As grim as rebuild may get, Avila vows no shortcuts or quick fixes
Orlando, Fla. — This one is not going to be like the other one.
Dave Dombrowski was in his second year as general manager in 2004 when, with owner Mike Ilitch’s blessing, he went out and signed now Hall-of-Fame catcher Pudge Rodriguez for $40 million over four years.
The Tigers had lost 119 games in 2003, 106 in 2002, so it was still early in that rebuilding phase, which made such a financial splash shocking at the time.
Do not expect a similar shock early in this present Tigers rebuild.
“Back then, it wasn’t just Pudge,” said general manager Al Avila Tuesday. “It was Magglio (Ordonez), it was Kenny Rogers — through a period of years we went after several players on the free agent market.
“We didn’t build totally from within. This one is going to be more of a building from within, more so than not.”
Forgive Avila if he’s a little wistful about the old days. He was Dombrowski’s top lieutenant back then and wouldn’t it be nice if he could again open the owner’s vault, buy a few choice free agents and be in the World Series in two years, as the Tigers were in 2006.
Not going to happen. After a decade of bloated payrolls and no championship parades, this next journey will be paved with a lot more blood, sweat and tears. Avila made it clear the club had paid its last luxury tax bill for a while.
“I think you are going to see us being pretty lean and mean,” he said.
And it’s not about following somebody else’s path. The Astros way is in vogue now because they are the champions. The Cubs way was the talk of the league the previous year. Championship teams are built from a variety of models.
“Every year you can look at the teams that are in the World Series and look at how their players were acquired,” Avila said. “It’s a combination of players that were drafted and developed, Latin American signees, and players acquired through trades or free agency. You have to be involved in all of that to make it work.
“You can’t just say we are going to lose and we’re going to get the first pick in the draft for four years and that’s going to do it. If that’s all you do, you aren’t going to get there. You better sign players out of Latin America, you better make some good trades and you better sign some minor-league guys that surprise you. That’s the game.”
Avila was asked how much lower the payroll needs to be before the club could start even thinking about spending seriously on free agents. He said that variable is controlled by how quickly a solid foundation can be built.
The big checks will get cut when the team is on the brink of serious contention.
“It’s not just about focusing on payroll,” Avila said. “Our goal was to be under the luxury tax, just because you don’t want to check that box a third time. Nobody does. But it’s not about continuing to lower payroll. That’s not what we’re trying to do.
“We’re trying to get younger, leaner and then start rebuilding with players we can acquire in order to put a good team on the field. Then, at some point, you’re going to have to go out and acquire a player or two to make it complete.”
On the horizon
That point is well beyond the club’s horizon for now. Consider that besides Miguel Cabrera — who is on the books for $184 million over the next six seasons — there no real foundation pieces on the big-league roster heading into the 2018 season.
Young, talented players like Nick Castellanos, James McCann and Michael Fulmer could all end up being traded before the Tigers are competitive again in the Central Division.
“Some of the best people we have are in the minor leagues, and their time of arrival could be two, three, four years from now and we’re excited about that,” Avila said. “And that’s something we’re being very careful with.”
He’s talking about pitching prospects like Franklin Perez, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser and Bryan Garcia — all of whom are probably at least two and probably three years away from cracking the big leagues, and the club has no plans to rush them.
He’s talking about position players like Dawel Lugo, Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers, Isaac Paredes, Jose Azocar and Sergio Alcantara — also two to four years away.
As for the current big-league roster?
“At the major-league level we’ve got some players who are young and attractive, but are they going to be there three years from now? Possibly,” Avila said. “You look at Mikie Mahtook, we still have a lot of control over him and it isn’t costing us a whole lot.
“We have Castellanos this year and next year and we’ll see where that goes. JaCoby Jones is still developing. Jeimer Candelario is young and developing. McCann is starting to make some money now, so we will see where that goes.”
If the Tigers are to avoid 95-100 losses in 2018, it will be because of the continued growth of three young starting pitchers, Fulmer, Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris. But, same qualifier — if the Tigers aren’t ready to win in two years and those three can be flipped for top prospects, they won’t be on the next championship-contending team in Detroit.
“Are they going to be part of the process three years from now?” Avila said. “They quite possibly could. Or, they could be flipped. I can’t sit here today and tell you which way it’s going to go.”
The worst thing that any general manager can do in a rebuilding process is lose sight of the big picture, to get ahead of himself and think the team is ready to win before it is. Also, counterproductive but tempting are cosmetic deals, deals that may appease the fan base, put some butts in the seats, but detract from the ultimate plan.
“If there is a trade to be made or a player to be signed for this year that makes sense and makes us better one way or another, that’s what we will pursue,” Avila said. “If it happens to be a player fans are really excited about, great. But we can’t acquire people or make trades that will make us weaker down the road just to be happy today.
“You really have to have the big picture in front of you. You’ve got to have patience, discipline and you’ve got to have thick skin.”
What you hope is you find another Mahtook in a low-profile trade. You get another Daniel Stumpf in the Rule 5 draft. Or maybe a minor-league signing, completely unheralded at the time, blossoms into J.D. Martinez. That’s often how foundations are built.
“We’re not losing on purpose,” Avila said. “The fact that we are making this transition and rebuilding the organization — losing is a product of that. It’s not that you are trying to lose; the process will cause you to lose.
“But Gardy (new manager Ron Gardenhire) is not going to accept losing. He’s going to try to win every game he can and so are we. Maybe we can’t do it because right now we don’t have the best players. But we are trying to acquire what we can.”
Sometimes, too, foundations are built irrespective of talent.
“Make them play the game the right way,” Avila said. “Teach the game the right way so when they come out and play — maybe we don’t win this game — but we played to win and we played the game the right way.
“I think the fans will appreciate that.”
But make no mistake about it — Pudge, Magglio and Kenny aren’t walking through those doors any time soon.