The Tigers have struck a new deal with general manager Al Avila, with the team announcing the move following a report from Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. It’s said to be a multi-year deal.
Avila’s precise new contract terms aren’t yet known, but he had previously been working under an agreement that ran though the 2020 campaign. Clearly, then, ownership has given him a strong vote of confidence and clear mandate to continue the organization’s rebuilding effort.
Outwardly, the Detroit organization has struggled massively since it installed Avila following the ouster of long-time GM Dave Dombrowski in the middle of the 2015 season. The Tigers made a run at contending in the ensuing season, but fell short of the playoffs. Ever since, the club has been dreadful, racking up two-straight 98-loss campaigns and carrying a 28-54 record entering play today.
There obviously have been positive developments in the team’s talent pipeline, which was notably dry at the time Avila took the helm. The Tigers cracked the top-ten farm rankings of MLB.com at the start of the 2019 season, though they didn’t fare quite so well in the most recent rankings of Baseball America and Fangraphs. All would agree that the Tigers have some premium talents now in the system, led by recent 1-1 draft choice Casey Mize and fellow hurlers including Matt Manning, Franklin Perez, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser, and Alex Faedo. All but Perez, who was picked up in the Verlander swap, were recent top Tigers draft choices.
Some would argue those improvements have not been substantial enough, or haven’t come as quickly as they should have. There’s a case to be made, to be sure, but it’s also fair to point out that Avila had an exceptionally difficult slate of contracts to deal with. Unlike the division-rival White Sox, whose best veterans were relatively youthful and playing under appealing extensions, the Tigers hit the reset button with a host of massive contracts. The returns achieved for the Tigers’ veterans don’t seem terribly fruitful at present, but it’s also hard to say in retrospect that Avila could or should have done better at the time for well-compensated players such as Justin Verlander (link), Justin Upton (link), Ian Kinsler (link), Justin Wilson and Avila’s own son, Alex Avila (link). It’s not as if the Tigers ever had much hope of moving Miguel Cabrera and Jordan Zimmermann — or Victor Martinez and Anibal Sanchez, whose contracts have since expired — which has made it hard to fully draw down the club’s payroll.
If there’s one deal that’s really raised questions, it’s the J.D. Martinez swap. But indications were at the time that the market was much more limited than was generally supposed from the outside; perhaps the most questionable aspect of the organization’s decisionmaking was not to move Martinez earlier. The timing question is certainly relevant also to now-injured hurler Michael Fulmer, who might have brought back a haul had the Tigers marketed him early in his career. There’s an argument to be made that the team also missed a window on Nicholas Castellanos, who was in at least some demand at previous points but can now only be marketed as a rental piece this summer.
It remains to be seen how Avila will handle not only Castellanos, but controllable pitchers Matthew Boyd and Shane Greene, at this year’s deadline. But he’ll enter the summer trading period with the full backing of ownership and a lengthy timeline upon which to cast his gaze.
Whatever one’s perspective on Avila’s work to date, Tigers chairman Chris Ilitch made clear that Avila has handled his position as the organization prefers. As Ilitch put it in a prepared statement: “It’s clear to anyone that follows Tigers baseball that our organization is undergoing a significant transformation. I’ve been impressed with Al’s leadership and focus, and the steadfast way he has led our baseball operations since becoming GM.”