In a rather nice change of pace, the Detroit Tigers’ manager is not one of the key story lines of the season. Brad Ausmus would elicit opinions from even the most insulated of baseball fans in this state. Before him, Jim Leyland could do no right for certain audiences, even as his teams played in the World Series twice and captured three straight American League Central crowns.
Ron Gardenhire is under no pressure to contend, and while you can quibble a bit with some of his decisions, he is running the team relatively well and getting more positive results in a few fundamentals that were sorely lacking in the past.
Yes, the batting has been an issue, but a team missing Miguel Cabrera for the season probably shouldn’t be expected to be knocking the strings off the baseball.
That said, opinions on Tigers general manager Al Avila seem a little easier to come by. You’ll find some who can find nothing positive to say, while others might point to a rebuild seemingly humming along and say he’s doing his job just fine.
With all that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at how a few of Avila's moves from the offseason have gone.
■ Niko Goodrum — Who even knew who Goodrum was when he showed up at spring training? He played a few games a year before with the Twins, but you could dismiss his Grapefruit League numbers as the kind of fluky spring training thing that happens every year. Except it wasn’t, and Goodrum has put up above-average numbers at the plate while his versatility in the field allows Gardenhire to find a spot with him almost anywhere in the lineup. On the flip side, that versatility doesn’t necessarily make Goodrum a good fielder at any of the positions.
■ Leonys Martin — Up until his hamstring injury, Martin was arguably the most valuable position player on the team this season. He might not hit as well as Nick Castellanos, but he fields and runs a whole lot better. He’s on a one-year deal worth $1.75 million, with another year of arbitration to come before he can become a free agent. Whether he’s traded this year or later, it’s a successful signing.
■ Mike Fiers — With all eyes on the progression of Matthew Boyd and regression of Michael Fulmer, Fiers has actually led the group in ERA (3.70). It would be a little disingenuous to say he’s been the best on the staff. Jordan Zimmermann has actually posted a better FIP (3.38 vs. Fiers’ 4.67) though he has pitched roughly 42 fewer innings due to another round on the disabled list. If Avila is able to flip Fiers at the trade deadline, we’ll be able to really call this signing a success.
■ Victor Reyes — Some might debate this placement. Reyes was the Tigers’ Rule 5 pick in December and has to remain on the team’s 25-man roster or be offered back to his former franchise, the Diamondbacks. The Tigers lose little by carrying him in a throwaway season. But he certainly has failed to live up to potential, posting a .221/.229/.284 line resulting in an OPS+ of just 38. This move can be revisited in a year or two but right now looks like a complete whiff.
■ Derek Norris — Norris was signed to a minor-league deal, but the catcher never saw a day in Detroit before being released by the organization. That’s not what makes this a big mistake. That they seemingly did such little research into why Norris was suspended in 2017 by Major League Baseball following domestic violence allegations came across as a totally tone deaf move with little upside. Neither the uproar against the move nor the lack of success on the field come as much of a surprise. Why he was signed in the first place remains hard to explain.
■ Francisco Liriano — At first you might feel the urge to call this signing a success. The left-hander looked primed to be a nice trade piece who ate some innings in the first half of the year after signing a one-year, $4 million deal. And he still might be. A right hamstring injury in June and back tightness in his last start put a crimp in that plan as his ERA rose from 3.42 in late May to 4.67 now. He may just end out riding out the year in Detroit, though a trade in August likely remains within the realm of possibility, even if the return will be nothing to be excited about.
All of this ignores how the last few drafts have gone under Avila. On the surface, they’ve looked fairly good. But the Tigers’ reliance on drafting right-handed starters high up have left them still a little thin on position prospects. Still, if some combination of Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo, and more turn out to be reliable starters for years to come, it will be hard to argue the drafts were less than successful.
The conclusion I come up with is that Avila isn’t perfect, but he’s made more hits than misses with his recent decisions after a bit of a shaky beginning. He’s not the best executive in the game, but he’s not the worst either.
Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer.