Henning: Tigers’ real issue is aging roster

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, right, talks with vice president and general manager Al Avila.

Al Avila is caught, and knows it. He might need as soon as this week to fire a manager.

And he knows it won’t make a lick of difference, not with this team, not when its real issues will linger.

He would say goodbye to Brad Ausmus for reasons any team fires a manager. There aren’t many options when a team is losing, when a six-game skid and sub-.500 record have a chance to turn even darker as a road trip was set to begin Monday night against the rugged Nationals, followed by a set with the Orioles at Camden Yards.

But the Tigers general manager isn’t in step with fans who want Ausmus replaced because they’re sure another skipper would at least boost hopes and chop down on sloppiness they’re sure is part of a team’s 2016 malaise.

Avila understands reality. If turning around the Tigers were as simple as firing a manager, Ausmus, who probably makes something slightly above $1 million a year, would be gone and a new steward would be in charge. Today.

But it’s about rosters. That’s what decides games. The Tigers are older and, more tellingly, their pitching is half as powerful and consistent as it was during years when they either made the World Series (2006, 2012) or were winning four consecutive division crowns.

Avila will resist firing Ausmus for another huge reason.

He doesn’t have a lot of great fill-in answers.

It’s May, not November. In the autumn you can hold an honest interview process, required by commissioner Rob Manfred’s office to ensure minority candidates are included. You also can hire a new man and allow him to bring in a new staff, his staff.

But the Tigers are a month into a six-month season. They would need to look inside to an interim pick, which isn’t likely to be Lloyd McClendon, who is working at Triple-A Toledo, and not because he was a warm managerial body. Triple A is an important job. Not only do you need a seasoned skipper there, you need an evaluator who can tell the Tigers GM with authority and nuance who’s ready for promotion and who isn’t.

If the Tigers pull McClendon from Toledo, there’s a sudden void, not to mention a staff in Detroit with whom he hasn’t worked.

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New manager isn’t the solution

So, that means, rather than Ron Gardenhire or Bud Black or anyone else too many fans believe would do what pitchers and hitters aren’t allowing the Tigers to at the moment do, Avila would likely go with one of his coaches: Gene Lamont, or Omar Vizquel, even if Vizquel hasn’t managed.

Avila would know what anyone who has done serious pathological work on the Tigers understands about the Tigers: No manager is winning with this team unless pitchers, who are limited, and hitters, who can be defeated by good pitching, somehow meld into a contender.

Yes, it’s early. Things can happen. Just as true is that this team’s troubles were transparent when it broke spring camp, when it looked even then as if starting pitching could be a backbreaker unless surprise help, in the form of kid pitchers at Triple A, somehow emerged to save the day.

It isn’t happening. Not yet. And, in all probability, it won’t evolve soon enough this season to change substantially this team’s chance to contend.

What, then, do the Tigers do if a new skipper is as hamstrung by roster realities as Ausmus? If an aging, ridiculously expensive roster ($200 million-plus payroll) is headed for a finish closer to last than first, which could be this team’s fate?

There’s one answer, only.


If they do nothing but flirt with playing .500 ball during the next 60 days, which is the percentage thought today, the Tigers must hope they have enough tradeable pieces ahead of the July 31 trade deadline to convert aging talent and heavy payroll into prospects who can begin recrafting this team for the future.

Victor Martinez. J.D. Martinez. Ian Kinsler. Justin Upton, should a man only 28 begin to hit as his 10-year track record suggests he should — all would be auction prizes as teams beginning to get drunk with playoff thoughts look to give their team an edge.

Anibal Sanchez, should he pitch with consistency that’s yet achievable, would be a target. Even the seemingly indispensable Jordan Zimmermann would be a consideration, all because the return could be spectacular for a team that can’t wait any longer to re-seed and re-supply a roster and farm system that is perilously close to long-term blight.

The Tigers had to face facts 10 months ago when they dealt David Price and Yoenis Cespedes for blue-chippers who weren’t necessarily ready for 2016 but who could be stars in ensuing years. That’s still true.

The Tigers might have carried on with the remodeling act last autumn had Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera been healthy enough emerging from 2015 to have fetched a return, even with their heavy, crazy contracts.

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Precious draft picks lost

But they weren’t marketable, nor was Justin Verlander, who is drawing a long payday in Detroit. And with those realities at work, owner Mike Ilitch’s generous mission to build a world champion in Detroit continued. Zimmermann was signed. Then, Mike Pelfrey, who was handed a contract and a role that have made everyone, including a front office, grimace.

Just to make sure he wasn’t leaving any position undermanned, Ilitch wrote an enormous check to sign Upton, who at the moment reflects a team’s good intentions and bad results 30 games into a new season.

The Tigers and Ilitch have brought this on, albeit with the best of hopes and thoughts. They were so close to winning a World Series an owner wants and deserves.

And yet, because they didn’t get it, the payroll kept inflating, the free agents continued to be signed, and with those free agents not only did salaries go to the moon, the Tigers — here’s the crusher — forfeited too many low draft picks that might have left this team in vastly different shape in 2016.

Three consecutive first-rounders disappeared in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Three players who at the moment might have been critical to a rotation, or to a lineup, or to trades that could have ensued, were lost.

Two more early-round picks will be lost four weeks from now during the 2016 draft as the Tigers’ penalty for signing Zimmermann and Upton.

Make of draft picks what you might, but first-rounders tend to be prizes, and often All-Stars.

It’s probably time the Tigers got back into the business of developing their own talent. It’s what fueled their 1968 world championship (Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley, Bill Freehan, Mickey Lolich) and their 1984 gang (Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Dan Petry).

This season is not yet at the one-fifth mark. Lots can happen. But reality at some point must govern decisions, both in the front office, and in the minds of fans who think a new manager is going to straighten things out, or that bad contracts they cheered at the outset and now disparage aren’t part of the problem.

Avila has a potentially cruel week ahead. If a team continues to plummet, he will be forced to make a decision. And if he thought for a moment that decision would make a true difference, only then would it begin to lessen a man’s potential anguish.


Twitter: @Lynn_Henning