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Henning: Tigers GM Avila charges forward with striking candor

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
In a short time, Al Avila, left, has proven to be quite different from his predecessor, Dave Dombrowski.

Detroit — Unless you dabble in clairvoyance, and dabble impressively, no one knows if Al Avila and a new Tigers front office will win.

What we know is, for all the years he and his cohorts worked together under Dave Dombrowski, a different man with a plainly different approach is in charge.

We saw it again Thursday at Comerica Park, just as a new regime's style – and operational code – had been unveiled last month when, first, a slovenly Bruce Rondon was told to go home and think about his maturity challenges and, later, when Avila unexpectedly said Brad Ausmus was returning as manager in 2016.

"It was in my mind 24/7 whether to fire him or not," Avila said at Thursday's Tiger Club press briefing, speaking with amazing candor about Ausmus and about conversations, and suggestions for improvement, a new GM had shared with his skipper.

Avila talked for an hour-plus. He leveled in ways unfathomable during Dombrowski's reign.

Two Tigers starters, 'pen help at top of Avila's wish list

Avila acknowledged that finding a bullpen closer will be a "tough task." He said he would keep "fingers crossed" that Rondon has gotten a necessary message and that "nothing's being given to anybody."

He said the Tigers "would have interest" in signing slugger J.D. Martinez to an extension. He talked about payroll for 2016 ("highly competitive") and about plans to sign or trade for at least four pitchers.

He talked also about his August installation after owner Mike Ilitch dismissed Dombrowski.

"That was really tough on me for a while," Avila said, as he and his lieutenants – David Chadd, John Westhoff, Sam Menzin, etc. – finished lunch and talked in detail about 2016. "It didn't happen the way I planned it or envisioned it."

So, fine. Tigers Nation now has a GM who speaks as if he imbibes on truth serum – and, it should be noted, not recklessly.

Does it win baseball games?

We'll find out.

But approaches are changing, and not only in what is being disclosed – properly -- to media and fans.

Avila is a scout who has worked at every level of baseball team construction. In that context, he has his own thoughts, such as naming a vice president for player development, Dave Littlefield, who had been working as a Tigers big-league scout and who now will spend his time exclusively getting minor-leaguers ready for Comerica Park.

He also will delight fans who believe analytics -- Moneyball numbers -- are key to a lock the Tigers haven't quite cracked. Two more full-time numbers crunchers and a pair of consultants, along with new technology, are arriving, all because Avila saw a need there.

Analytics, he said Thursday, could help the Tigers uncover a future closer. Research might unearth a pitcher now working somewhere in a lesser role who has the stuff and personal profile to free the Tigers from their annual ninth-inning trauma.

Steven Moya

He spoke of Steven Moya and the Tigers' internal questions about a left-handed hitter with immense power and serious pitch-recognition issues. Avila asked: Can Moya slug enough home runs and rack up RBIs sufficient to offset those strikeouts that will arrive by the bushel?

He understands as well that the Tigers do, in fact, have a budget. He knows markets. And given the plans to sign two starters and import bullpen help, Avila knows he likely won't have excess bucks to spend on help in left field.

Reading between the lines Thursday, Tyler Collins can plan on playing a lot of left field in 2016.

These matters, apart from pitching, might mean less to the Tigers customers than Avila's decision to keep Ausmus.

The screams were loud a month ago and haven't much subsided. In fact, Avila's move carries heavy political risk for a new GM.

If the Tigers don't play next year as Avila and Ilitch expect, the decision to stick with a manager who clearly was within a hair's breadth of being excused could blow up on the GM, at least in terms of trust and credibility.

Of course, if a team is retooled in the fashion intended – with a reconstructed pitching staff the first commandment – Ausmus and Avila will be fine. Managers always are as good or as bad as their rosters, a reality Avila understood when he listened to many voices and decided, on principle, to retain Ausmus.

The GM made another admission Thursday. He sat with Ausmus and provided for his skipper a long list of "improvements" he thought the team could and must make for 2016.

"There was nothing we were at odds on," said Avila, whose flair for leveling with everyone will be welcomed – as long, of course, as a certain baseball team from Detroit wins.