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Avila on rebuild: 3 years too short, 10 years too long

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — It certainly would behoove Tigers general manager Al Avila to get the ballclub back to its winning ways in three years or less.

After all, that’s how much time’s left on his deal, signed in the summer of 2015.

And, not so coincidentally, that’s the length of new manager Ron Gardenhire’s contract, too.

Still, Avila cringed and chuckled when asked to put a timetable on when Tigers fans can realistically see their team again back in the thick of things, not just for American League Central championships, but for World Series contention.

“I don’t want to give you a time frame, even in a perfect world,” Avila said. “Everybody would like it to be sooner than later. I don’t know to give you a 10-year plan. I can’t give you a three-year plan. I don’t know if that’s realistic.

“One’s too short, one’s too long.

“Anywhere in between is the hope.”

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The Tigers, who’ve overspent for more than a decade in late owner Mike Ilitch’s quest for a World Series ring, started the process of getting the books back in order this summer, when they traded away Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.

And there’s a very good chance the cost-cutting continues this winter, with particularly eyes on the likes of Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias, among others.

They desperately need to bolster a farm system that hasn’t been among the top tier in baseball for many decades. This summer’s trades helped, as have the two most recent drafts, particularly in the pitching department.

But there’s a long ways to go, and the Tigers are totally invested in the process — even if it means the losses will pile up, as they did in 2017, when they went 64-98 and secured the No. 1 overall pick in next June’s draft.

“For years, we have not had a good nucleus of good prospects at Triple A ... or even in Double A,” Avila said. “That’s what we need build, that next wave.

“For many years, we’ve been trying to force feed guys that, quite frankly, don’t deserve to be there (in the major leagues).”

Some of those prospects will arrive sooner than later, the early bets being third baseman Jeimer Candelario (Cubs trade) and recently drafted pitching prospects Kyle Funkhouser, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows and Matt Manning.

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Others are longer-term, like right-hander Franklin Perez (Astros trade) and infielder Dawel Lugo (Diamondbacks trade).

Still, fans best be prepared for a whole lot of new faces in the coming year or three, and some of them — if not the majority — will appear green at times, and show flashes at others.

That’s the M.O. of a rebuild — which doesn’t include any plans for being a player in free-agency, as the Tigers annually were during their five-postseason, two-World Series run from 2006-14.

“Well, free-agency is gonna be a little different this year than we’ve been accustomed to,” Avila said in what might be the understatement of the century. “We’re gonna be looking for major-league free agents that, quite frankly, are kind of like bargains, I guess you can call them.

“You may not see a free-agent signing until maybe late January.”

The specific focus will be on under-the-radar free agents who could prove to be “lightning in a bottle,” Avila said, preferring that term over the more-clichéd “diamond in the rough.” The Tigers again will turn their attention to stockpiling six-year minor-league free agents to bulk up the depth in the minor-league system.

Avila, with his scouting background, has traditionally been very successful finding contributors in that bargain bin.

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Gardenhire, who turns 60 next week, is taking a risk with this job. Managers hired at the early end of a rebuild often aren't around to see it come to fruition — think Alan Trammell, fired after the 2005 season before Jim Leyland took the team to the World Series in 2006 — and a flame-out here could cost Gardenhire, the 13-year manager of the Twins, another opportunity.

Still, he said he didn’t see the risk.

“We gotta get his thing done,” Gardenhire said, noting he and Avila both are on three-year contracts. “I think if we start doing it right, then maybe the window gets wider.

“I think it’s on my shoulders now. They’ve given me this opportunity.”

Gardenhire had both young and veteran teams in Minnesota, with mixed success with both. He took the team to the playoffs six times in his 13 years. The Tigers haven’t been to the playoffs since 2014, and even then suffered a three-game sweep in the opening round.

As for when they’ll be back, it’s anyone’s guess. It’s doubtful to take as long as the last Detroit playoff drought — the Tigers won the old American League East in 1987, then didn’t get back to the postseason until 2006 — but beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Avila, though, did say rebuilds can go quicker than you’d think. He cited this year’s Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins as examples, and even the New York Yankees, who were in rebuild mode this year, and yet found themselves a Friday night win from making it to the World Series. There also is the flip side, like the Philadelphia Phillies, whose rebuild hasn’t progressed nearly as fast as they’d have liked.

“And that happens in these rebuilds,” Avila said. “It’s hard to really pin down an exact time.

“You want to see progress as we move forward. Sometimes, it doesn’t always add up to the wins and losses, but you want to see guys getting better. ... Improving every day, playing the game the right way.

“It should up to wins as you move forward.”