Tiger Talk: Disappointing season could fall on Avila

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

I don’t typically put restrictions on Tuesday Tiger Talk, but this week I just had to. I have bullpen fatigue. Specifically, closer fatigue. I can’t answer anymore questions about Francisco Rodriguez. Not now. The topic’s been written about and talked about ad nauseam, and anybody that tells you they have the solution is wrong. Here’s what I know: The dude’s getting up there in years. His stuff isn’t the same. And the Tigers have a closer problem. There. That’s all I’ve got.

Now, onto the other issues surrounding this baseball team.

Tigers general manager Al Avila (center) was unable to made a significant move at the trade deadline last season, and was unable to make a move to help the team’s bullpen this offseason.

Q. Is #Tigers Ausmus on a short leash after this year or does Al take the blame if this is another busted season? — Mike McCoy (@mccoym03)

A. Nobody really knows the answer to the first part of this question. Us in the media have thought for well over a year now that Ausmus was on a short leash, but he’s still standing, and managing the Tigers for the fourth season. It’s easy to say he should take the team to the playoffs or be out of a job, given the team’s nearly $200 million payroll. But it’s not anywhere close to that simple.

Which means ... yes, this is likely squarely on Al Avila’s shoulders. Not all the bloated contracts are Avila’s fault, of course. It was Mike Ilitch who pushed for the premature Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander extensions, and the Anibal Sanchez contract.

But Avila did mark his first offseason as Tigers’ front-office czar by signing Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe. Those are his Big Four transactions since taking over for Dave Dombrowski. Not exactly the rosiest resume, eh?

To be succinct, though, here’s my short answer: The Ilitches hired Avila, so the rope could be longer there. Avila didn’t hire Ausmus. Do the math.

Q. Do you have confidence in Avila from this point forward? Trading JD, FAs, etc... — The Nuts (@the_nuts_)

A. When Avila took over for Dombrowski in the summer of 2015, I didn’t necessarily consider it an upgrade to the Tigers’ front office. But I figured some things might improve, particularly on the talent-evaluation front, because that is Avila’s background.

Dombrowski is the master of the big deal, acquiring star players that you and I could identify as quality additions.

Avila was considered more shrewd in his talent evaluation, perhaps able to find better value. So far, though, that hasn’t been the case. Again, he’s the guy who signed Pelfrey, whom the Tigers are paying to pitch for the White Sox, and Lowe, whom the Tigers are paying to pitch for the Mariners. More disturbing, a) at last year’s trade deadline, with the Tigers in playoff position, he couldn’t pull the trigger on a single move, and b) this offseason, knowing the state of the bullpen, he wasn’t able to make a single quality addition, despite relievers being the most cost-effective commodity in baseball — which would’ve fit with the Tigers’ cost-cutting situation.

Brad Ausmus, right, is in his fourth season as Tigers manager.

Q. Is Brad Ausmus handling the bullpen better overall, even though there is K-Rod issue? — Al Johnson (@BigAlHere1212)

A. The Bless You Boys blog wrote an article on this topic this week, and writer Nolan Meister did a fine job laying out the case that Ausmus has shown improvement here.

Whether it’s true or not, it’s so tough to tell, because the bullpen is such a disaster.

Think about it (and yes, I acknowledge I’m breaking my own rule today): The Tigers basically have two relievers who they currently trust in the highest of high-leverage situations, and that’s Justin Wilson, everyone’s pick to be the new closer, and Alex Wilson.

Outside of that, you have K-Rod, Anibal Sanchez, Blaine Hardy, Shane Greene and Chad Bell. In Toledo, you have Bruce Rondon and Joe Jimenez, who can’t yet cut it consistently in the major leagues.

Everyone loves to blame Ausmus for everything that goes wrong with this team (my main beef is continuing to hit the human roadblock, Victor Martinez, cleanup), but if you had this bullpen to work with, how often would you push the right buttons? It’s a guessing game at this point, and that all points the finger back to Avila.

Q. Outside of K-Rod, who has been the biggest disappointment on the team to this point? — Clint Novak (@cmupensfan)

A. Easy. Jim Adduci. Kidding! It’s clearly Jordan Zimmermann.

The Tigers’ rotation figured to be the strength of this team, and still can be — even if Zimmermann keeps plodding along as the No. 5 starter.

Of course, you’re not paying him $22 million this year, and next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, to be the No. 5 starter. Nobody was asking him to be the ace in Detroit, because the Tigers have Justin Verlander. Even No. 2 is filled, by Michael Fulmer.

But you figured Zimmermann could at least slide into No. 3, looking more like April 2016 Zimmermann than May-September 2016 Zimmermann, when he was injured and awful.

When he was terrible most of last season, you could blame the injuries. But he’s healthy now, and the velocity remains sluggish, and the location has been terrible in his six starts. This might actually be who Zimmermann is, and that’s troubling.

Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann is 3-1, but owns a 6.21 ERA and 1.53 WHIP.

Q. I know he has tons of “Potential,” but I’m starting to think we will never see Norris’ full potential. — Bobbo1885 (@Bobbo1885)

A. This is a problem in baseball. In society, really. Everybody wants something, and they want it now. McDonald’s culture, if you will.

Norris is only 24, please keep in mind. This is his fourth season in the big leagues, and in the previous three, he’s battled health issues — from the nagging to the serious (cancer, hello!). He’s completely healthy now, and so now he’s able to focus on doing what it takes to become a big-league star.

The talent, to be sure, is there. Most talent evaluators in baseball consider him a guy you can build a rotation around. And let’s not forget, in two starts against the Indians this season, he’s allowed one earned run in 12 innings. The first weekend in Detroit, he shut down a mighty Red Sox lineup.

The rest of the starts, stinkers, sure. There are two issues at play: Command and poise, both fixable. But not overnight.

Q. JD Martinez: a Tiger or traded before the deadline? If dealt, what position do you see them targeting in return? — Matty Bisser (@MBisser)

Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez has yet to play this season.

A. This is a good question.

Martinez, who’s likely to make his 2017 debut sometime this week after suffering a foot injury during the spring, is a free agent after this season. And all signs point to the Tigers not ponying up for him. The payroll is getting reeled in, and Martinez could command more than $20 million a year for three or four years. That’s a lot for an outfielder, a position that’s typically easiest to replenish, even if you’re not going to get the 38 homers and 102 RBIs he posted in 2016.

If the Tigers are out of the race by mid-July (doubtful, by the way), he’s the first big name dealt. There have been extension talks in the past, but none lately, and likely none to come.

If the Tigers are in the race in July, it’s still possible the Tigers deal him away, given the offense is good, but the Tigers have holes elsewhere (hmm, bullpen). It’d be more prudent than popular.

Q. If JD gets off to a hot start should the Tigers consider trading him before the deadline since we can’t sign him and Stewart might be ready? — KenWieczorek (@KenWieczorek)

A. I answered the first part of this question already. Sure, it’s a possibility.

As for Tigers outfield prospect Christin Stewart, the Promotion Watch is officially on.

A first-round pick by the Tigers out of Tennessee in 2015, he’s mashed at every level. Stewart, 23, had 30 homers last season, 24 of those at Single-A Lakeland, in the Florida State League, where the ballparks are big and 30 homers is no joke.

He struggled after his promotion to Double-A Erie in 2016, but is plenty comfortable now, with nine homers, 23 RBIs and a .996 OPS in 28 games.

That said, while Stewart is the long-term depth that makes the Tigers comfortable in shopping Martinez, it’s too early to say he could fill the void if Martinez is dealt this year.

Q. Other than Max. Name a player they haven’t signed as big time FA? — Andrew Heath (@andrewhth)

A. You’re referring to Max Scherzer. And it’s a fair point. Over the last decade or so of Tigers baseball, the Tigers have lost very few of their own free agents — and, in fact, only one they desperately wanted to keep, in Scherzer, who turned down a $144 million offer from the Tigers. That ticked off Mike Ilitch, and Scherzer eventually signed with the Nationals for $210 million.

That was a few years back, though, when Ilitch was running the show, cutting the checks and desperately trying to win that elusive ring.

The Tigers, by all accounts, won’t be spending like drunken sailors anymore — at least, not under this ownership — and keeping Martinez would put the Tigers back in position to pay a luxury tax.

Remember: With holes to fill, the Tigers signed exactly one major-league free agent this past offseason, a backup catcher. Clearly, money is an issue now.

Q. Is it a foregone conclusion of team doesn’t win this year there will be a fire sale? Any chance of standing pat/adding for 2018? — George Hunter (@GeorgeHunter_DN)

A. I don’t think so. At all.

It’s long been talked about it in this town — the Tigers window is closing. It hasn’t been true in the past, and it’s not necessarily true now.

Yes, there’s high-priced “old” talent (Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, Zimmermann), but there’s a lot of “young” talent, too (Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, James McCann, JaCoby Jones, Jimenez, Matt Boyd, Fulmer, Norris, etc.).

While the free-spending days seem to be coming to a close, the team’s ability to compete seems in place.

Then again, that theory relies on Avila making the right moves. And let’s be honest, he’s not off to the best start in that department.

Q. Do you think Upton is likely to opt out or not? — David Faes (@dfaes)

A. It’s highly doubtful.

Only two things would make Upton consider opting out after Year 2 of his deal — a) he’s not comfortable in Detroit, and b) he thinks he can get a lot more money in a new deal. Neither scenario seems all that realistic. He fits into the Tigers clubhouse, and he’s owed $22.125 million a year through 2021.

Why mess with a good thing?

Q. Will the tigers trade for a closer? — Noah Seguin (@nseguin721)

A. Grrrr. Somebody doesn’t know how to follow instructions!