McCosky: For Tigers to bail on Avila now would have been reckless and counterproductive

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s understandable.

The Tigers fan base got used to watching competitive, meaningful baseball, year after year. They got used to an owner who spent freely, with no regard to anything other than trying to win a World Series.

News of Al Avila's extension has not gone down well with some of the Tigers' fan base.

Fun times.

And now they are watching a team that will push 100 losses for the third straight season. Worse, they see players they cheered all those years — Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Max Scherzer, etc. — thriving on other teams.

They need to blame somebody. They need to boo somebody.

So, on the day the Tigers’ announced a multi-year extension for general manager Al Avila, a loud segment of the fan base — on social media, in my email basket and in the comments sections of our stories — booed.

It’s the nature of fandom. So, boo until you are blue in the face.

Meanwhile, Avila and the Tigers' front office will continue the mission to rebuild this team, this organization, really, from scorched earth back up to being yearly contenders.

Let’s just interject some facts:

It would have been reckless and counterproductive to replace Avila and his staff two years into the process. Sports fans in this town by now should understand that from all the false starts and stops the Pistons and Lions have made over the years.

Every time you change leadership you start over. It’s like perpetually going up a down escalator.

The Tigers did that from 2015 through 2017.  They knew they had a bloated payroll full of aging players. They knew they were about to land in luxury tax jail. They knew they could not sustain the current business model.

And yet, even as they took initial steps toward the inevitable (trading away David Price and Joakim Soria), they also kept signing players (Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton) to make “one more run.”

Finally, inevitably, but at least two years too late in retrospect, they committed to a full rebuild.

This was an ownership decision. It’s not like Avila walked into the headquarters of Ilitch Holdings and said, ‘Look, enough’s enough. We need to tear this thing down.” Mike Ilitch died and the annual quest to get Mr. I a ring died with him.

Christopher Ilitch has the same goal that his father had, but he is smart enough to see that it was unattainable under the old model. So he tasked Avila and his lieutenants to come up with a new one — get the big-league payroll under control, replenish the talent level throughout the system, beef up the scouting, analytics and player development departments and grow this thing from the ground up.

Painful process

Yes, it was going to take time. Yes, it was going to get ugly. But, the model has a proven track record — see Cubs, Astros, Phillies, Twins, etc. — eventually leading to sustainable success.

So, if you only see this as black and white — the Tigers were really good before Avila was put in charge and now they are really bad — then you’re booing the extension. And you aren’t seeing the larger picture.

I’ve seen people complain about the free agents Avila has signed the last couple of years. Going back to Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe, Mike Fiers, Francisco Liriano, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Tyson Ross and Matt Moore.

Understand, he wasn’t exactly shopping for Maybachs and Bentleys. He was shopping used car lots, where merchandise is often marked down for a reason.

I’ve seen people complain that the get-back for players like Verlander, Martinez, Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton was woefully insufficient. Again, in a black and white world, that may be true. But in the real world, a new world in baseball driven by analytical data where one-dimensional players and players over 30 years old have limited value, the market for those players wasn’t there.

Martinez had one team interested in him — Arizona. Same for Kinsler and Upton. The get-back for Verlander is still to be determined. Jake Rogers and Daz Cameron could be making their big league debuts this September.

What’s indisputable is the Tigers’ minor-league system in three years has gone from dead last in baseball to the upper middle of the pack. They will, for the first time ever, have three players in the Future’s Game Sunday.  They have four players in the top 100 according to MLB Pipeline, including the No. 1 right-handed pitching prospect, Casey Mize.

The problem, of course, is the bulk of those high-grade prospects are at Double-A. And there is another group of recent high draft picks like Riley Greene, Kody Clemens, Parker Meadows and Brock Deatherage, still in A-ball or lower.

The pace of the process is glacial. It leaves gaps at the big-league level like what we are seeing this season. It was never going to be anything else. Year Two was expected to be the bleakest, as Avila acknowledged during his press conference Friday.

“It’s a tough time,” he said. “When you start moving along, there’s a fast pace to it. And then at the end, when you start seeing it come together, you can see the light. But right now in the middle, it’s like the darkest hour. That’s what we’re going through right now.

“But in saying that, there’s a lot of good things happening, a little light in different areas. That’s what we’re clinging to, and that’s why we have to pursue that process.”

A fragile foundation

Coming out of spring training, though, things didn’t seem as bleak as they do right now. The injuries to all four free agent signees, injuries to Michael Fulmer and Jordan Zimmermann, the chronic knee issues Miguel Cabrera has battled — lady luck hasn’t exactly been shining her light on this baseball team.

But for Avila to react to that by spending more money on journeyman players (James Shields, Bartolo Colon) or rushing up a prospect or two before they were ready would be foolish. To what end? To avoid 100 losses? As a publicity stunt?

No, the smart play, the hard play, is to stay the course. And Avila has been steadfast on that.

“We’re not unique to this situation or process,” Avila said. “What we have to do is have the courage to see it through, and every day I show up to work, I have to face that every day.

“So that’s what we’re doing, and I think we’re making some big strides here.”

Listen, there are no guarantees with this. The Tigers have put a lot of their eggs in a really small and vulnerable basket — a group of talented starting pitching prospects, Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Beau Burrows.

We’ve already seen some pitching prospects falter this season — Kyle Funkhouser, Burrows, Franklin Perez. Honestly, the foundation of this rebuild feels fragile, simply because of the typical attrition rate of pitching prospects as they get close to the big leagues.

They will presumably have a chance to fortify the foundation this month with possible trades for Shane Greene, Matthew Boyd and Nick Castellanos. But of the three, only Boyd has big value. The Tigers are likely to hold out for a package that includes a young, MLB-ready bat and at least one top prospect.

Greene is the most likely to be traded, but for a modest return. Most contending teams see him as bullpen depth, not as a closer.  Castellanos, who will be a free agent next offseason, will likely go the way of Kinsler, Martinez and Upton — the return will be disappointing.

Regardless, this is not the time to bail on what’s been built the last couple of years. There is no second-in-command, analytic genius on a contending team that could come in here and hasten the process. Any change in leadership would set it back two years.

So, boo the extension if it makes you feel better. But Ilitch did the right thing.

Twitter: @cmccosky