For Tigers GM Al Avila, approaching 20th Opening Day, the hope is starting to feel real

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — For general manager Al Avila, it must feel a little bit like coming to the end of a long, dark tunnel and seeing, at last, some light.

Thursday will be Avila’s 20th Opening Day with the Tigers and his sixth as the general manager. But it might well be the first one in a few years where hope feels real.

“It’s very exciting,” he said in a Zoom conference Tuesday before the Tigers wrapped up their Grapefruit League season in Lakeland, Florida. “From Day 1, we emphasized winning and we’re going to walk away from here with a winning record.”

Tigers GM Al Avila is approaching his 20th Opening Day with the franchise.

After losing 345 games the last three years, even a winning record in spring feels like a step in the right direction.

“Working with AJ (Hinch) and the new coaching staff has been very exciting for me,” he said. “I feel very happy going into the season with that. We like the team.”

It’s not a contending team yet. Avila has no delusions about that. But, unlike the last few years when he was in full tear-down mode in terms of roster and salary structure, he can see the makings of one.

It starts with the young pitching, with top prospects Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize beginning their first full season, and with Matt Manning and possibly Joey Wentz coming later in the summer.

“I’ll answer your question before you even ask it,” he said. “What’s going to be the most important thing we’re trying to accomplish this year? It’s to get our young pitchers established and making progress moving forward.”

In that mix, too, are veterans Matthew Boyd, who Avila called “our leader,” and Spencer Turnbull, who is expected to cement his place at the top of the rotation. Avila also said he expects relievers Alex Lange and Logan Shore to debut and contribute at some point this season.

“We’ve talked about it from the beginning,” he said. “But we have to get the pitching right as we move forward to have any kind of success.”

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What Avila envisions in the next couple of years is a kind of perfect storm where players like shortstop Willi Castro, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes form a solid core that gets strengthened by the arrival of a couple of waves of younger players and prospects — Derek Hill, Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers, Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Kody Clemens, Dillon Dingler, Parker Meadows, Ryan Kreidler, etc.

“We’re going to continue to find veteran guys to add to the mix,” he said. “But it’s the combination of all that coming together at some point in the near future with the veteran guys kind of being that glue — it’s a process and it’s all tied together.”

That’s what a light at the end of a four-year tunnel looks like.

Avila talked on a variety of topics:

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On Miguel Cabrera playing first base: “We’re trying to get the best out of Miguel Cabrera. That’s all it is. He’s got himself in great shape. He’s doing a lot of rehab maintenance to keep himself on the field. You see him this spring, he’s bouncing around like he’s a little kid again. So I know he’s excited about that.”

Avila, though, acknowledged concern about putting too much stress on Cabrera’s chronically-damaged right knee.

“The main thing is to be careful and not overdo it,” he said. “That will be up to AJ and the staff to manage the amount of time he’s on his feet at first base. It will be monitored very closely. We have the technology now where we can tell when a guy is fatigued.

“All eyes will be on Miguel Cabrera and how many innings he plays at first base to make sure he stays healthy.”

Miguel Cabrera is fast approaching 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.

On Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo: “It was a little bit of a gamble. Not only had he not played above A-ball, he hadn’t played in two years (due to an injury in 2019). But our reports from A-ball were really, really good. Some of our guys felt he might be able to handle it because he was very athletic, had all the tools and physically, he didn’t look like the typical A-ball guy.”

Baddoo’s emotional and mental maturity were just as advanced.

“They told me his makeup was really strong,” Avila said. “He was a really outgoing, personable guy who went about his business with a lot of self-confidence. Quite frankly, part of being a big-leaguer is feeling like you belong and having no fear.

“I think it as a combination of that physical and mental makeup that we’ve seen on the field.”

On having fans back for Opening Day: “Even though it’s going to be limited to just 20% capacity, it’s going to be very exciting to get back to some degree of normalcy. I know for a fact our fans are going to be safe and they’re going to enjoy it. And our players are going to be safe and they’re going to enjoy it.

“We’re all looking forward to it and hopefully we can get back to full capacity sometime down the road.”

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On players getting COVID-19 vaccinations: “I’m hopeful we can get everybody vaccinated during this homestand (April 1-8). That’s the goal. I don’t know if we can do it, but we’re doing everything possible to make it happen.

“Obviously, this is a volunteer situation and players don’t have to do it," Avila said. "Most, I believe, will, as will the coaches and the front office. The expectation is to have the majority vaccinated before we go on our first road trip.”

On sending former All-Star Joe Jimenez to Triple A: “The conversation with Joe was very, very tough. He’s a home-grown product that we’ve developed in our system. We feel Joe is a big-league pitcher. However, we told him, ‘You could’ve made the club and maybe been the 13th pitcher on the staff. But that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for more than that.’

“And he’s capable of more than that," Avila said. "That’s what we’re going to try to get out of him.”

Other bits and pieces:

►Avila said the plan was still to have Torkelson start at High Single-A West Michigan and Greene start at Double-A Erie.

►Right-handed pitcher Rony Garcia, who has been out all spring after an appendectomy, will not likely be placed on the 60-day injured list. That means the Tigers will have to trim a player off the 40-man roster to make room for Derek Holland, who made the team as a non-roster invitee.

►Right-hander Wily Peralta, who was signed to a minor-league deal, has still not been cleared to participate in camp. Avila said there was no timetable, though Peralta is in the United States and presumably Florida.

“By the time he gets going, he’ll be ready to go when we need him,” Avila said. “With the uncertainties of the season with how things are going to go with pitching (workloads) because of the lack of innings last year, every pitcher you can have coming in or coming up and waiting in line is a plus.

“I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as a possible solution.”