Avila: Tigers looking for sustainable success, not a quick fix
Detroit — Cars were lined up for miles Friday afternoon, clogging Rosa Parks Boulevard on both sides of the freeway and wrapping around the site of old Tiger Stadium, waiting patiently to pull up to the big black semi-truck parked on Cochrane Street.
The truck belonged to The Players Alliance, who brought their Pull Up Neighbor tour to Flint and Detroit Thursday, distributing baseball gear, food and COVID-19 relief essentials to more than 2,000 families.
Former Tiger Cameron Maybin, who is one of the founding members of The Players Alliance, was the headliner and he was joined by current Tigers pitcher John Schreiber, pitching coach Chris Fetter and Angels prospect and Detroit native Werner Blakely, Jr.
General manager Al Avila was on hand, too, taking a long stroll through the line of cars personally handing out baseball equipment.
“We’re very proud of this,” Avila said. “Most of these guys are former Tigers and we have some present Tigers involved, too. So, this Alliance here has really been a Tigers’ event.”
There’s no doubting a distinctive Tigers’ flavor, with Curtis Granderson being the Alliance’s president and Edwin Jackson the group’s secretary. But the Alliance, established six months ago to promote inclusion, opportunity and equality in baseball and communities, is now more than 150-members strong and has contributed more than $40 million to urban and underprivileged communities across the country.
“Cameron is a very outgoing guy and a very caring guy,” said Avila, who helped draft Maybin to the Tigers in 2005 and then brought him back in 2016 and again last season. “And these players are very generous. They’ve put in a lot of hard work and they got a long way to go. It’s really a blessing, it really is.”
This was Avila’s first public appearance since the end of the season and thus his first chance to speak on the club’s priorities and goals for this offseason. And he is keenly aware of what the Tigers’ fan base is clamoring for.
After four dismal rebuilding seasons, with only one multi-year contract left on the books (Miguel Cabrera’s $30 million per) and with a new on-field management team led by former World Series champion AJ Hinch, fans are looking for the Tigers to make some serious noise this offseason.
Not yet, was Avila’s response.
“I look at it as being disciplined this year and resisting the urge to make a big splash,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is go out and spend big money then have to try to get rid of it next year or the year after.”
The Cincinnati Reds are a cautionary tale in that regard. They went for it in 2020, spending big on free agents like Nick Castellanos, Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray and Mike Moustakas. They got into the expanded playoffs but were swept in two games.
Now they face some hard decisions going forward.
“From the beginning, we said we want this to be a long-term success, not a short-term fix,” Avila said. “To go out and make a big splash and it doesn’t work out, then you’re trying to dump salary the next year — that’s not what we’re looking at.
“We’re looking for long-term sustainability and you have to be disciplined to do that.”
Don’t misunderstand: The Tigers won’t be standing pat this offseason. Avila said he hopes to add another starting pitcher or two, another impact bat or two and possibly a catcher. But because of the obvious economic obstacles, he’s not looking to sign players at the top of the market who are looking for long-term deals.
“Coming from a pandemic where there was nobody in the stands and a 60-game season, that’s a tough place to come from,” he said. “And going into the uncertainty of next year is also difficult in terms of trying to plan.”
The reality is, the Tigers absorbed heavy financial losses last year. There were furloughs and layoffs on both the business and baseball operations departments. And while there is optimism that 2021 will be closer to normal in terms of stadium revenues and length of season, nothing is guaranteed.
Economics aside, too, the Tigers’ developmental timeline took a hit with the cancellation of the minor league season. So the trajectory of the rebuild stagnated.
“Right now, from the losses we’ve come from and the possible losses we’re facing in 2021, it’s really difficult,” Avila said. “And we also want some of our younger guys to get closer and the young players who are already here to feel more established.
“There is a timing factor between economics and the talent on the field.”
The idea is to spend big on free agents when the team is ready to win. The Tigers aren’t there yet.
Avila talked about leaning on some of the mainstays. Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer will likely be anchoring the rotation, with one or two other veterans added to compete with rookies Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal — and, later in the season, hopefully, prospects Matt Manning and Alex Faedo will join the fray.
The bullpen will likely return mostly intact with Bryan Garcia, Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer and Joe Jimenez competing for high-leverage roles and Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander manning workhorse multi-inning assignments.
Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro and Niko Goodrum are expected to play lead roles on the infield. Castro will likely get the first shot at the shortstop spot with Goodrum possibly playing second base. Candelario is playing third base this winter in the Dominican and that’s where Avila expects he’ll play in 2021.
“In talking to AJ, he likes flexibility,” Avila said. “Ideally, Candy would be at third. That’s probably the best place for him, but his ability to play first base is good for him, too. Willi can play short and second. Niko can play anywhere.
“Where they end up playing will be determined by how things shake out through spring training.”
JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes are expected to resume their regular roles in the outfield. Harold Castro will likely enter camp with one of the utility roles.
Eventually, Avila will add a catcher, a first baseman and a corner outfielder. But Avila doesn’t want to completely close the book on players like Christin Stewart and Grayson Greiner, nor does he want to curb the development of prospects Jake Rogers and Daz Cameron.
“I can tell you we have a wide net,” he said. “We are looking at different possibilities and keeping all of our options open and we will see where it takes us. I’m not going to get pinned down to any one guy in particular.
“We will cast a wide net and try to bring in what we need the most.”
Avila knows this isn’t what fans want to hear. But it is the reality, nevertheless.
“You have to have thick skin,” he said. “I know people want it right now and you get attacked here and there. We will see it through and in the end, we’ll make the right decisions and be successful.”