Henning: Rebuild is on as Avila, Gardenhire shape Tigers' future

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers general manager Al Avila says good luck on the health front could help his team have a better record than expected.

Lakeland, Fla. — So you implode the aging team that is now obsolete and needs to be trucked away in pieces, much like the old Hudson’s store disappeared 20 years ago from downtown Detroit’s skyline. You know it will take five years, anyway, to build a towering new contender people will see as dramatic and impressive — as baseball’s version of a national landmark.

The problem is locals want a makeover. Now. This year. By Opening Day, if you don’t mind.

Al Avila gets it. No one wants to wait for Comerica Park’s magic to reappear along with those regular dalliances with the playoffs the Tigers kept alive for nearly a decade.

The Tigers general manager was parked behind his desk Wednesday morning, on the third floor of the year-old office and clubhouse headquarters that remains the center piece of a $50-million remodeling at TigerTown, the team’s spring-training and minor-league headquarters.

“It’s all about health,” said Avila, speaking mostly about Tigers pitchers who, even if they sail through the year minus a bruise or sore elbow, will not resemble the old Verlander-Scherzer-Porcello-Sanchez playoff package.

The roster is being simultaneously reconstructed and resuscitated. It’s not a chord that can be happily struck. The Tigers spent wildly and collected treasures galore while Mike Ilitch was alive. They tried to win for their benevolent owner a World Series he wanted badly. They just missed.

Now, the changeover, necessitated by age, diminished skills, and by a payroll bloated far beyond its capacity to win. Once a new seedbed — composed of kids the Tigers are drafting, signing, and trading for — takes root, it is expected Chris Ilitch, who is at the helm after his dad’s passing a year ago, will write plump checks for celebrity free agents who can make a difference. But that can only happen once a new core roster is built. That takes time. It is what Avila’s trying now to assemble, all as the Tigers are asked, if they don’t mind, to compete in 162 games this year.

Oh, my.

Expect 100-plus losses

This, most likely, will be the cratering-out year in Detroit’s baseball reconfiguration. Expect a hundred or more losses. Better to focus on the sideshows, which will hint at what should begin to show up sometime next year and beyond. Detroit has the first overall pick in June’s draft. A farm system that got some badly needed greenery last summer will get lusher once June’s draft and some inevitable trades add a bit more flora to what was a wasteland.

Miguel Cabrera

For now, the focus is on spring camp’s major change. Ron Gardenhire is the new Tigers manager. Gardenhire knew what he was getting into. As did the Tigers.

“He’s come as advertised,” said Avila, who last October interviewed eight or so job contestants after Brad Ausmus departed. “The personality, the warmth. He’s a fun-loving guy. But he’s also a disciplinarian who knows when to drop the hammer.”

Most of the hammer-dropping has been done behind the scenes.

“No, you’re going,” he will say to a player who didn’t expect to be part of the next day’s long bus ride to somewhere in Grapefruit League land. “You’re playing. No two-days-off.”

There have been other, private moments in Gardenhire’s good-cop, bad-cop duality. A bit of a window there came Tuesday when Gardenhire let it be known in uncommon detail that he had told talented young catcher Jake Rogers to tone down the “flashiness.” He had hit shortstop Jose Iglesias with a similar critique.

This is how young players get a necessary lesson in baseball comportment and why graying players — Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, etc. — respect Gardenhire. The elder Tigers knew his ways when Gardenhire ran the Twins. They were ready in 2018 for his brand of good-natured tough love.

And, of course, it won’t make a great deal of difference on the win-loss side. Players and pitchers still dictate there, pitching particularly. The Tigers are trying to stitch together a rotation of Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Francisco Liriano, and Mike Fiers, with Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris free to push their way onto the stage.

The bullpen is, as always, a mystery movie. There are some quality arms: Shane Greene, Alex Wilson, Joe Jimenez, Drew VerHagen, etc., but few guarantees. And as issues with starters inevitably mount, a bullpen gets further taxed and, quite possibly, further hammered.

Now you know why some view this team as a virtual lock to lose 100 or more games.

Help is coming

Avila knows he has arms percolating on the farm. But they are, in most cases, at least a year away and more like two or three seasons from being able to help dramatically.

The lineup isn’t quite as suspect. But it’s lower-grade than in 2017 and not about to offset some scary pitching. Miguel Cabrera is healthy and taking Cabrera-like cuts. Nick Castellanos is evolving into a star hitter. Jeimer Candelario, the new man at third, has talent.

Dixon Machado isn’t Ian Kinsler, but his bosses like what he’s showing, defensively and offensively. James McCann is still growing at catcher, Mikie Mahtook should be competent in left field, new center-fielder Leonys Martin has been one of spring camp’s pluses, while Martinez, who looked as if he was finished at the end of 2017, has roared back at age 39 and will hang on at designated hitter, at least for the foreseeable weeks and months.

JaCoby Jones

Avila knew when last season’s misery (64-98 record) ceased that Martinez would be back, providing some heart issues, since resolved, were history. It was cinched after some sudden strains with teammates had smoothed. The rift had to do with an August beanball bash. But it wasn’t the entire story of a player whose disposition had taken a turn ahead of August’s brawl with the Yankees.

The clubhouse air cleared. There were hugs, genuine and not staged, when Martinez exited the team’s Comerica Park quarters and headed for a cardiac procedure, his season finished.

Had there been no repairs with his baseball brothers, Martinez was out. But the bonhomie was back and so has been his bat in spring training. The Tigers and Martinez will see how long the good swings last for a man nine months from 40.

There are a handful of roster duels playing out two weeks before the Tigers grab their snow shovels and meet the Pirates on Opening Day at Comerica Park.

The deepest intrigue centers on JaCoby Jones, who has decided swinging at strikes is better than striking out on bad pitches, and who appears — careful of that word in spring camp — to be harnessing that magnificent athleticism a center-fielder and third baseman so uniquely displays.

It helps that he has a minor-league option to burn. The Tigers want Jones to get every at-bat necessary as he hints at corralling that splendid upside. But they don’t want to prematurely plant him as a starter in Detroit, or waste plate appearances as a part-timer. Especially if it means saying goodbye to Victor Reyes, the 23-year-old, switch-hitting outfielder they got in December’s Rule 5 draft and who either must be kept on the 25-man roster in 2018 or returned to the Diamondbacks.

“Every day he does something to impress us,” said Avila, speaking of a man who is 6-foot-3, who appears to be far thicker than his listed 170 pounds, and a player the Tigers believe will add crunch to his hitting profile. “There’s no reason why he shouldn’t grow in power.”

His arm is beneath sea level, for sure, but Avila says Reyes — if he stays — will be placed on a heavy throwing program the Tigers are adding to their overall developmental system.

Stealing a serviceable, and potentially valuable, big-league outfielder is why the Tigers took Reyes with that first overall Rule 5 pick in December rather than a relief pitcher who might have helped. Options are few when Rule 5 players aren’t good enough to make their club’s 40-man roster and become prey for another club. But when you pick as early as the Tigers, you have a shot.

They gambled on Reyes over a reliever they liked very much, Anyelo Gomez, who is applying for work with the Braves after Gomez failed to make the Yankees’ 40-man cut. The Tigers might wish they had gone a different path, but Reyes has been showing enough to sanction those December thoughts, and it would be a surprise if they didn’t take him north.

Niko Goodrum, a one-time, second-round pick by the Twins, is also pushing for a job the Tigers are glad they needn’t decide for a couple of weeks.

“Extra guys are excruciating,” said Avila, who brought aboard even more infielders ahead of 2018, including ex-Cardinals regular Pete Kozma, who saved Tuesday’s game against the Yankees with a spectacular play at shortstop.

Interesting, that word Avila used — “excruciating.”

There will be games, too many of them in 2018, when fans will use the same term, or something similar and less printable.

But it’s part of that cyclical process sports, and particularly baseball, asks fans to endure ahead of what should be merrier times ahead. It’s begun, this re-do at Comerica Park. It was overdue. It’s here, with plenty of agony and maybe, down the road, some ecstasy headed Detroit’s way.