Looking Back in Tigers’ History and Evaluating All of Al Avila’s Moves as the Tigers’ GM: Part I

On August 4, 2015, the Detroit Tigers announced the termination of Dave Dombrowski’s contract, which meant that Al Avila, Dombrowski’s long-time second man (dating back to their time in Miami), would be promoted to general manager. This shook the Tiger’s fan base; after all, Dombrowski was the one who had resurrected the Tigers from the dead. He was hired way back in November 2001, after a season in which the Tigers did nothing but disappoint, finishing with 66 wins and 96 losses. The following season, the Tigers had an even worse overall record: 55-106. As if it could not get any worse, the Tigers had the worst record in the MLB in 2003, ending the season 76 games below .500. Their 43-119 record was 2nd worst ever (in the modern era), 1 loss short of matching the record the New York Mets set over 50 years ago (in 1962).

“You can’t win unless you learn how to lose.”

Former NBA superstar Kareem Abdul Jabbar

Boy did the Tigers learn how to lose, and the trend continued over the course of the next two years (2004-2005); the Tigers managed to win just over 70 games both seasons. But for Detroit, that was a huge improvement. A lot of that can be attributed to the signing of Pudge Rodriguez (in the 2004 offseason). In addition to supplying valuable leadership in the clubhouse, Pudge contributed greatly on the field, accumulating 7.9 WAR in his first two seasons with the Tigers. His defense was second to none. In the 2006 offseason, the Tigers signed another free agent who proved to be worth every penny: 41-year-old southpaw Kenny Rogers. The transition was as smooth as could be; he was victorious in 17 regular season contests and pitched 23 scoreless innings in October (postseason) That year (2006), Dombroski’s resurrection project had truly come to fruition.

The Tigers opened up the season remarkably, cruising to a 28-7 record. Key contributors to their 95 win season and second place finish in the AL Central included manager Jim Leyland (who won MOY), youngsters Justin Verlander (who won ROY after being drafted #2 overall two years prior) and Curtis Granderson, all-stars Magglio Ordóñez, Carlos Guillén, and Ivan Rodriguez, veterans Kenny Rogers and lock-down closer Todd Jones, as well as several others: Brandon Inge, Craig Monroe, Marcus Thames. The Tigers clinched a sweep and the American League against the Oakland Athletics after Magglio Ordóñez capped off a two HR night with a big fly.

Unfortunately, the Tigers fell short of a title; it took the Cardinals (led by slugger Albert Pujols) only five games to clinch the pennant.

The next 10 years (from 2007-16) featured many high moments:

  • In December of 2007, Dombrowski flipped a plethora of prospects / young players (Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, and others) for Marlins superstar Miguel Cabrera. Both Dombrowski and Al Avila were very familiar with Cabrera; in fact, they scouted him as a teenager in Venezuela and ultimately motivated the Marlins to ink him to a deal worth a whopping $1.9 million. He led the Tigers to 4 straight AL Central division titles and the World Series in 2012. The following season, he won the triple crown, hitting for a .348 AVG, smashing 43 balls over the fence, and driving in 137 runs. He won two MVPs (2012 and 2013) and signed an extension for $248 million over 8 years in 2014. He is in the midst of a major decline but if you’re ever going to bet on someone to bounce back from an injury-stricken season, he’s your guy.
  • In 2012, the Tigers won the AL Central division and made it to the World Series, only to get swept by the San Fransisco Giants in 4 games. Although the team came up short, the Tigers knew they were a “good bullpen” away from the pennant. In the ALDS, the Tigers flirted with disaster against the Athletics; Tigers won the first two games of the series (at home / in Detroit), but the Athletics shockingly responded, taking the next two to force a deciding game (the second of which courtesy of a ninth inning rally off of Tiger’s closer Jose Valverde, who was notorious for making things interesting). Thankfully, Justin Verlander, who will be discussed later on, came to the rescue, shutting the Athletics out in the all-decisive game 5. Next up were the all-mighty Yankees.

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

The late Mark Twain, who was renowned for his fine American literature

The Tigers were the smaller dogs but had much more fight than the bigger dogs — Yankees. The Tigers feasted off the Yankees, especially the starting pitchers, who exploited the weakness of the Yankee’s sluggers, leading the Tigers to a four game sweep. The Yankees scored a total of 6 runs in the entirety of the series, 4 of which came in the 1st game. The Tigers matched the Yankees total runs in game 1 alone. MLB fans were baffled at how easily the Tigers dismantled baseball’s juggernaut. For whatever reason, the Tigers were not able to carry over their success from the first two series into the WS, as the Giants made the Tigers look like kittens.

  • Justin Verlander had a very successful career with the Detroit Tigers. In 2011, he was voted as the Cy Young and MVP. He had a ridiculous 25-4 record, along with a spectacular 2.40 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. The next season he was fantastic once again, and some could argue he was even better, recording a WAR just short of 7 (6.8 WAR vs 6.4 WAR in 2011). Over the course of the next 3 years, Verlander struggled. His ERA bumped up to the mid-3s in 2013 and the mid-4s in 2014, much to disappointment of fans, who were beginning to deem the 5 year / $140 million contract extension that he agreed to in 2013 a big overpay. He did little in 2015 to convince them otherwise; although his ERA returned to the low-3s, he suffered several injuries and only pitched in 133 innings. It is important to note that he finished the season very strong, and many were optimistic of what he could accomplish the following season. In 2016, Verlander had the greatest season among AL pitchers that year, but voters were more drawn to former Tiger Rick Porcello, who had a better win-loss record (22-4 vs Verlander’s 16-9) because he received significantly more run-support. The Red Sox’s dynamic offense backed Porcello with an average of 6.61 runs of offense / game (highest in the MLB). Verlander had a lower ERA and recorded 250 strikeouts vs Porcello’s 189 Ks. At the last minute of the 2017 waiver-deadline in August, the Tigers dealt JV to the Houston Astros. He led them to a WS title, pitching incredibly in the postseason, and his playoff success carried over into the 2018 season, where he finished 2nd in the AL Cy young race (Blake Snell won it). Justin Verlander will always have a place in the hearts of Detroit Tigers fans. He dedicated his time and effort to improving his game and to the people and city of Detroit.
  • In December of 2009, the Detroit Tigers traded Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and Edwin Jackson to the D-Backs, receiving Austin Jackson, Daniel Schlereth, Phil Coke, and most notably Max Scherzer in return. Granderson was a fan-favorite at the time of the trade, so fans were presumably taken aback upon finding out that the most entertaining and charitable Tiger would be packing his bags for New York. He hit 40+ HRs in 2011 and 2012, and he swiped at least 8 bags in each of his four years in the Bronx. He accumulated 15.9 WAR in his time with the Yankees. In his 5 seasons with Detroit, “Mad Max” was worth 21.6 WAR. Max Scherzer won the AL Cy Young in 2013, two years after JV was handed the same honor. He had 21-3 record and led the Tigers to the ALCS, but unfortunately, the Tigers fell to the eventual World Series champions: the Red Sox. Scherzer won 18 games the following season, recording an ERA a tad over 3.00. In 2015, Scherzer dropped his ERA into the 2s and was a key contributor and paved the Tiger’s path to a fourth straight division title and playoff appearance. Scherzer’s departure (signed massive 7 yr / $210 million contract with the Nationals) signified the closing of the Tigers’ competitive window. Bleak times were ahead… The Tigers finished 5th place in the AL Central in 2015, a year in which their payroll exceeded that of most teams (4th highest in MLB: $173.8 million. They played as sellers at the trade deadline for the first time in what felt like ages, parting with Yoensis Cespedes, Joakim Soria, and David Price in return for younger assets, including Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Michael Fulmer. The latter two have proven themselves as capable MLB rotation arms, with Fulmer flashing ace potential, but he is the latest victim of the injury bug. Boyd has very good control and command of his pitches, which enables him to induce weak contact and make hitters look silly through mixing up speeds and locations. Less than a week after the 2015 trade deadline, the Tigers announced that Dave Dombrowski was fired, a move that left many Tigers’ fans in a state of disbelief. There is no doubt in my mind that Dave was fired because he did not deliver the ultimate prize Mr. I was longing for: a World Series title. Dombrowski constructed a powerful rotation and intimidating offense, but could not put together an adequate bullpen, which proved costly on numerous occasions in the playoffs, especially in the 2013 ALCS against the Red Sox. Al Avila, Dave Dombrowski’s assistant, was to be promoted to GM. Although the Tigers wound up last in the central, there was no shortage of talent. JV and Anibal Sanchez headlined the rotation and JD Martinez, Miggy Cabrera, and V-Mart formed a formidable 2-3-4 punch. Al Avila would have plenty of work to do, with his eyes set on a return to the postseason the following year. The Tigers’ destiny lay at the hands of Al Avila. In part II, we will evaluate all of the trades and signings he negotiated and give him an overall grade for his work thus far as the general manager of the Detroit Tigers.

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