September 15th, 2017
Expect ‘puppet’ GM Avila to remain
with Tigers – and maybe Ausmus, too
By KEITH GAVE
If patience is indeed a virtue – an axiom surely worthy of debate – then Detroit Tigers fans are about to be put to the test.
Anyone who thinks this stutter-step rebuilding process is going to lead to a quick fix is delusional. And anyone who thinks it might include an upgrade – or at least changeover of personnel from the manager to the front office could be in for a disturbing disappointment.
Al Avila, the “puppet” general manager, as one source intimately close to the Ilitch family described him, isn’t going anywhere. He’s in the second year of a five-year contract, and the Ilitches like him because he does what they ask him to do and he tells them what they like to hear.
And that includes late-owner Mike Ilitch handing out mind-boggling contracts to free agents like Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton, Mark Lowe and Mike Pelfrey. That’s what Avila, under orders from Ilitch, did two years ago after the owner – in a fit of anger – fired GM Dave Dombrowski – and threw his checkbook at a problem that only got worse.
The worst team $200 million (in an annual payroll) can buy plummeted in the standings. As the Tigers contend for the last place in the American League’s Central Division, another Ilitch – son Chris – issued a new set of marching orders to Avila: Cut payroll fast, any way you can do it. And so in the last month we’ve witnessed the departures of J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, Alex Avila (the GM’s son), Justin Upton and, the one that felt like a kick the jewels for most Tigers fans, ace pitcher Justin Verlander, a foundation piece for the best dozen or so years in Detroit baseball history.
The difference in philosophies of the two generations of Ilitches is massive. Mike, a former shortstop in the Tigers’ organization, often described himself as a fan with an owner’s checkbook. He spent huge sums of money to turn the beleaguered Red Wings into a championship club – forever changing the economics of the National Hockey League. He tried doing the same thing with the Tigers, getting them close with two trips to the World Series in recent years. But they couldn’t get over that hump for him.
And to be sure, it was an angry Mike Ilitch who fired Dombrowski after a series of trades that brought Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris and Jacoby Jones to Detroit. That was the start of a rebuilding process that might be over by now. But the owner wasn’t willing to concede just then. So Dombrowski took the fall. Ilitch promoted assistant GM Avila and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Dombrowski had a plan, and he was executing it,” the source told me. “The problem was, Mr. Ilitch wasn’t ready. He wanted to win. You can’t blame him for that. But Dave could see where this team was going, and he knew what he needed to do to fix it.
“Well, Al Avila got promoted and, let’s be honest, he’s been more of a puppet, just doing with the Ilitches tell him to do. Look, when Mike decided to spend all that money on Jordan Zimmermann, Dave would have gone to him and said, ‘Mr. Ilitch, you really don’t want to do that. This is not a good idea.’ Well, Al Avila wanted to make his owner happy, so he went out and signed Jordan Zimmermann. And he made a lot of other questionable moves that Dave Dombrowski would never have made.”
Now Avila is tasked with one mission: Cut payroll. And he’s not done yet. Is he the right guy to rebuild this club? With three years left on his contract, we’re going to find out.
And since this business with the Tigers is all about money, don’t expect the team to go out and hire a prominent, experienced manager to try to make chicken salad out of chicken. . . well, you know where we’re going with that.
“Brad Ausmus makes a million bucks a year. He’s cheap,” the source said. “You want a big-name guy? You’re looking at $5 million a season, minimum. This team isn’t going to pay that kind of money, especially with a team like this.”
In other words, if Ausmus is shown the door (and I hear your pleas), you’re likely to see another entry-level guy in the manager’s office – like Ausmus was when he was inexplicably hired to manage a veteran-laden club with such high expectations.
If there is any hope, it’s all the speculation that the Ilitch family may consider divesting itself of the Tigers, and that may not be so far-fetched considering the salary dump that’s underway. This is precisely what franchises do before they’re put up for sale, which is why we must take everything Chris Ilitch says to the contrary with a healthy amount of suspicion.
Cynicism, too, can be a virtue.
The envelope please:
No. 7 Michigan (2-0), vs. Air Force (1-0)
At Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Saturday at noon
TV/Radio: Big Ten Network, WGRY, 101.1-FM
Line: Michigan minus-25
Even if quarterback Wilton Speight has a field day, as expected, passing the ball against a young Air Force defense with its suspect secondary, it’s hard to fathom the Wolverines running away from the Falcons by 25 points. A dynamic triple-option Air Force attack under quarterback Arion Worthman could give the young Michigan defense fits. Yes, Michigan defenders fly to the ball, but its speedy linebackers and safeties will have to tiptoe the line between relentless pursuit and the discipline necessary to contain Air Force: Stop the dive play; stop the quarterback; stop the quarterback pitch, or stop the option. Pretty simple, eh? Not so much. Nevertheless, if the Wolverines are as good as they think they are, this should be a comfortable victory after an interesting 60 minutes of football.
Prediction: Michigan 37, Air Force 17
Detroit Lions (1-0) vs. New York Giants
At MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN, WQON, 100.3-FM
LINE: New York minus 3.5
All the talk leading up to kickoff will be about whether Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. will play. He’s been out with a sprained ankle, and his availability will be a game-time decision, the Giants say. Are you buying that? Me neither. Of course, he will play. And an OBJ even at 80 percent efficiency will give quarterback Eli Manning a weapon he desperately needs after a lousy season-opener in Dallas. But if the Lions can mount the same kind of pressure on 36-year-old Eli Manning – playing behind a suspect offensive line – that they did in their season-opening win over the Arizona Cardinals and Carson Palmer, then we could see a low-scoring defensive tussle that could go either way.
Prediction: Lions 19, Giants 17