Paul: Al Avila gets contract extension in midst of Tigers’ ‘darkest hour’

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — It was curious timing, to be sure.

On the day the Red Sox were visiting Comerica Park for the first time in 2019 – the Boston ballclub being a harsh reminder to Tigers fans about what their team used to be, and what it won't be again anytime soon  Tigers CEO Christopher Ilitch announced a contract extension for general manager Al Avila on Friday afternoon.

Al Avila

Avila's original five-year contract was to expire in August 2020. It wasn't announced how many years the new deal adds for Avila, whose Tigers are neck deep in an ugly rebuild that has produced a 28-54 record on the field, and a whole lot of fan apathy to go along with the mounting losses.

Avila took over in August 2015, after Dave Dombrowski was fired. That's the same Dave Dombrowski who caught on in Boston and led the Red Sox to the 2018 World Series championship, thanks in part to former Tigers such as J.D. Martinez, David Price and Rick Porcello.

The Tigers haven't been to the playoffs in Avila's tenure as GM and have had a winning record as many times as they've had the worst record in baseball (once each).

"We're right in the middle of it," Avila said of the rebuild, which, depending on whom you ask, began either at the 2015 trade deadline or in 2017. "Right now, it's like the darkest hour. That's what we're going through right now.

"There's a little light in different areas, and that's what we're clinging to."

Ilitch, who has taken over as de facto owner since his father's death in February 2017, did not attend Avila's press conference. He issued a statement prior to the hastily called media session, praising Avila's "leadership and focus."

"Al has methodically implemented his plan, and the execution of that plan has demonstrated progress and results in scouting, drafting, player development and analytics," Ilitch said in the statement.

"I am especially pleased with the progress we have made in securing a stable of talented prospects which bodes well for our future.

"Al has a proven track record in this game, and his nearly three decades of experience is paying dividends in this rebuilding phase."

The fans can be excused if they're not seeing all that progress so clearly.

You can make the case the Tigers don't have more than a few players on the major-league roster who figure into the long-term future  Nick Castellanos is almost certainly exiting as a free agent, and Matt Boyd and Shane Greene are almost certain to be traded this month.

The Tigers, instead, are selling lots and lots of hope — marketing their minor-league system like they never have before, which is a dangerous proposition, given not every can't-miss prospect is going to make it.

Chris Illitch and Al Avila pose for photos with 2019 first-round draft pick Riley Greene.

"We all know that they're not all going to pan out," said Avila, who in his 30-minutes-or-so press briefing mentioned fewer than five players on the Tigers' current roster, but several players in the minor-league system. "That's the process. I think, right now, we have a fan base following this whole process where I think they're excited about it.

"I'd rather be on the way to winning 95 games at the big-league level, but this is something we have to go through. To that point, I think we're OK as we move forward."

Before Avila became Tigers general manager, he was Dombrowski's lieutenant for many years, at multiple stops. His strength always was considered scouting, and as GM, he's pumped millions into the player-development areas, especially analytics, which never was of much interest to Dombrowski.

Avila hasn't been given the blank-check leeway that Dombrowski had, though early in his tenure, he was able to sign some big-named players, especially his first offseason. He signed Jordan Zimmermann for five years and $110 million, and that's been nothing short of a disaster. He signed Justin Upton for six years and  $132.75 million, and that didn't work out much better. His biggest trades (Justin Verlander, Martinez, etc.) have been panned, though to be fair, the verdict's still out on those.

His drafts, led by Scott Pleis and David Chadd, have been much more praised, especially a recent run that's netted the Tigers Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Beau Burrows and Alex Faedo. The hype surrounding all four is significant, though they've not made their big-league debuts, and might not anytime soon.

"You don't want to promote a guy just for the sake of publicity," Avila said. "You want to promote guys for experience and getting them ready for the following season, and to kind of give them a test."

The Tigers used the 2019 MLB Draft to address their very thin crop of position-player prospects, which before the June draft basically included catcher Jake Rogers, outfielder Daz Cameron and not much else.

As for why Rogers isn't in the majors, given Grayson Greiner is injured, he's cooled off at Toledo after a hot start to the season  and so Avila quipped, paraphrasing manager Ron Gardenhire, "You don't want to bring up a guy that's hitting .200. We already have plenty of that here."

The Tigers officially passed the halfway point of the season this week, and the first half didn't yield much to get excited about, as evidenced by the 18,529 the Tigers are averaging in attendance. That puts them on pace to draw about 1.5 million, which would be their worst since 2003, when Detroit set an American League record with 119 losses. They've had to resort to unheard-of ticket specials this season, including no-fee sales, and this weekend's $17.76 lower-bowl specials. Outside of Comerica Park on Friday night, a July Friday no less, there wasn't even a need for traffic cops.

Few would not have thought the 2003 Tigers would be just three years from appearing in a World Series, but that's what happened. These Tigers can only hope they're on a similar timetable, much like the rebuilding Astros (2017), Cubs (2016) and Royals (2015) before they weathered their darkest days and eventually won World Series championships.

That's the model, the plan. You're forgiven if you can't see it — the Tigers, after all, are dead last in the majors in runs (and they have a DH!) and bottom 10 in pitching.

"We're not unique to this situation or this process," said Avila, adding that his contract doesn't affect his manager, Gardenhire, whose deal runs through 2020. "We have to have the courage to see it through every day. Every day I show up to work, I've gotta face that. That's what we're doing."

Twitter: @tonypaul1984