Boston — It was necessary Friday to ask a particular Tigers general manager (Al Avila) about a particular Tigers player (Alex Avila) and the possibilities a GM next month might need to trade said player to another team.
It must be noted that not only does this player at the moment carry the best hitting numbers on the Tigers roster, he also happens to be the GM’s son.
Al Avila was reached in Lakeland, Fla., where the Tigers are etching names on a 1,000-player-plus board ahead of Monday’s first round of the 2017 big-league baseball draft, which will see the Tigers picking 18th overall.
It will come as no shock that Al Avila would not comment Friday on specific Tigers names and trade possibilities. It’s too early when the trade deadline is more than six weeks away. And even if it were an hour before the July 31 shutdown, a GM who last week said the Tigers were playing to win and not move players in 2017 wouldn’t publicly show his trade hand then, or now.
But certain realities are known today and should hold true next month.
The Tigers almost certainly will be hoping to make deals. They are a poor bet to win the American League Central Division. They are a long way from being a credible playoff club. They have a bulging payroll, inflated by an expensive grade of superstar-laden helium, and they need to ease pressure there no more than they need a strain of talented, affordable youth injected into their roster’s DNA.
It brings us back to the GM’s son. Alex Avila, at the moment, is the Tigers’ most tradeable commodity. More than J.D. Martinez, more than Justin Verlander, more than Ian Kinsler, Alex Avila’s combination of left-handed power (a mainstream big-league need), multiple positions (catcher and first base), and affordability ($2 million paycheck for 2017) make him a dynamite candidate to be dealt next month.
As the Tigers prepared to depart their hotel, a few blocks from Fenway Park, for Friday night’s game against the Red Sox, these were Avila’s numbers: .322 batting average, a dazzling .439 on-base percentage, with a fence-busting .635 slugging percentage, good for an All-Star-grade OPS of 1.074.
It’s reasonable to assume those numbers will slide, of course. But probably not greatly. Avila’s power and ability to take walks are 24-carat assets when teams hunt for difference-making bats that can help deliver a team a playoff ticket, or more.
The question in some minds, reasonable to ask, is whether Avila would be gaining much by ripping away a player who is now hitting magnificently, healthy and concussion-free after earlier years when he dealt with too many foul-ball blows to the head. That same player, by the way, is wonderfully happy in his Birmingham home with his wife and two daughters, who happen also to be the GM’s granddaughters.
Future over family
And none of the above makes a shred of difference to a GM who these days has one thing on his mind: building a better long-term roster for the Tigers. At the moment, it is easy to foresee a team next month parting with a promising young prospect, or two, in a bid to add Alex Avila’s bat and lineup flexibility.
Blood, in this case, is not denser than water. Al and Alex Avila long ago knew all about big-league baseball’s realities. It is why Alex was allowed 18 months ago to say goodbye to the Tigers and sign as a free agent with the White Sox, all because he was too expensive of an option for Detroit’s roster.
It is why when he re-signed this year with the Tigers, for less money than he made last season at Chicago, he understood a one-year deal and his impending autumn free agency could, conceivably, mean he would be dealt in July or at another point on the baseball calendar.
So, ideas that family will forestall a trade is tempting for conspiracy theorists but not realistic when it comes to front-office business. And the suspicion here is that next month will confirm just that. Avila is a heavy bet to be dealt.
This is not a great time to be running the Detroit Tigers. It has been said before, and must be repeated, that the Tigers are squeezed in 2017 like no other team in baseball. They ran up a huge payroll in a bid to get the late Mike Ilitch a World Series. They then ran smack dab into a tight-money market where clubs across the board began a year ago backing away from long, expensive deals in the name of hoarding inexpensive youth.
The Tigers are now trying to deconstruct ahead of a reconstruction. And that’s an all-but impossible mission, particularly when July figures to be a buyers’ market when non-contending teams galore will be trying to unload established talent for kids who will be friendly to their future rosters and to their present business offices.
The Tigers still could be involved, maybe even heavily, in some billboard deals next month.
J.D. Martinez is such a good and powerful hitter he could be too tempting for a contender to pass on, even when he is a few months from hitting the free-agent auction block. The Tigers can’t afford him and have never, for a moment, intended to extend him.
Justin Verlander figures to be healthy and throwing in conventional Verlander fashion next month and could be salivated over by the Cubs or by one of the American League East contenders (hello, Yankees). He would approve any such deal. Verlander wants and needs to return to October’s playoff stage and it is quite easy to see that one of those grand-stage teams would want him as its edge just as he so often was in a particular playoff series during the Tigers’ old October days.
There is little doubt in the minds of a Tigers front office and functioning owner Chris Ilitch about the above scenarios.
Chris Ilitch hasn’t held a sword to Avila and ordered payroll cuts or else. He knew last autumn the market had turned on its ear and the Tigers were essentially stuck, mostly because of his father’s honorable quest.
He knows now there is likely to be a glutted market in July and that adding young blood while lopping a luxury-taxed payroll probably won’t happen in any kind of ideal or satisfying way.
So, a team gets on with its June business while imagining various scenarios that might yet play out in July. One of those involves a Tigers catcher. And his fate is likely to confirm that, in baseball, indeed it’s not personal, it’s business.