Tigers' Avila not enticed by possible free-agent bargains
Detroit — Al Avila was fired up.
It was at the end of what is normally a calm question-and-answer period at the Detroit Media Association’s annual Tiger Day luncheon at Sinbad’s on the river Wednesday. Avila, the Tigers general manager, said he wanted to say one more thing.
“One thing that insulted the crap out of me during this process,” he said, “was there were certain people that thought we didn’t think things through. Let me tell you something, we have some brainiacs at this table (his front office) and they looked at everything thoroughly … you can take that to the bank, and don’t let anybody tell you differently.”
It was unclear exactly what he was referring to, and he didn’t want to say afterward, but it was likely the fallout from the media the organization received from signing catcher Derek Norris to a minor-league contract. Norris was suspended by Major League Baseball last season for violating the league’s domestic violence policy, though he was never arrested, charged or convicted.
“It doesn’t mean you will always make the right decision,” Avila said. “But the effort is there. The expertise is there. And I guarantee that at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, this group right here will be successful and we will take the Detroit Tigers to a championship in the near future.”
The effort, the thoroughness, the beefed-up analytical research, the increased scouting and player development resources, these are the tools Avila and his staff are bringing to the Tigers’ rebuilding process — a process he called “the biggest challenge of our careers.”
And, as he made clear Wednesday, there will be no shortcuts. So, even though there are more than 150 free agents still on the market, with possibly shrinking price tags, don’t look for the Tigers to change course.
“We’re not going to be on the free-agent market looking for those kinds of players,” Avila said. “We’re not in this halfway. We’re not trying to come across as saying, ‘We’re going to try and pick up a pitcher here or a pitcher there and it’s going to make us so much better, and we’re going to have a chance to win a championship.’
“That’s just not the right thing to do.”
The Tigers played that game the last three seasons — trying, with a bloated payroll ($207 million last year), to add pieces and plug holes to make one last run at a championship. Avila announced at the trade deadline last season that the club was committing to a full rebuild, and has since backed his claim by trading away all of its elite, veteran players with the exception of Miguel Cabrera.
“There are some teams that are in-between where maybe they feel they can make small additions here and there, add a bat or add a pitcher,” Avila said. “But how much better is that really going to make you when you are competing against all of those big clubs?
“Our payroll was at $207 million. It’s hard to play that middle game with that type of payroll.”
That payroll since has been slashed dramatically, down to roughly $133 million.
“For us to reduce payroll by that amount and then add just doesn’t make any sense,” Avila said. “We had to go all-in on a full rebuild and I think the majority of people understand that. So, yes, we are going to try to make the team better for 2018. But you can’t lose sight of what you are doing in the long run. You can’t do something for 2018 that’s going to hurt you in 2019, 2020, 2021.
“The average fan may look at all the free agents available and say, ‘Who can we pick up to make us better.’ But that’s not the way we look at it.”
That said, the Tigers’ roster is and will remain in flux for the foreseeable future. Although Avila said he wasn’t going to suddenly start signing bigger-named free agents, he was still searching for another starting pitcher and possibly another reliever.
“There are two scenarios,” he said. “You can try to sign a pitcher to a major-league contract, in which case one of the pitchers projected to be in the rotation would be pushed to Toledo (Daniel Norris, since he has an option left).
“Or, you sign somebody to a minor-league contract and they compete and you make the decision that way.”
The Tigers have signed a couple of veteran free agents to big-league contracts — starting pitcher Mike Fiers and center fielder Leonys Martin. But even those signings were made more with an eye to the future than for 2018.
“You hope they can help get us through the season and you hope they can have bounce-back type years,” Avila said. “If they do, then you can trade them at the deadline and pick up another small piece to add to the future.”
Avila said he and his staff continue to scour the waiver wire, “to see if we can pick up just one player who is better than the 40th guy on our roster. It’s not always the big trade that’s going to make you better. You have to get better little by little.”
And all those pending free agents? There will be a fallout there, too, once they start signing.
“I suspect once those guys get signed, other guys will be put on waivers,” Avila said. “Between now and the end of spring training, there are still a lot of possibilities.”
Probably best to write the 40-man roster in pencil or chalk for the next couple of years.