Tigers GM Al Avila spoke with reporters ahead of the team's winter caravan kickoff Thursday afternoon. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Detroit — In stark contrast to his predecessor, Dave Dombrowski, whose lips were as tight as his turtlenecks, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila is wildly frank with the media and the fans about the ballclub's deep dive into rebuilding.
The candor is appreciated by many — if not the season-ticket sales staff.
Then again, Avila figures he doesn't have much choice.
"The only reason I'm being honest is, because, well, how do you hide this," Avila said with a laugh on a frigid Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park, as the team got set to embark on its annual winter caravan.
"It's a necessary process. And what I've tried to do in my honesty is to educate the public, educate the media of why it's necessary.
"Quite frankly, others thought we should've probably done it one, maybe two years earlier, and we probably would've been better off for it."
The Tigers are wrapping up their second offseason of the complete rebuild, as evidence by the lack of big free-agent signings. They've stuck to low-risk, one-year contracts as they've shopped, bringing in such veterans as pitchers Tyson Ross and Matt Moore, shortstop Jordy Mercer, and catcher Bobby Wilson.
Gone are the days of such splashes in the Prince Fielder, Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez or Victor Martinez stratosphere.
At least for now. And probably a couple of more years.
"Is 2021 the time to, OK, start spending some money?" Avila said. "I don't know. I do know that we will have some money by 2021 to start going out there. I've talked to Chris Ilitch and I know that whether it be 2021, 2022, at that point, we will be at a place from a payroll perspective where I want to be at, where I'm comfortable where financially I know we're in a good place. No different than, let's say, the White Sox are right now, the Phillies. There are certain teams right now that financially they've got the flexibility to do whatever they want. They've got some prospects in place that have already played a year or two, San Diego's going through the same thing.
"That's where we want to be, where we have some young guys at the big-league level doing well. 'Hey, do we start spending now?'"
"Maybe it's a gradual build."
Under the late Mike Ilitch's ownership, particularly the second half of his tenure, the Tigers spent huge — and, frankly, irresponsibility, given their status as a slightly-above-mid-market team. It led to significant financial losses, not that the billionaire Ilitch cared, given his obsessive quest for a world championship.
The team has reversed course since his death in February 2017, not just because of his passing, but also because the crux of those contending teams was aging — and with it, the window clearly was closing.
At the peak of Mike Ilitch's spending, the Tigers had a payroll that flirted with $200 million and crossed the luxury-tax threshold on multiple occasions. It still will be over $100 million on Opening Day 2019 and 2020, because of two behemoth contracts — Miguel Cabrera's and Jordan Zimmermann's. They are the only two players signed beyond 2019. Zimmermann's five-year, $110 million deal is up after 2020.
That's why 2021 is a reasonable target for Avila, assuming he's in a place to complement some young players who've lived up to expectations — Christin Stewart? Casey Mize? Matt Manning? Jeimer Candelario? — with some big-ticket free agents.
"I don't think anybody likes a rebuild. Anybody would rather have a team that's prepared to win 100 games and get to the playoffs, as we would. It is a painful process," Avila said. "We couldn't sustain that payroll from a business perspective.
"As the general manager of this organization, we're gonna run this club responsibly and where we can sustain it for a long time."
While the Tigers have pared down the major-league payroll with such moves as trading Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler, and watching Victor Martinez's contract finally expire, they've still invested heavily in infrastructure.
The analytics department — which fans have been led to believe was one intern with a dial-up connection in the Dombrowski era — has been bulked up considerably, as have the player-development and scouting departments. Under Dombrowski, the Tigers' minor-league system was there solely to acquire big-named players in trades, and it worked to the tune of four consecutive playoff appearances (2011-14), albeit no World Series championship. Obviously, that's not the modus operandi anymore. Avila is dead-set on building his team's core from within, like recent world championships such as the Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals. And the very-early returns are somewhat promising, with improved organizational rankings, and acclaimed draft classes.
That guarantees nothing for the future, of course.
But like it or not, that's all part of the process, and Avila's not sugarcoating it.
"We're doing everything in our power to turn this around," said Avila, "and make us winners again."