Henning: Avila in tough spot to keep Tigers in hunt

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Fifth in a series that previews the 2017 MLB season. Today: Detroit Tigers leadership.

Ideally, a new general manager takes over when a team’s on the rocks and fans have begun to hunker down for a bruising rebuilding stretch.

Tigers general manager Al Avila, left, is tasked with trying to win now with a veteran-heavy lineup, while still trying to spin off older players to help bring young talent to the team.

Or, the GM assumes command when a team’s rolling, with past playoff runs a preview of more fun, and maybe a championship or two, ahead.

A third scenario is not recommended for GMs intent on pleasing fans, and perhaps, bosses.

This happens when a general manager inherits a team that probably is past its prime. This is a team beginning to recede minus the clean-slate capital that comes with an all-out rebuilding project.

This essentially was the job Al Avila inherited 19 months ago after Dave Dombrowski had been released as Tigers GM.

The Tigers had been to the playoffs the previous four seasons and five of the past nine. They had played in two World Series.

But they were beginning in 2015 to show the unmistakable signs of a franchise in double trouble. The Tigers’ roster was aging. And it was super-expensive, making it more difficult — as the market has since confirmed — to make trades that would reclaim youth and prospects lost during late owner Mike Ilitch’s all-out push to win a world championship.

Avila is being asked to oversee dual ends of a strategic plan that pretty much is in conflict with itself.

Goal one: Try and win with the high-profile, highly paid cast you inherited. Goal two: At the same time, try and avoid a full-blown rebuilding job by spinning off older, expensive players for more cost-efficient youth who will help bridge the old and new eras of Tigers history.

Good luck there, Mr. GM.

“It’s a whole different ballgame,” Avila acknowledged heading into 2017, speaking of baseball’s new business discipline and how these times differ from the Tigers’ old spend-and-sign days.

Mixed reviews

Into this new big-league realm Avila must preside in his second full season as Tigers commander. No one can predict with an ounce of certainty how his tenure will be judged. No one knows how long it might last.

What we know is this.

Avila inherited in late summer of 2015 a Tigers team that was about to finish 74-87 and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

He then got busy reassembling a club that might yet make a World Series parade the ultimate moment in an aging owner’s long, otherwise gratifying life.

He oversaw roster repairs that helped the Tigers win 12 more games in 2016 but miss, by a game or two (the Tigers played 161 rather than 162 when the final game became academic) of cracking the playoffs.

Avila’s scorecard in his first full year as GM ended in mixed reviews.

He made a seemingly slick trade for a bullpen closer, Francisco Rodriguez, who had 44 saves and cost the Tigers a so-so prospect in Javier Betancourt.

He added a back-up catcher (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) who on balance was a plus. He traded for an outfielder (Cameron Maybin) who had his best-ever season in the big leagues – until a payroll squeeze later mandated that his option not be picked up and a trade was necessary. Avila also dealt for reliever Justin Wilson (mostly good until he wore out at the end of 2016).

On the red-ink side, Avila went along with endorsements on Mike Pelfrey, a right-handed starter with discomforting career numbers who nonetheless was signed to a two-year, $16-million deal. His 2016 season pretty much was a disaster.

Avila invested another $11 million (two years) in a reliever, Mark Lowe, who might have been over-assessed, but who should have been much better than Lowe was in 2016. He also brought aboard a supposed handyman, Mike Aviles, who was available when Avila had little money to spend on a bench player. Aviles confirmed that, in life, you do indeed get what you pay for. Aviles was gone, mercifully, by mid-season.

Avila did sign two mega-bucks free agents as he and his owner made a desperate attempt to snatch that World Series trophy Mike Ilitch so badly wanted.

Jordan Zimmermann was Avila’s pick as the top-end starting pitcher Detroit required. He started beautifully, but a neck injury soon ruined 2016 and ensured. Zimmermann’s early grade would be incomplete.

Justin Upton, a left fielder, was Ilitch’s call as the owner fretted about the outfield and a soft spot in manager Brad Ausmus’ lineup. Upton had a first four months straight from a Stephen King novel, then caught a thermonuclear tailwind and ended up slamming 31 homers.

After a slow start, outfielder Justin Upton finished strong to belt 31 home runs in his first season in Detroit.

Market shifts

So, what’s it all say — Avila’s stack of plus and minus moves — about a GM and his long-term skills?

Unfortunately, not enough to base any verdicts, good or bad. Nor is the Tigers’ current situation much of a measuring stick. That’s because baseball’s marketplace decided in the past six months to stand on its head.

After decades of pumping contracts higher and higher in dollars and years, big-league teams opted — ironically, after a record-breaking profits year in 2016 — to throttle back and begin valuing younger, less costly talent.

This is fine if you have a young or inexpensive team. It’s poison if you’re in the Tigers’ situation. The Tigers owe hundreds of millions in guaranteed contracts to men (Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Zimmermann, etc.) well into their 30s. Try and offload those contracts on any team, let alone ask for younger talent in return.

Teams simply aren’t interested this year in trading for high-profile people if those celebrity players are old and expensive. This is where Avila could find himself in the dilly of all pickles, not much of which was his choosing.

“You can only deal what the market allows,” Avila said of a trade mart that had made deals all but futile —unless you have young, salary-friendly players to offer, which the Tigers really don’t. “With the new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement), clubs want under-control players (players years from free agency) and they’re placing higher value than ever on those players.

“Even guys on maybe the cusp of being big-leaguers — guys not even proven, but with some potential — clubs are hanging onto.”

This could mean trouble for a certain Comerica Park team.

If the Tigers play so-so baseball in 2017 and the market doesn’t revert to past form — if teams aren’t interested at July’s deadline in trading young flesh for some of Detroit’s established stars — the Tigers will continue to unravel. They’ll steadily shed payroll that now has them paying luxury-tax fines, but they won’t be infusing a needy farm system with necessary young talent, as Dombrowski was able to do in July 2015, when he added Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matthew Boyd, and JaCoby Jones.

Avila, no matter how clever he might be in concocting “creative” trades, can’t overcome a marketplace that has turned as frigid as baseball’s trade mart has become in the past year.

And if he can’t pull off a trade or two that helps in the manner those 2015 deals pumped plasma into the Tigers’ roster, the result likely won’t be pretty.

Tigers owner Chris Ilitch speaks with the media before a spring-training game against the Baltimore Orioles in February in Lakeland, Florida.

A long, protracted baseball rebuilding project likely will be coming to Comerica Park, which won’t be any happier news for fans than it stands to be for Avila and his front office.

For now, anyway, Chris Ilitch, who has assumed authority following his father’s death, understands the situation and will be patient and supportive with Avila.

Chris Ilitch is aware of the new market. He appreciates the economic sanity of reversing his father’s course and going younger and less expensive with the Tigers. The dividend can be as important competitively (more speed, for example) as it is from a fiscal perspective.

Chris Ilitch also is big on drafting and developing homegrown talent, which pretty much is everyone’s plan. Unless, of course, you study the Detroit Tigers from 2004-16 when the push was to win now, no matter if expensive free agents, forfeited draft picks (as compensation for signing big-name stars), and trades that sent young Tigers talent elsewhere, conspired to leave the Tigers in today’s soup.

Avila could well be the man for this time, even if it’s not ideal for him, or for the Tigers.

He is a longtime scout. He is steeped in player development. He coached college baseball. He played in the minors. He has two college degrees and is big on analytics — bigger than was Dombrowski.

Avila was Dombrowski’s top lieutenant, for years, because of his assorted skills. Ownership, which is particular about its top guns, believed Avila would continue to bring expertise and a rock-solid pedigree to the GM’s office.

It is why he was promoted 19 months ago.

But do not be deceived. While there has been a firm, multi-year blueprint in place for taking the Tigers from their 2006-14 modern heyday to an era of future excellence, how fast that new Tigers contender arrives is, to a large extent, tied to baseball’s 2017 market.

If he can make the deals the Tigers want and need to make — at some point this year — Avila and the Tigers can begin unveiling a new-model baseball product soon.

If not, then prepare for some lengthy and lean years. Rebuilding professional sports teams takes time. Rebuilding big-league baseball teams takes even longer.