among the questions that Ilitch should’ve — and would’ve — fielded Friday. Why was he in such a rush to give an extension to a GM whose contract wasn’t due to expire until the end of next season? Some of his staff’s deals are up sooner than that, so maybe that played a role. But the way Avila relayed the story, it was Ilitch who first broached the subject in spring training and the GM who slow-played the negotiation.

Whatever the case, if you’re the owner, why not wait and see how well Avila handles the upcoming trade deadline? With Matthew Boyd, Shane Greene, Nick Castellanos and perhaps others (Joe Jimenez?) on the block, these next few weeks seem like another inflection point. Wouldn’t it make sense to see how Avila handles it?

Matthew Boyd is one of a few Tigers who could be dealt at the trade deadline.

Look, timelines are always murky when it comes to construction projects of this magnitude, particularly when no one involved can agree on exactly when the clock started. Avila will tell you this “rebuild” of theirs didn’t start until the end of 2017, when he sold off high-priced veteran stars like J.D. Martinez, Justin Verlander, Justin Upton and Justin Wilson. Others will argue it started a year earlier when the team missed the playoffs and, with then-owner Mike Ilitch ailing, Avila started talking about trying to run the team “without having to go over our means.”

That’s not the sort of mandate that GMs come up with on their own, obviously. It’s also not the way the Tigers operated as their late owner chased an elusive World Series title the final decade of his life. Quite frankly, it’s not a requirement for a rebuild — just ask the Arizona Diamondbacks, among others. And that’s why it’s part of the concern now if you’re a younger Tigers fan reared on big-market payrolls in Detroit. Or even an older one who enjoyed seeing the front office swinging for the fences.

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Avila insists that when ownership sees the light at the other end of the rebuild, it’ll spend the kind of money required to make them serious contenders. But if folks around here are a bit skeptical on that front, that’s understandable. They were promised five new neighborhoods in the so-called District Detroit when that master plan was unveiled five years ago and we haven’t seen any of them built yet, either.

The Tigers do sound wary of the fan apathy that sets in when the major-league product doesn’t come close to matching the major-league ticket prices. The TV ratings have plummeted and the Tigers, who actually offered discount prices with the defending World Series champs in town this weekend, sit 25th in MLB attendance this season, averaging about 2,500 fewer fans per game than a year ago.

“They’re smart fans,” Ilitch noted last month, when asked about all the Tigers fans turning into amateur prospectors during the downturn. “They, too, are monitoring what’s happening in the minor leagues.”

Where’s the progress?

Yet the smart fans are even more wary of this current regime. Fans closely monitoring what’s happening are wondering if there’s really as much progress as has been advertised. Much like with all that Ilitch-owned property surrounding Little Caesars Arena, we expected to see more signs of construction by now. More visible evidence of progress that’s something is getting built.

Avila, for his part, will tell you about all the millions Ilitch has spent the last few years to build an analytics department from scratch, beef up his scouting staff, upgrade the coaching and development in the minors and put more emphasis on international signings. And that should pay off down the line. In some cases, it already is.

It’s one thing to note the Tigers’ rise from the bottom of MLB’s farm system rankings. But when you’re no longer trading away prospects, hardly any of whom have graduated to the big leagues yet that’s practically a given. And when you’re drafting first overall, well, yes, you should be able to point to a can’t-miss prospect like Casey Mize.

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There are others, including the trio of first-round arms in Erie — Mize, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo. Manning, who has developed quickly and could join Mize in Detroit as soon as next season, was joined by catcher Jake Rogers and infielder Isaac Paredes at Sunday’s MLB Futures Game, making the Tigers one of a handful of organizations with three players invited.

Pitching prospect Matt Manning has shown promise in the minor leagues.

Still, after a stagnant spring and early summer for several others down on the farm — yes, that’s to be expected in this game — it’s fair to ask whether this rebuild is as far along as it should be. Fair to criticize those early trade returns that brought back position players with profiles that don’t project well in today’s game. Ditto the growing list of free-agent signings that have done nothing to help speed up the rebuild. Fair to wonder as well about how well all these long-overdue advances — including the analytics work led by a smart young executive in Jay Sartori — are being integrated throughout the organization.

And at a certain point, just like with Martin Mayhew when he was promoted by the Lions to replace Matt Millen as GM a decade ago, the argument about cleaning up the mess someone else created simply falls flat. Remember, Avila has been with the Tigers since 2002, and most of his top lieutenants — Dave Littlefield, Scott Bream and so on — have been around for years as well.

Some of you already have reached that point, watching another Tigers season flat-lining. Others are willing to join Avila in seeing the light. And perhaps in viewing this rebuild the way the GM says he tries to look at prospects.

“You get worried when a guy starts off bad,” he noted. “But I’ve always said, ‘Let’s not focus on the beginning. Let’s focus on how they finish.’”

Me? I’ll believe it when I see it.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo