Published July 6, 2019
To the beleaguered Tigers fans, newsflash: Theo Epstein isn’t walking through that door. Neither is Jeff Luhnow.
And neither is any other big league executive. The Tigers are in the middle of their “darkest hour.” The words are those of the man who’s already walked through that door, and—for the next several years, it appears—isn’t walking out.
Al Avila has been given a contract extension by the Tigers to continue to preside over the painful makeover of the team as its GM.
The news, announced on the Friday of the July 4th weekend, has mostly gone over like the proverbial lead balloon.
Of all the words in the English language, “patience” is the one that professional sports fans might like the least. In fact, they detest the P-word.
But the P-word is being preached by the Tigers, who don’t really have too many other words to use right now. What else can you preach when the big league team is 28-55 and the news from the farm in regard to the prospects’ progress is less than encouraging?
What adds to the frustration of the Tigers faithful is that while they want to do nothing but pass a referendum on the job that Avila is doing, this is the absolute worst time to do so.
The Tigers are five years removed from their last postseason appearance and it seems like they are at least five more years away from their next. But it must be noted that franchise rebuilds are like searching for a light switch in the dark: You don’t know for sure that you’re on the right path until you find the switch and flip it.
The two camps
There are pretty much two camps that the fans are in when it comes to the Tigers’ situation.
One is the Haters of Al Avila, who look at the joke that is the current roster, see all the former Tigers on other teams who are doing great things and the struggles of the prospects that were procured in return for those former Tigers, and determine that Avila is an incompetent.
The other camp is the Defenders of Al Avila, who think that the GM is on the right path—trimming payroll, stockpiling youth and slowly but surely cobbling together a farm system that other baseball people can look at with praise.
Neither camp is right in its belief. And neither camp is wrong.
This is because, as noted above, it’s far too early to pass judgment on the Avila Rebuild Era, which began two summers ago, when the likes of J.D. Martinez and the three Justins—Wilson, Upton and Verlander—were traded.
Avila himself nailed it, speaking to the press after his extension was announced on Friday.
“We’re right in the middle of it,” Avila said about the rebuild.
The Tigers are in the middle of it, alright. But what exactly are they in the middle of?
Any team can get cut payroll. Any team can get younger. Any team can start rebuilding. That’s easy.
But you can’t do those things forever. You can’t keep going down the same path in a straight line. In any maze—and that’s what these rebuilding things are—you’ll never get to your destination until you start turning some corners.
The Avila Haters say the Tigers have yet to turn any corners. The Avila Defenders say a few of them have already been negotiated.
Here’s a dose of reality.
The Tigers are, as Avila said, in the middle of it. They’ve embarked on a journey, the fate of which won’t be determined for at least two more years. Until then, the Haters and the Defenders can make their case all they want—and they will—but it won’t mean a hill of beans either way. This is a verdict that will render itself, independent of any judge or jury.
The aforementioned Epstein’s Chicago Cubs and Luhnow’s Houston Astros both navigated their teams through rebuilds successfully; both teams won a World Series as a result of that success.
But both men would tell you that there’s always a little luck involved along the way. This is true. Yet despite that modesty, what trumps luck is developing players.
What has Tigers fans antsy is that there aren’t any Jose Altuves (Astros) or Kris Bryants (Cubs) on the 40-man roster, as they were when their respective teams were losing at the big league level.
It’s all about perspective. Two years of a rebuild isn’t really that long, but when the fans see their team get their brains beat out night after night, and the GM affirms that this is the “darkest hour,” it’s hard to blame them for feeling hopeless.
Now, a word (or two) about Chris Ilitch.
He’s seen as the supreme villain, even by the Avila Haters—who look at the GM as the henchman and Ilitch as the well-dressed bad guy who sits in his plush office, stroking a cat.
Let’s get something straight, right now. Chris Ilitch wants to win. Every pro sports owner wants to win. Professional sports might be a wacky business, but what isn’t wacky is that a winning baseball team brings in much more revenue than a losing one. Look at the dwindling crowds this year at Comerica Park.
There is absolutely no incentive to sit idly by while a fan base crumbles around you. And the Tigers are hemorrhaging fans right now—both at the ballpark and in the living rooms, with TV ratings in the toilet.
I promise you that Ilitch will spend money. It’s just not quite the time to do so yet. But he’d better not wait too long. The Tigers are potentially missing out on a window of opportunity, given the state of their division.
The Twins are up and down. This year, they’re up. Talk to me in 2020 about them, though. The Indians are in decline. The White Sox are still finding their way. The Royals stink.
The Tigers, if they open their wallets sooner rather than later, can leap frog the pack, given the pitchers they have coming down the pike by 2021.
And for those who are wishing for Ilitch to sell the team, dream on. Why would he? Is that what his father would want?
Where Ilitch seems to be tone deaf is in his repeated assertions that progress is clearly being made. The ugly, crooked numbers being posted by key position players in the minor league system don’t lie.
Jeff Moss of the Detroit Sports Rag Tweeted the raw facts on July 5.
I couldn’t care less about 108 pace MLB team.
I care about:
Jake Rogers: .214/.303/.427
I could go on. And on. And on.— Moss (DSR) (@jeffmoss91) July 5, 2019
Those numbers are stark and they should scare the hell out of Tigers fans.
Al Avila is the Tigers GM for better or for worse. He’s been given the green light to continue to oversee this project, complete with odors. He will write his own ticket—or his own epitaph.
Meanwhile, I have a suggestion for how to watch the Tigers until further notice: with one eye closed.