Al Avila and the Tigers are stuck in 2019


About a week ago, said Al Avila, the Tigers brass entered lockdown mode at Comerica Park to prepare for the trade deadline. They had assets to sell, potentially a giant one if they could drum up the right offer for Tarik Skubal.

“We had already starting making some phone calls – or should I say, receiving some phone calls and inquiries. Not a lot,” Avila said after the deadline passed Tuesday afternoon.

The Tigers’ apparently passive approach left them with almost nothing: a 20-year-old pitcher in A-ball for Robbie Grossman and a 24-year-old pitcher in Double-A for Michael Fulmer. Avila said the possibility of trading anyone else was ‘overblown,’ just a week after it was reported the Tigers were open to trading ‘just about everyone’ on their roster. This might sound familiar.

Three summers ago, the Tigers were last in the AL Central. Three summers ago, this was more or less fine. The organization was rebuilding from the ground up. Shortly before the deadline, it was reported the Tigers were willing to trade 'virtually anyone' on their roster. They had assets to sell, potentially a big one if they could drum up the right offer for Matthew Boyd.

They wound up with meager returns in individual deals for closer Shane Greene and outfielder Nick Castellanos: three pitchers and one outfielder in the minors. Only one of them, reliever Alex Lange, factors into their future today. At the time, Avila said it just wasn’t possible or palatable to trade anyone else.

“What made it more difficult is there was a plethora of relievers available this year,” he said. “I don’t know much you guys followed it, but I think it was somewhere between 10 and 15 relievers available.”

This year, the Tigers had three or four relievers available themselves. Or so it appeared. Fulmer was the only one to go, when Gregory Soto, Andrew Chafin and Joe Jimenez all had higher trade value. Had the Tigers been proactive in finding a suitor, Soto could have been the centerpiece of a solid return.

“I don’t know how closely you guys follow this,” Avila said Tuesday, “but the market was flooded with relievers. And whether there were more buyers than relievers, I think there were more relievers than buyers this time around.”

The market can't always be the culprit. At some point, Avila is neglecting his duties as a GM -- or at least failing to fulfill them like his peers. He said “there weren’t as many conversations” around the Tigers’ relievers as the media suggested; it’s his job to facilitate them. In the conversations they did have, he said the “possible return just did not move the needle for us.” It’s on Avila to thread it in different directions.

The Marlins packaged a pair of relievers to the Blue Jays on Tuesday for a top-100 infield prospect in Triple-A: Jordan Groshans. The former first-round pick has had a down season, but he’s a 22-year-old hitter knocking on the door of the majors. The Marlins and first-year GM Kim Ng went out and found a deal that could pay dividends for the big-league club as soon as next season. Avila and the Tigers waited for a last-minute call from the Twins for Fulmer.

It would have taken some nerve to deal Boyd in 2019. The lefty was in the midst of what looked like a breakout season with multiple years of team control remaining. It also would have required some creativity. Avila and the Tigers dangled Boyd’s name on the market, but neglected to really cast any lines. They waited for offers that never came, then said they “never even got close to making a deal” because interest around the league was “overstated.”

“The perception was, there was more interest and more conversations than actually took place,” Avila said. He added that the Tigers loved Boyd, believed in his “breakout year” and viewed him as a “viable, really good pitcher as we move forward.” They would cut him loose two years later.

It would have taken even more nerve to deal Skubal this year. The 25-year-old lefty looks like an ace. The Tigers made him available for the same reason they did Boyd, to reel in the young position players they lack. And then they took the same cursory approach, ending with Avila saying it was “overblown as far as the amount of inquiries or conversations” we had.

“It’s not like we were calling teams and trying to push the issue,” he said. “I explained to you guys very well: If the right deal were to be pursued, we would have to have an open mind and look at it. And in those conversations that we had, we just didn’t feel that the return would help us as much as we would’ve liked.”

The Tigers aren’t wrong for holding onto Skubal; they may well be proven right. But why put him on the market if they’d rather just pull him off? Their roster is a problem, and they look uninspired in searching for solutions. It won’t matter how many Cy Young awards Skubal wins in Detroit if Riley Greene is the only high-caliber hitter supporting him. That’s an even scarier proposition than watching him win Cy Young awards somewhere else.

Worse, the Tigers look inactive. That’s why they’re stuck. Avila said Tuesday that if they could “improve our Major League club,” they would “certainly listen” to offers on their better players. How about doing the talking? This is their own mess to clean up. On the trade market, they keep acting like it’s someone else’s.

"You hope to be satisfied with what is being offered," Avila said. "And if you’re not, you move on and you’re very happy to keep the players that you have."

But are they? The players the Tigers have are part of the saddest season in recent memory. Things were ugly three years ago. The fact that they're not much better now makes them so much worse.

After the 2019 deadline, Avila acknowledged the Tigers’ lack of promising position players was “a legitimate concern.” To address it, he said they were poised to start trading arms for bats. He went so far as to say the Tigers were in a favorable position because “there’s a bigger shortage of starting pitching than anything else in baseball … and that for us is a strength.” Three years later, they’ve yet to trade an arm for a bat.

After this year’s deadline, Avila acknowledged that improving the offense remains a need moving forward. And while the Tigers came up empty again on the trade market, he said “there’s still an opportunity going into the offseason of adding hitting talent.” A short while later, Harold Castro was batting third and playing first base in Detroit's starting lineup against the Twins.

It’s 2022, and the Tigers are last in the AL Central.