McCosky: Avila, Tigers at a critical juncture, need to get aggressive

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

San Diego — It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel. He started it in 1508 and you just know some priest strolled into the church around 1510, still two years before it would be completed, looked up at the mess on the ceiling and said, “What the heck is this guy even doing? He’s in over his head. This is embarrassing.”

Tigers general manager Al Avila can probably relate to that. Without suggesting he’s in the process of building a masterpiece, he’s got a lot of folks — fans, critics, media pundits — walking through his half-built church casting aspersions and wondering just what the heck is he doing.

Justin Smoak

Some of the angst and cynicism is understandable. Coming off three straight dreadful seasons — 310 losses, including 114 last year — watching former heroes like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, J.D. Martinez and Rick Porcello win championships in other uniforms, staring at a pared down and nondescript roster and being told it could be another two years or more before the team will return to contention, yeah, people are going to get testy.

And if it helps to howl into the abyss, howl on. But it’s not going to alter the reality of what Avila and Christopher Ilitch are trying to do, and it’s not going to hasten the process – however badly we’d all like it sped up.

You basically have two choices here. You can complain about every move and non-move the Tigers make. Which is exhausting and essentially a waste of time. Or, you can accept the process for what it is, let it play out, let Avila complete his painting, as it were, and then judge it accordingly.

They aren’t changing direction now. The Ilitch family commissioned Avila for this task and they aren’t going to bring in another painter now that he’s done all the priming and trim work.

More bang for the buck

This process was set in motion after the 2015 season. It was mistakenly delayed for a year or so when late owner Mike Ilitch went for it one last time. It’s taken three years to tear down the old structure and move out most of the expensive furniture. They’ve shredded the luxury tax payroll from well over $200 million to a little over $100 million.

Now, as Avila has said, it is time to start building the roster back up. But if it took three years to tear the old one down, it’s probably going to take another three years to build it all the way back up. Again, whether you trust Avila can pull this off or not is immaterial. Ilitch trusts that he can so he’s going to be given the resources to complete the task – so he has said.

Robinson Chirinos

That doesn’t mean he’s going to allocate $100 million this offseason. That would be foolish with the foundation pieces – a stable of young, potentially elite starting pitchers – still a full year away from making a significant impact.

You can argue the merits of paying second baseman Jonathan Villar $10 million to play in 2020. Absolutely, he would have given manager Ron Gardenhire a quality leadoff hitter and a stabilizing middle infielder.

But what if that cost them a chance to get the catcher, first baseman and starting pitcher they wanted, and Avila believed he needed more than he needed a four-win second baseman?

So, what, they lose 98 games instead of 114?

Now, if the Tigers end up with bargain-bin players at those three other positions, if they don’t get at least a cumulative four or five or six wins above replacement out of their presumed $20 million budget for trades and free agents this winter, then howl away. All criticism will be just.

But we don’t know. If Avila can land a catcher like Jason Castro, Robinson Chirinos or Martin Maldonado, a first baseman like Justin Smoak or C.J. Cron and a starting pitcher, then there’s no real beef about not acting on Villar.

Save your cheers and jeers until the end.

Get aggressive

A more legitimate concern is Avila’s level of aggression this offseason. He was outbid on his son, Alex, who signed for $4.25 million with the Twins. He might have been outbid on pitchers Kevin Gausman and Michael Wacha, too. Gausman signed a one-year deal worth $9 million with the Giants and Wacha got one year worth $3 million, plus incentives worth another $7 million from the Mets.

The Tigers were believed to be interested in right-hander Tanner Roark, too. He got a two-year deal worth $24 million from the Blue Jays. 

The Tigers were in on outfielder Nomar Mazara, who the White Sox got in a trade for a Low-A outfield prospect. Mazara projects to make as much as $5.7 million in arbitration.

He didn’t move hastily on Villar or former Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez. Nothing is imminent with any of the catchers or Smoak.

Some of it is out of his control, certainly. Those players might be holding out for higher wages or a more competitive team. Teams looking to make trades may be asking for a prospect the Tigers won’t part with.

Some of these discussions, be it for a trade or a free agent, can get hung up in a tug-of-war between the scouting and analytics departments.

But this is the time for creativity, such as was on display by the Giants. They took advantage of the Angels’ need to create salary space to facilitate their failed quest for Gerrit Cole. The Giants acquired bounce-back candidate Zack Cozart and the Angels' 2018 No. 1 pick Will Wilson for a player to named later.

The Giants were willing to take on Cozart and his $13 million contract for one season. Cozart was an All-Star and a 4.7-WAR player in 2017 before battling a shoulder injury.  

Avila is working within a just-opened, three-year window to build this back into a contending team, true. It would be folly to spend big money or deplete the top end of a farm system you just rebuilt on stop-gap players, also true.

But this franchise, this fan base, cannot endure another 100-loss season. Already, there is an entire generation of fans who have disassociated themselves from this team. There is an urgency to be, if not significantly better in 2020, at least interesting.

Waiting for the prices to bottom out on the free-agent market, loading up on minor-league free agents and Rule 5 picks won’t cut it anymore. There are players available now, players who fit within the organization's constraints, who can markedly improve the product on the field.

Instead of hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, it’s time for the Tigers to be more assertive. The landscape has changed. Players are flying off the board. Don’t wait to see whose left. Go get the players you want.

Twitter @cmccosky