Good Business, Bad PR: The Detroit Tigers Rebuild

Al Avila has the hardest job in the world.

Since Magglio Ordonez blasted a walk-off home run in 2006 to send the Tigers to the World Series, Detroit fans have expected their team to contend for a title. They’ve had to reload along the way, making blockbuster deals for players like Prince Fielder, David Price, and Yoenis Cespedes. Some years they didn’t make the Series; some years, they didn’t even make the playoffs. But with a core built around Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, the Tigers were always a team to watch in the AL Central.

Those days are long gone, just like JD Martinez, Alex Avila, Justin Wilson, and now Justin Upton and face-of-the-franchise Justin Verlander. Yesterday Upton was dealt to the Angels for RHP prospect Grayson Long; Verlander is headed to Houston in a last-minute deal that netted prospects Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, and Jake Rogers.

Detroit’s in-season trades were necessary business deals meant to retool the farm system and kick-start the rebuild. Al Avila’s job security, and the future of the franchise, now depends on the patience of the fanbase.

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Avila has done a good job cutting payroll and acquiring prospects this season. Selling the fanbase? That might take longer.

To be fair to Avila, he was dealt a loaded handed when he was promoted to GM last offseason. He inherited a team with an aging core, a bloated payroll, and few viable prospects. Barring a miraculous season where every player outperformed their expectations, Avila was going to have to preside over the first Tigers rebuild in over a decade.

Avila’s deals this season have been business savvy. Martinez, Wilson, the younger Avila, and Upton were all on what I call “lame duck contracts.” Martinez and Wilson are set to be free agents at the end of the season; Alex Avila was playing on a one-year contract; and Upton had an opt-out after 2017, an option that he reportedly told the Tigers he was planning to exercise. If Avila does nothing, all four of those players walk at the end of the season, and the Tigers are left with nothing. Better to get something in return, right?

But the returns on the fire-sale have been underwhelming. Avila dealt JD Martinez to the Diamondbacks in return for three middling prospects. He did well to get Jeimer Candelario from the Cubs for Wilson and Avila, but the Cubs had already offloaded their top prospects to another AL Central team, the Chicago White Sox. The top position player on the Tigers’ roster, Justin Upton, only netted a single middling pitching prospect from the Angels.

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Thanks for the memories: a slew of Tigers have found new homes this season.

The problem lies not in the trades themselves, but the optics and the PR. JD Martinez was one of the best corner-outfielders on the market, and the D-Backs got him without loosing their top prospects. Upton was an All-Star this year, and the Tigers sent him to the team with the worst farm system in baseball and only got one prospect out of it. Avila did well to get Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes from the Cubs, but remember they had already sent their top prospects to the White Sox, Detroit’s division rival.

Yes, Avila did well to get the pieces he did. And perhaps the new acquisitions will grow into top-notch big-league players. But rationality and nostalgia are rarely comfortable bedfellows.

Which takes us to last night’s shocker, the Justin Verlander trade. Sending him to the Astros is great business. He’s looked like an ace the second half of the season, pitching to a 2.41 ERA with 78 strikeouts and a .184 batting average against. The Astros were desperate for a starter, and were willing to pay top dollar in terms of prospects. Perez, Cameron, and Rogers add serious depth to a Tigers farm system that now ranks in the middle of the pack in Major League Baseball.

Trading the face of the franchise, however, is always a tough sell. Verlander is a Tiger through and through. He was drafted by the Tigers and vaulted through their farm system. He pitched Game 1 of the 2006 World Series, and though he struggled in that start he was a rock-solid pitcher for the Tigers in their numerous postseason runs. He’s gritty, honest, and hardworking — everything that the city of Detroit admires. When they put his plaque up in Cooperstown, he’ll be wearing the Old English D on his cap.

Avila’s done a respectable job selling off the family china; now, he needs to do a better job convincing his fanbase that the newer models he’s acquired will be just as good soon.

Maybe I’m just a bitter Tigers fan. Maybe Avila will be known as the Cuban Theo Epstein when his rebuilding efforts get the Tigers their first Series since 1985. Maybe the long list of prospects they’ve acquired this year will become the core of the team in a few seasons. It’s too early to predict the success or failure of the rebuild.

The trades this season have been tough pills to swallow for the Tigers fanbase. Even if Avila’s moves are good business, it’s worth asking how much patience Detroit will give him. Avila has been the one to tear everything down; whether he’s the man to build it all back up again remains to be seen.

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