Henning: Al Avila faces tough road

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

This week, Al Avila gets an early taste of duties that mix business and diplomacy with a baseball general manager’s more pragmatic tasks.

Avila will be at the owners’ meetings in Chicago, while his new assistant, David Chadd, travels with Detroit to Kansas City, Houston, and Chicago.

Meanwhile, a team will be deciding how this season ends in Detroit. And how 2016 begins. There are issues at Comerica Park. Among them:

Can the Tigers contend again soon with a payroll that has so much money invested in so few players?

Not many complained when Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, etc., were paid exorbitantly to sign long-term deals with the Tigers.

But the downside are 2016 salaries that could give Avila little room this autumn to add essential parts. Cabrera and Verlander each will make $28 million in 2016, while Victor Martinez ($17 million) and Sanchez ($16 million), coupled with Ian Kinsler ($14 million), amount to a whopping $103 million for five players.

The Tigers will be paying a handsome raise to J.D. Martinez, offsetting a wad of cash that drops from the books with Joe Nathan’s agreement expiring.

No matter how the shed contracts and raises play out, it won’t leave Avila an abundance of cash to chase the free-agent starter he needs, the bullpen help a roster demands, and an outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes, the Tigers ideally would like to bring back to Detroit.

Avila enjoys front-office work. He might not appreciate how dollars and roster realities merge once 2015 is history and 2016 plans begin.

Deciding on his 2016 manager.

Last week, Avila insisted Brad Ausmus is safe for this season, which is smart. Avila said nothing about 2016, which was expected.

Ausmus isn’t the reason for a sub-.500 record. Rosters explain realities there. But in sports, dispassionate decisions are made all the time about managers and coaches. And with a new general manager and with a potentially rebuilt pitching staff that arrived via Dave Dombrowski’s deadline deals, it would be no shocker if Avila decided he wanted a new manager in 2016.

If he goes with a new skipper, it likely will be for the brand of experienced man Dombrowski hunted when he decided 10 years ago to dismiss Alan Trammell and hire Jim Leyland.

These pendulum swings in sports are almost predictable. The expectation would be Avila and owner Mike Ilitch will opt for 57-year-old Ron Gardenhire, the former Twins general who wants to manage again, and who knows the division intimately.

Pitchers from July’s trades could be pivotal in 2016.

Realistically, the Tigers can’t count on kid starters being ready for regular rotation work in 2016.

Neither can they exclude Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, nor the overpowering right-hander at Double A Erie, Michael Fulmer, from showing during spring camp that one, two, or even three, are poised to pitch in the big leagues. Now.

The Tigers need so many things to go right in 2016. Verlander must bounce back, and probably will. Sanchez has to avoid single-inning blackouts and pitch steadily. Shane Greene is obliged to find his sinker and be the quality pitcher he stood to be at the start of 2015.

Another starter is sure to be hired between now and March. But no matter who it is, the Tigers probably will need a bailout from at least one of the kid starters to have a realistic shot in 2016.

Fixing, at long last, the Tigers bullpen.

No matter how astutely Dombrowski added relievers these past three years, his percentage of strikeouts was astounding. Some of it was simply bad luck: Nathan abruptly flaming out. Bruce Rondon having Tommy John surgery. Joba Chamberlain pitching great one week, blowing up another. Joel Hanrahan getting reinjured. Tom Gorzelanny incinerating. Angel Nesbitt looking like an answer and then retreating.

Avila knows bullpens are fickle. You require some luck along the way. He needs a lot of it this autumn, even if Rondon, 17 months after surgery, is beginning at last to look as if he can be next season’s closer.