Detroit — Sure, the Tigers could use a few wins, just to remind us they’re still trying, just to avoid the stain of, say, a 110-loss season.
It’s not imperative now, deep into the rebuild trudge. But this is imperative: GM Al Avila desperately needs a win, any win, to ease the growing skepticism. As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, the Tigers’ most important games will be played on the phone, and the odds are dicey.
The Tigers have three obvious trade chips — starter Matthew Boyd, closer Shane Greene and rightfielder Nick Castellanos. No one on the roster is untouchable, but no one else is likely to draw interest. So Avila will try to make something happen in an uncertain market where contenders such as the Dodgers, Yankees, Astros and even the Twins might be inclined to fortify, but an unprecedented number of bottom-feeders will be peddling their wares.
Five teams are on pace to lose 100 games — Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Blue Jays, Marlins — and it’s unrealistic to think the Tigers will land a bounty of prospects. But it’s fair to expect Avila to at least win a trade or two, isn’t it? He can’t panic, either. If the right deals don’t surface for Boyd or Greene, Avila should keep them and try again in the offseason. Whenever he deals them, he must get top hitting prospects in return, or don’t bother.
Boyd, 28, should be a highly valued commodity because he’s a lefty who piles up strikeouts, has solid numbers (3.87 ERA and 1.12 WHIP) and is under team control for three more years. Greene, 30, also should be a valued commodity because he’s under team control through 2020 and is having a terrific season (22-for-24 in save opportunities, 1.09 ERA), although secondary analytics suggest he could trend back to the norm. Castellanos is a wildcard, a below-average fielder with an intriguing bat, and his batting average (.282) and OPS (.810) have risen.
Avila hasn’t gotten many wins, in trades or signings. He hasn’t gotten many breaks either, with Michael Fulmer’s surgery, Miguel Cabrera’s power outage and all sorts of injuries to veterans and prospects, such as pitcher Franklin Perez, the purported prize in the Justin Verlander trade two years ago.
Yet to show promise
It doesn’t help Avila every time Verlander steps on the mound for the Astros and continues his ridiculous dominance. The prospects the Tigers landed – Perez, Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers — are yet to show great promise.
It doesn’t help every time J.D. Martinez slugs a home run for the champion Red Sox. Avila traded him two weeks before the 2017 deadline in a weak market. It looked like a desperate move, and the return from Arizona of Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara and Jose King was sparse.
It doesn’t help that catcher James McCann, dumped after his struggles last season, just played in the All-Star Game for the White Sox. It doesn’t help every time a former Tiger comes to town and whacks the home club, although some of the departures pre-date Avila.
You can’t judge Avila on the won-loss record — 28-57 now, 242-328 in four seasons since he took over for Dave Dombrowski in 2015 — because this was an ownership-mandated, logical teardown. You can’t even fully judge him on the Tigers’ improved farm system, because when you start piling up high draft picks, it has to rise.
For now, the way to judge Avila is on his negotiating acumen, and the next three weeks are vital for him to show something. Chris Ilitch isn’t putting much heat on him, even delivering an oddly timed contract extension last week. That was more about show than dough, a modest confidence boost that doesn’t mean much. You might recall a year ago in another hastily organized press conference, Ilitch gave Ken Holland a two-year extension.
Fans are getting restless, but I don’t think they’re furious, yet. The concern is, Avila has less ammunition this summer. Two years ago, he dealt Verlander and Justin Upton at the August 31 waiver deadline, and there’s only a July 31 deadline now.
Avila’s best trade was in 2017 when he sent his son, Alex, and Justin Wilson to the Cubs for Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes, legitimate prospects. Paredes, a versatile infielder, is one of the few prime position players in the Tigers’ system. Heck, their most-promising hitter might be the 18-year-old kid they just drafted in the first round, Riley Greene.
As bad as the Tigers have been, losing a staggering 24 of their last 27 at Comerica Park, I don’t think they’ve even hit bottom, and the rebuild threatens to drag behind schedule. Again, the record doesn’t matter at the moment, but imagine how awful it could get if their best starter and best reliever are gone by the end of the month.
Rebuilds are supposed to be tedious and nasty and annoying. But they’re supposed to be speckled with glints of progress and player-acquisition victories. Obviously for the long term, the most-crucial aspect for the Tigers is scouting and player development, and we don’t yet know how Avila’s staff performs.
We do know, in the acquisition process, there have been ugly mistakes. They do have enticing pitching prospects, led by Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo. But it’s treacherous counting on pitchers, and Mize, Beau Burrows and Spencer Turnbull have dealt with injury issues, in addition to Fulmer’s year-long absence.
When Avila has tried to plug and buy time with free-agents, he has missed badly, from Jordan Zimmermann to Mike Pelfrey to Mark Lowe, with an occasional decent hit (Mike Fiers, Brandon Dixon, Niko Goodrum). This season, the signings were a disaster due to injuries and deteriorating skills: Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Gordon Beckham.
They were mostly short-term, inexpensive deals, so no lasting harm. But if the idea was to turn a couple into trade chips, forget it. And Avila will have to hunt for more stopgap veterans next season too.
He knew how tough this would be, although he can only reiterate it for so long before he’s tuned out.
“It’s something that takes some patience, something that takes some courage, and something that takes time,” Avila said last week. “We’re right in the thick of it, riding some tough times, but we also have some good things happening too.”
Not enough obviously. For the Tigers to eventually win again, Avila needs to win more now.