Prospecting for baseball players is like prospecting for gold: lots of shiny objects, but more often empty pans. Al Avila, 64, was fired on Wednesday for too many empty pans and, in truth, not enough gold from the river. Seven years after the Detroit Tigers gave him the general manager job, they took it away.
“It’s really about progress,” owner Christopher Ilitch told the media at a news conference Wednesday. “We need to make progress.”
There hasn’t been much of that lately. Detroit’s record speaks for itself: the won-loss record — which is an abysmal 25 games under .500 entering Wednesday — and the development record, which, despite trading proven talent for minor league hopefuls and pulling in year after year of high draft picks, has yet to produce a star.
Avila, in his time, made some good moves — like hiring A.J. Hinch — but more often he missed on trades, free agent signings and minor leaguers. Even so, the mistakes he made cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Frankly, they should be judged alongside the questionable move of hiring him in the first place.
In August 2015, the Tigers suddenly dumped GM Dave Dombrowski, who in 14 years had led the Tigers to five playoff seasons, four straight American League Central Division titles and two World Series appearances. The inside story back then was that Dombrowski had gotten a bit too big for his fancy suits, and Mike Ilitch was tired of near-misses for a championship.
But whatever flaws Dombrowski had, his accomplishments look like absolute gold compared with Avila’s, which — and we don’t mean this to be cruel — add up to nothing. Not a single division title or playoff game in seven years. Only one winning season (2016).
That won’t get you a lot of job security.
A burden too heavy to him to bear
You could argue that Dombrowski’s mission and Avila’s were different; that the former was tasked with reaching the promised land, while the latter was stuck with rebuilding.
But Dombrowski started with nothing as well. The Tigers had been bone dry when he arrived in 2002, 14 seasons without a playoff appearance. Like Avila, he drafted, he traded and he signed free agents. The difference is, more of his moves worked out — and within five years of his hiring, the Tigers had gone to a World Series.
Under Dombrowski, the Tigers traded for guys like Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer, hired Jim Leyland, drafted Justin Verlander, and signed Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordoñez.
Under Avila, the Tigers traded for guys like Elvin Rodriguez, hired Ron Gardenhire, drafted Spencer Torkelson and signed players like Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann and Eduardo Rodriguez.
You get the picture.
In fairness to Avila, he was supposed to get better while cutting salaries. With Mike Ilitch’s passing, the organization shifted from “win a World Series now” to “get this business under control.” Dombrowski had the advantage of spending the senior Ilitch’s money — and he did, on huge deals for Cabrera, Prince Fielder and others.
Avila was put in charge of the austerity program. Cut the payroll. Trim the fat. Build from the bottom up. It’s like Dombrowski was ordered to cook up coq au vin, and Avila was supposed to feed an army with sloppy joes.
This year’s dud did him in
Whatever the metaphor, he didn’t do it. I imagine Avila spending big money to sign Eduardo Rodriguez, who has missed most of the year with personal issues, and Javier Báez, who has mostly been a bust at the plate, doesn’t sit well with Ilitch’s sense of productivity. The young stars not developing only made it worse.
This year began with a huge bubble of excitement. Torkelson, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Riley Greene — the mother lode of high draft talent that all those losing seasons had delivered. All were expected to contribute, and dreams of a meaningful September danced around the Detroit psyche.
Instead, two weeks shy of September, Mize is out for the season with an injury, Torkelson is back in the minors, Skubal went from early shine to late dullness and Greene has cooled from his hot start.
More importantly, the losing keeps piling up, and manager Hinch can only do so much to change the culture when he can’t change the standings.
In the end, that’s what this firing is about. Change. I suspect that Ilitch grew tired of seeing this massive investment continually under-delivering, and realized, correctly, in my opinion, that he had given Avila enough rope, and the future at best looked, well, knotty.
“I feel very comfortable that I gave Al the time and the resources to accomplish our mission,” Ilitch said, “and he made good progress up until this year when our progress stalled.”
Ilitch also promised “an exhaustive and thorough” search for the next GM. Good. That’s more than what happened last time, when Avila was simply elevated from the ranks, mostly because he was loyal to the Ilitches and supposedly had worked alongside Dombrowski enough to deliver his goods without his attitude.
It didn’t happen. Dombrowski went on to win a World Series in Boston a few years later, while the Tigers sank deeper into obscurity. Avila actually oversaw one rebuild and essentially another when that one failed. The Tigers may be on the cusp on a third.
It may be that the next guy reaps the benefits of Avila’s vision. Maybe Greene becomes a star. Maybe Torkelson finds himself. Maybe Spencer Turnbull and Mize come back strong from injuries. Maybe Jackson Jobe becomes something.
But that’s a lot of maybes. The Tigers fans are tired of watching the soil, hoping green shoots emerge. This year was the biggest wet firecracker of them all, and now, in August, the Tigers are simply playing out the string. That’s not going to send people streaming down Woodward Avenue.
In hindsight, it’s likely Avila wasn’t the guy the Tigers should have hired seven years ago. He mostly lost at the prospecting game — especially in trades and signings — and sadly, the Tigers did, too.
So they pull the plug. No shock. Sometimes, when you put that pan in the water, you come up with real gold. More often you come up with sludge, and hope for something more satisfying in the next dip. The Tigers, once more, go back to the river. Patience will be in demand.