MINNEAPOLIS — Al Avila has had a busy day. A bad day. Not the worst day, he concedes, but just before he was about to jump onto the elliptical for a much-needed workout, he received word that another one of his starting pitchers was headed to the disabled list. Now, they need two spot starters for this weekend’s series and not much 40-man roster space to work with. Luckily, for logistical reasons, Triple-A Toledo is playing at home.
Avila, the third-year Detroit Tigers general manager, has many things on his plate these days. Even in the dog days of summer, while the team is slogging through a season that has been, at times — like Thursday night’s blowout loss — as ugly as expected, but at other times — like the first 2 ½ months of the season — better than expected. Among his duties on this day is a sit-down interview with a beat reporter, who wants an August update on how the first full year of the rebuilding process is going.
There is one problem, though: First pitch is a little over 20 minutes away and Avila has one rule about such interviews; he will not do them during the game.
For all of his wide-ranging duties, game time is among his most sacred time. It’s where he can do what he made his name in baseball doing: Watching the game and evaluating the play, not only on the field in front of him, but also around the minor leagues, on an iPad, which he regularly tunes into the team’s eight minor league affiliates.
Avila will make it work, though, so he pulls up a chair in the bare visiting GM’s office at Target Field, and begins by saying the most obvious of things. That, no matter what the expectations were coming into the season, nor the reality of the Tigers’ rebuilding situation, he doesn’t deal with the losses. Nobody does. Not the coaches, or the players, or his front office team.
“This is very difficult to stomach this,” he says. “This is why people try to avoid rebuilds. Because the rebuilds are very, very tough on everybody’s mentality and psyche and they drive you crazy. I know it’s driven me crazy. A lot of days, especially days when the pitching doesn’t hold up and there’s no hitting, it’s a hard thing to deal with, there isn’t a doubt.”
The Tigers could have done it halfway. They could have pared the payroll down a bit, riding their past-prime players for another year or two and treaded water much the way they did the previous three seasons, sparing themselves some of the pain that’s now inflicted on a nightly basis. But that would have been merely a band-aid. With their payroll the way it was and the farm system so barren, they were close to committing franchise suicide, and Avila knew it.
“We were in a situation where, if we didn’t do the rebuild, then we would really be in a bad situation, believe me,” he says. “Believe me.”
For fans who are accustomed to the Tigers putting out a $200 million-plus payroll and competing for the postseason, it’s hard to believe in the team’s 50-73 record (entering Saturday). Their favorite players have been traded away. They, more than ever, are staying away. It’s an immediate-results society we live in, and on a daily basis, the Tigers’ immediate results are not good. They are young, inexperienced, lacking in offense and pitching and still learning the game. Many nights, like Thursday night’s 15-7 loss, it is ugly.
But during that game, Avila flipped through his farm system — even the Athletics farm system, watching a pitcher named Nolan Blackwood, who would be announced as one of the team’s two players to be named later in the Mike Fiers trade a couple days later — and was afforded glimpses at the goal, which won’t be realized until many years from now and perhaps, not ever.
“The positive developments are the guys that are performing well in the minor leagues,” he says. “Those are the bright spots. Not everybody is going to have a great year, not everybody is going to stay healthy, so the guys that stay healthy and perform, those are the bright spots and we’ve had more than a few.”
Earlier in the day, the team promoted center fielder Daz Cameron to Triple-A Toledo. Cameron was one of three players acquired from the Astros for right-hander Justin Verlander last season. Another, catcher Jake Rogers, is fighting back from an early-season slump and remains viewed as the team’s catcher of the future. Two of the team’s recent draftees, Kody Clemens and Brock Deatherage, performed well enough to reach Class A Lakeland this season. And though their bushel of top pitching prospects has turned in a mixed bag of performances this season, the words Avila keeps receiving from his top scouts are that the influx of younger players in the system over the past year have serious potential. “Stay the course,” is what one texted him after a recent trip to Double-A Erie, watching infielders Isaac Paredes, Sergio Alcantara and Willi Castro.
But Casey Mize’s strong minor league debut in Lakeland and up-and-comer Wenceel Perez’s 4-for-4 day in his first Class A start at West Michigan only provide brief reprieves from the reality of losing, with a lot more losing to come. And though Thursday night’s loss was tough, he looks down at the field the next night and sees the impact that manager Ron Gardenhire and his coaching staff has made in a short period of time, in something as simple as the way the team lines up for the national anthem, which on this night runs 3 minutes and 10 seconds.
“One of the things I feel very good about, because we’re going through hell, nobody likes it and it’s very frustrating,” Avila says, “But the one thing that we do feel very good about is the way that our guys put effort on the field and even though we’re losing, sometimes we come back late in the game and they battle to the last out and I think it’s attributed to, No. 1, our manager and coach staff, but also that our players our hungry.”
It’s been a theme since the start of the season: The Tigers fight like they haven’t in years. Much of that is because of their make-up: They are younger players with much to prove; their Major League futures could be at stake. And sure, there have been losing streaks — 11 games and scoring eight runs over six games on a recent West Coast trip come to mind — but for a team that is terribly undertalented, that fight has yet to dissipate.
Not that the paying customers, who are on pace to walk through the Comerica Park turnstiles less than two million times this season, care much. They want to win and they want to win now.
“You don’t want to lose and I know Gardy doesn’t want to lose,” Avila says. “When I go out there down after a game, whether it’s on the road or at home, everybody is pissed off and generally so.”
First pitch is near, the starters walking in from the bullpen, and Avila is beginning to get antsy. He puts his glasses on and powers up his iPad.
Tonight, the process of identifying the few players on this team that will stick around long enough to win in Detroit continues. Matthew Boyd has matured this season. Niko Goodrum has been a surprise. Nicholas Castellanos, the team leader, has spoken about his desire to stay with the Tigers, however improbable it may seem.
The next great team — whenever that may be — is playing on minor league fields mostly in Erie and Lakeland. And when he watches those players, in the midst of all this losing, Avila can’t help but dream of a better time, in which he doesn’t have to squint and put his glasses on to see the vision the organization has.
“Some days, when we’re not playing that good here and you’re 0-for-9 in the minor leagues,” he says, smacking a fist against an open hand. “It hits you in the face.”
On this night, the Tigers will lose again; crushed by a three-run home run in the seventh inning, their early lead squandered. It will sting.
Before it does, as the starting pitcher is making his warm-up pitches, he is asked a final question: What is your message to the fans during these tough times?
“We’re going to get this done,” Avila says. “It’s going to take some time and it’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it.”
It is game time.
“You gotta go,” he says, pulling his chair up for another night in the painful first season of the Tigers’ rebuilding process.
He has more work to do.
Contact Anthony Fenech: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech.