Al Avila Is Out in Detroit. What Will the Tigers Do Next?

© Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Wednesday, the Detroit Tigers fired general manager Al Avila. Mired in last place in the American League Central in what was supposed to be a resurgent season, the firing fit the mood around Detroit. This was meant to be the Tigers’ triumphant return to postseason contention, a culmination of seven years of stockpiling and honing. Instead, it’s been another lost season, adding to the gulf that separates today’s Tigers from the perennial World Series contenders of a decade ago.

It didn’t have to happen this way. Going into the year, we projected the Tigers as a 76-win team. That projection felt conservative; they won 77 games in 2021 and added Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodriguez to a promising core of young talent. Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning all stood ready to anchor the rotation. Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, two of the top prospects in all of baseball, would give the offense a boost. On the eve of the season, they added Austin Meadows. All of the arrows were pointing up.

Four months later, all of that optimism has disappeared. Báez is having one of his worst years as a professional. Rodriguez got hurt early in the year and then hit the restricted list while dealing with a personal matter. He last pitched in the majors on May 18; when he took the mound for Single-A Lakeland this past Saturday, it was his first game action since June 9. Meadows, the third piece of the team’s major league talent trifecta, has missed extended time with a laundry list of injuries, and playing hurt when available has resulted in sub-replacement-level production.

That alone would hurt the offense, but it gets worse. Torkelson, who came into the season as our fifth-ranked prospect overall, made the Opening Day roster. To put it mildly, things haven’t gone according to plan since. His .197/.282/.295 line led to a demotion to Triple-A, where he’s also scuffled. Greene broke his foot in spring training and hasn’t lit the world on fire since joining the big league club in June.

The returning players haven’t helped out much either. Put it all together, and the Tigers lineup has fallen far short of what was expected of them before the year, creating a historically bad offense:

Tigers Regulars vs. Projections
Position Player Proj wOBA wOBA Proj WAR/600 WAR/600
C Tucker Barnhart .285 .224 2.1 -1.7
C Eric Haase .295 .304 0.6 1.6
1B/DH Miguel Cabrera .306 .287 -0.2 -1.3
1B/DH Spencer Torkelson .351 .252 2.8 -2.0
2B Jonathan Schoop .320 .240 2.0 1.4
SS Javier Báez .320 .275 2.9 1.2
3B Jeimer Candelario .332 .273 3.0 0.2
LF Robbie Grossman .329 .275 1.9 -1.1
CF Riley Greene .335 .300 2.9 0.3
RF Austin Meadows .344 .307 2.4 -1.2

The underperformance is both staggering and broad-based. In a full season, that would be something like a 23-win shortfall relative to what we expected coming into the year. That doesn’t even cover the injuries and demotions; Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Victor Reyes, Akil Baddoo, and Derek Hill have covered a combined 929 plate appearances of playing time for the team. They’ve compiled a .251/.287/.347 line, good for a 79 wRC+ and -0.6 WAR.

The hitters have been the biggest problem, but the expected pitching boost hasn’t quite arrived either. Skubal’s new sinker is helping him break out (3.52 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 3 WAR) and the bullpen has been solid, but that’s where the fun stops. Mize had Tommy John surgery in June, and Manning hurt his shoulder in April and didn’t make it back to the majors until August 2. Rodriguez has been absent, while fellow free agent signee Michael Pineda has a 5.27 ERA (5.82 FIP) and is on the IL as well.

How does this all relate to Avila? There’s one very obvious way – he built the team. Avila joined the Tigers as an assistant general manager in 2002, served as Dave Dombrowski’s top lieutenant for years, and took over the general manager role when Dombrowski was fired in 2015. More than anyone else in the organization, ownership included, Avila has been one constant throughout the Tigers’ 21st-century team.

As Brandon Day detailed at Bless You Boys, Avila’s tenure as general manager was highlighted by inaction. The team was clearly headed for a down period when he took the helm; they’d lost some stars to free agency and some to aging. 2016 was a last hurrah – rookie Michael Fulmer and Justin Verlander led the pitching staff while Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler authored excellent seasons. By 2017, the team was in full rebuilding mode.

Rebuilding doesn’t appear to have been in Avila’s DNA. He generally kept his best performers, which is an admirable goal but doesn’t work as well when the rest of the team around them can’t measure up. Fulmer was a hot commodity after his sterling debut, and intermittently in the years to follow, but Avila held onto him until this year, when he traded him for a flier of a pitching prospect, Sawyer Gipson-Long. Nick Castellanos was rumored to be on the move one year before he was actually traded as a rental. Verlander left town as a salary dump rather than as Justin Freaking Verlander.

Amusingly, the team’s best trade of the Avila era was the one that sent the GM’s own son, Alex Avila, out of town. That trade returned Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes in exchange for the younger Avila and reliever Justin Wilson. Candelario leads the team in WAR since the start of the 2019 season, while Paredes was the key piece in the trade that netted Meadows. Aside from that, the team mostly got little out of the roster during its lean years.

To Avila’s credit, the Tigers drafted extremely well. The team’s first round picks have turned into top prospects at an impressive rate. Manning, Mize, Greene, and Torkelson were all drafted under Avila’s watch. Alex Faedo, another first round pick, reached the majors this year. Jackson Jobe looks like a potential difference-maker. Sure, the Tigers drafted at the top of the first round in many of those years – both Mize and Torkelson were first overall picks – but that’s still an enviable track record. Skubal was a ninth round pick, to boot.

Still, the Tigers never supplemented that top-end talent with effective minor league development, Skubal notwithstanding. Heck, even the four gems of the system have combined for exactly 1.5 wins above replacement in the majors so far, though brighter days are hopefully ahead. With all four having graduated, Detroit’s farm system is 24th in our current rankings, giving the team the dispiriting combination of a bad major league squad and no reinforcements coming.

The next Tigers general manager will have to balance between pressing with the current major league roster and looking to the future. Choosing which to tilt in favor of isn’t an easy decision; Detroit just spent six years building for the future, but so far the team they constructed has a historically bad offense and the third-worst record in the game. Projection systems didn’t think they were any great shakes heading into the year, and those projections will all look meaningfully worse when folding in this year’s data.

Tearing down again, exactly zero years into a successful window of contention, will be a tough sell for Tigers fans. The alternative, though, would be to run back a squad that just put up a historically inept offensive season, and one with scant help coming up from the minors. There’s probably some room to add in free agency, but they already did that this past offseason, and to make matters worse, plenty of the free agents they’d be competing for play shortstop, where they just signed Báez.

No matter which direction the next general manager chooses, the next year looms large for the Tigers. How they evaluate their young core will go a long way towards determining their best next steps. If those four marquee prospects are future stars, the Tigers might be in much better shape in 2023. If they’re more average than transcendent, there’s probably not enough on the rest of the roster to contend for the playoffs. To some extent, that will come down to belief; that quartet’s minor league numbers have been excellent across the board, but the major league numbers haven’t shown up yet, and balancing those two in making predictions about an unknown future is the name of the game.

That’s far from the only question the next GM will need to answer. Choosing which pieces of the major league roster to retain, rough 2022 and all, will play a big role in determining the 2023 team’s fate. Choosing how to overhaul the development system in an attempt to nurture more major-league caliber talent will be nearly as important next year, and more important in the long run. The Tigers are at a crossroads – just not the kind they hoped to find themselves at before this season started.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 months ago

What a magnificent division, the AL Central

3 months ago
Reply to  Thrynn

Both Centrals are embarrassments.

3 months ago
Reply to  Anon21

Oh hush. Carve the megamarket super rich teams out of the east and west divisions and they don’t look any different.

3 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

I basically agree with because an enormous number of the smaller markets are in the central divisions. That said the AL West lacks a true behemoth on the scale of the Cubs even though their market sizes are way larger on average.

3 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

Ah yes, can’t forget about the infamous big-market bullies like the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays

Last edited 3 months ago by cregwalker
3 months ago
Reply to  cregwalker

And the Padres

The Hammerermember
3 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

Ok AL east ? What teams are you going to carve out ?

Bruce Schwindtmember
3 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

Oh stop. Atlanta is not a mega market and neither is San Diego. Stop being so defensive about your team. Fact is the Central Divisions duck and would be even worse if they didn’t get easy wins against each other

3 months ago
Reply to  Bruce Schwindt

Yeah, and the Cardinals and Brewers have had a similar amount of recent success as the Padres and the Braves save for the Braves actually managing to go all the way last year.