Why the Tigers parted ways with Al Avila: Bad trades, Michael Fulmer situation highlight ex-GM’s struggles

The Tigers entered the 2022 season with high ambitions. They thought they had put behind the long darkness of a drawn-out rebuild with the high-profile signings of Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez, arguably the team’s biggest free-agent swings since Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmerman in 2016.

Unfortunately, the signings fared the same way, and in some ways they were even worse. Baez has continued the boom-or-bust (but mostly bust) trend he’s followed throughout his career; Rodriguez has been on the blacklist since May while attending to personal matters.

These were to be the steps that rewrote the Al Avila era, which began when Avila took over as general manager in August 2015. Avila and the Tigers “Parted ways” on Wednesday, the team announced, with the club in the throes of a 43-68 season. The Tigers are 361-573 since the start of the 2016 season.

“To the Tigers fans, you are the best and deserve a winner. I wish the results could have been better this season, but I know there’s a lot to look forward to in the years to come,” said Avila, who had played with the Tigers’ organization since 2002, said.

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Why did the Tigers fire Al Avila?

As a rule of thumb, GMs shouldn’t be able to manage two rebuilds in a row.

Avila was hired to cut costs after Dave Dombrowski’s characteristically expensive tenure. Club owners Mike Ilitch and Dombrowski had been feverishly pursuing a World Series during Miguel Cabrera’s prodigy years, but when it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, the Tigers turned to Avila. He had risen above the Marlins organization, so he was no stranger to the cost-cutting strategy.

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He inherited several absurd contracts, so he had to settle early. Cabrera had just signed his eight-year extension in 2014, and his earliest signings were when he signed Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton in 2016 for $110 million and $132.75 million, respectively, on a deal that came from Ilitch himself.

In other words, the books were a mess.

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However, Avila was not doing herself any favors. The 2016 season brought optimism: the Tigers finished second in the AL Central with 86 wins and had the league’s rookie of the year in right-hander Michael Fulmer.

In 2017, however, the reality of the Avila era became clear. The team became heavy salesmen on trade dates, with Avila sending JD Martinez to the Diamondbacks and franchise icon Justin Verlander to the Astros. In exchange, they got Arizona prospects Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara and Jose King and Houston prospects Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers.

Of those hauls, only Alcantara, Cameron and Rogers have seen the field in the majors. Alcantara has played for multiple organizations since then, while Cameron and Rogers are likely to top the list as marginal, defense-heavy players.

Detroit continued as a seller in 2018, trading on time with Ian Kinsler and Mike Fiers while again receiving prospects in return. In 2019, Nick Castellanos was deadline fodder for the Cubs, and in 2022 Avila traded Fulmer for the Twins (more on that in a bit).

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Amidst all the back and forth, the team’s lineup was riddled with bad luck. Matt Manning and Alex Faedo are finally getting MLB innings this season, Casey Mize has been shut down several times this year and is speeding toward an injury-prone career. Center fielder Riley Greene has been looking good since his MLB debut but has been struggling with injuries. First baseman Spencer Torkelson was sent to Triple-A after prolonged fighting at the plate.

Despite the optimism surrounding the young trio of Mize, Greene and Torkelson, as well as the signings of Baez and Rodriguez, it looks like another rebuild is on the horizon. Without a significant winning season, the Tigers needed a scapegoat. And Avila deserved that role, as team president and CEO Chris Ilitch made clear on Wednesday.

“I didn’t trade those players away, did I? Our General Manager did it. Al did it. That’s his role,” Ilitch said at a news conference. I will not comment on previous activities.

“Go through a litany of steps Al has taken over the past few years; You can all judge for yourself. I’m really focused at this point on looking ahead.”

What happened to Michael Fulmer?

One of the most puzzling failures of the Avila tenure was what happened after Fulmer’s Rookie of the Year campaign.

For a team that had already declared itself a seller in 2017 by moving away from Verlander and JD Martinez, both of which have had mediocre returns, Fulmer was not a fit. But the Tigers stuck to their All-Star. Then injuries started to hamper Fulmer in the second half of 2017, and they’ve plagued him ever since.

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The Tigers finally traded Fulmer, who has developed into a solid set-up reliever, for the Twins on this year’s deadline. In exchange, they got minor league pitcher Sawyer Gipson-Long.

Matthew Boyd was a very different case. The Tigers haven’t tendered the once-promising left-hander after the 2021 season. He was signed by the Giants, who then timely traded him to the Mariners. There were precious few opportunities to trade Boyd, but Avila never took advantage of them.

Ultimately, Avila’s dismissal stemmed from poor roster management, poor amateur scouting, and an inability to rate his own players in trades (see Isaac Paredes for Austin Meadows). The Tigers have some faces for the future, but Baez and Rodriguez’s contracts will continue well beyond Cabrera’s contract if it ends after 2023 (assuming he opts for next year). With the Tigers reeling this year, it’s clear they need to retool. History has shown that Avila was not the man for the job.

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