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Offensive upgrades encouraging, but Tigers GM Al Avila still trying to add to pitching

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Al Avila walked out onto the field at Joker Marchant Stadium on Tuesday smiling from ear to ear.

Usually when he conducts the first big-league staff meeting of the spring with his manager and coaches, it’s a tedious affair, in the stuffy board room inside the administration building, with time-consuming video presentations.

This year, the pandemic made the board room a non-starter. The meeting was pushed outside into the open air. And, to the Tigers' general manager's joy, the zeal of his coaching staff made the video presentations unnecessary.

Former Tigers starting pitcher Rick Porcello remains on the free-agent market.

“All those guys, the pitching coaches, the hitting coaches, the infield and outfield coaches, they’ve already been watching video,” Avila said. “They’ve talked to the players. They’ve done all the analytical work and the video work.

"They’ve already got players on programs.”

A month ago, Avila got an email from new pitching coach Chris Fetter. It contained pitching plans for every pitcher that was coming to camp. Pitchers and catchers report on Wednesday. The pitching plans were set a month ago. The full squad doesn't report until Monday, but the plans are already in place.

“That guy has put in so much work already, it’s just amazes me,” Avila said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that. A lot of the leg work had already been done before the meeting. That’s why I had a big smile on my face.

“We are going into spring training more advanced and more prepared than we ever have been.”

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Avila and his staff did their part, too. At a cost of just under $14 million, the Tigers have upgraded their offense with veterans Robbie Grossman (left field, $5 million), Jonathan Schoop (second base, $4.5 million), Wilson Ramos (catcher, $2 million), Nomar Mazara (right field, $1.75 million) and non-roster invitee Renato Nunez, who has a chance to win the first-base job.

“I do like the players we’ve added,” Avila said. “We wanted to create more competition for our young players and at this point we’re looking to win more games. We are looking for players to make the club through good performance and competition.”

There’s still work to be done on the pitching side, though. Thus far, only one starting pitcher has been added to the major-league roster — right-hander Jose Urena ($3.25 million).

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“We’re definitely looking for more pitching as we speak,” Avila said. “Whether it be a major-league contract or a minor-league deal with a camp invite. We’re definitely looking. For pitching in general, but one more starter would be ideal.”

Veteran starters still on the market include former Tigers Rick Porcello and Anibal Sanchez, as well as two former Braves the Tigers have expressed interest in before — Taijuan Walker and Julio Teheran.

“You come through this meeting, we have a lot of questions that aren’t answered right now,” Avila said. “We just wanted to add more pieces to the puzzle, more players to the roster, to create more opportunities and help make our team better.”  

Avila, in a Zoom interview Tuesday, addressed a variety of topics:

Tigers center fielder JaCoby Jones make a catch on a line out in the sixth inning.  Detroit Tigers vs Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park in Detroit on Aug. 10, 2020.

►On how the outfield might shake out with the additions of Mazara and Grossman, and whether Mazara can handle playing right field defensively at spacious Comerica Park.

“The good thing is, Grossman can play all three outfield positions,” he said. “With Mazara, we can make adjustments depending on the ballpark and where guys fit from a defensive perspective. JaCoby Jones will be our center fielder and Grossman will play left (mostly).

“As for Mazara and Victor Reyes, it’s all about competition and performance. There is no reason, if they are performing, that both can’t play.”

►On whether the club is considering carrying a fifth outfielder — Rule 5 draftee Akil Badoo or Christin Stewart.

“Baddoo is a real good-looking prospect,” Avila said. “He’s a true center fielder. We hope what we see in spring training is enough, like it was with Victor Reyes (three years ago), where you know he can play defense, he can run the bases well and give you a competitive at-bat — to where you can keep him on the roster.

“Stewart has to come and hit. His tool is his bat. If he hits, his fielding will be adequate. But it’s about the bat.”

►On outfield prospect Daz Cameron.

“He is an up and coming prospect for us,” he said. “He had an arm injury (during winter ball in Puerto Rico) but he should be 100 percent by the time the position players are full-go (Monday). He is going to have to compete for a job.

“But he is a guy we feel has a future here. He has a lot of potential that is still untapped.”

►On the decision to sign Ramos over former Tigers catcher (and Avila’s son) Alex Avila.

“It really came down to Alex and Wilson — an offense (Ramos) vs. defense (Avila) decision,” Avila said. “We decided to go with the more offensive-oriented catcher just because we’d been so bad offensively behind the plate. And with Wilson, nobody ever said this guy is a butcher behind the plate. Most of our guys felt he’ll be fine back there. He’s a good leader.”

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►On whether rookie catcher Jake Rogers would be best served by being a backup at the big-league level or playing every day in Triple-A.

“Depending on what we see in spring, that’ll be a question we meet on a few times before the start of the season and probably continue to meet on once the season starts,” he said. “Really, it’s going to depend on his progress this spring.”

►On non-roster invitee Renato Nunez, who hit 43 home runs with the Orioles over the last two seasons.

“That was (assistant general manager) David Chadd,” Avila said. “He was on him for a long time. He kept pounding on it — ‘We’ve got to sign this guy.’ Well, it’s hard when a guy is expecting a Major League contract and you’re not offering one. But David worked on it all winter. I have to give him the credit.

“The truth of the matter is, he’s a real power hitter and he’s still a young man (entering his age-27 season). He can be considered with any of the younger guys we’ve got here, someone who could be part of the future. That’s how young he is.”

►On Miguel Cabrera playing some at first base.

“He’s sent AJ and I videos, not just of him working out, but of him fielding ground balls, making throws and moving around — bouncing around, really, trying to show us he can still play first base,” Avila said. “AJ, I think, is open to giving him some innings at first base. But it’s all about keeping Miggy healthy.”

►On pitching prospect Matt Manning.

“I have to believe at some point during the season — I’m not going to predict when — but Matt Manning might get his chance at the major-league level. And that’s going to be a really exciting thing to watch.”

►On left-handed pitching prospect Joey Wentz, returning after Tommy John surgery.

“He’s making tremendous progress,” Avila said. “He’s throwing out to 120 feet. He’ll be working out with the club since he’s able to do everything physically. I’m excited to see him make a full recovery at some point and pitch for us…It’s too early to say (if he will pitch in the big leagues this season), but he looks good and feel good and the trainers are pumped about his progress.”

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky