By: Kurt Snyder
When August rolled around last year, the Tigers had turned from a team struggling to make one last run at a Wild Card, to a team that could no longer compete. At the trade deadline, they were stripped of 3 stars from every key area of the game: starting pitching, relief pitching, offense, speed and defense.
And I want you to know this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The team finally fell victim to a depleted farm system, one that could no longer provide value in a trade, much less fortify their own team.
The team was in essence, at a crossroad. A change in philosophy was required. A frustrating tease of a philosophical approach was dispatched in exchange for a new one that had been waiting in the wings.
As the Tigers have spent years front loading their team with expensive stars, their foundation eroded. And Al Avila’s philosophy begins with foundation.
The cracks began to show in the 2014 post season. Poor depth in the bullpen and poor depth on the bench were glaring and Al had to be taking notes waiting to be asked to provide input.
Well, all of those notes are now being put into action. But unfortunately the Tigers had to hit rock bottom, which happened to be a perfect vantage point to discover the cracks in the concrete.
And that’s when things began to turn back in the right direction. Sorely needed young pitching depth was established at the trade deadline in the form of Norris, Boyd and Fulmer; new foundation on which to rebuild.
For starters, Norris is expected to nail down a spot in the rotation, but we can’t take that for granted.
Second, until Anibal Sanchez responds with consistent quality starts again and shows he can remain healthy, that foundation may be called upon.
And third, Mike Pelfrey doesn’t exactly scare the life out of hitters when they read his stats out on the scoreboard. If he doesn’t respond well in Detroit …
Are you starting to see my point?
You just can never have enough depth. You can never have enough pitching.
In the bullpen, Avila inherited a mess. He took out the garbage and rebuilt the back end with 3 quality arms. But he still has not called it good, saying the team is still looking for another arm.
That’s how important that 3-headed monster of pitching depth is for this team. All 3 of those guys are going to spend time in Detroit this season, in some capacity.
When you have question marks on your Opening Day roster, a lot of them find their place at the end of questions. And from a pitching depth standpoint, they now have answers. And don’t forget Shane Greene. Now declared completely healthy, Shane provides another option for this staff.
So where else are there question marks? Well, wasn’t the signing of Justin Upton great for this team? And I’m not even talking about his bat and the talent he brings. He has added depth. How? Well Cameron Maybin was acquired at a time when Al Avila, admittedly, had no idea the Tigers would target Upton in the coming weeks.
But since they did, Maybin now becomes at minimum, a solid platoon partner with Gose in center, or if he wins the job outright, Anthony becomes a quality bench option with multiple tools; speed, defense and a great arm.
Add Mike Aviles as another big depth guy for positions all over the field, both in the corner outfield positions and at third base, leaving Andrew Romine to concentrate solely on backing up short and second base or even third if Aviles happens to be playing the outfield. It’s the kind of versatility the Tigers needed for their bench, made deeper by the recent signing of Justin Upton.
So have we checked all the boxes yet? How we doin’? Well, the farm could use some depth in the infield it turns out.
You have Jose Iglesias, who has a long history of injuries in his still young career, as he missed 42 games in a productive 2015 All Star season.
You have Ian Kinsler who isn’t going to be around forever and is not getting any younger. Who’s the successor for him down the road?
And even as young as Nick Castellanos is, who knows how long the Tigers will continue with a guy who shows little athleticism at the hot corner. Who’s his successor should they lose patience?
But it looks like Al has thought about all of this as well. Maybe not in the exact terms, but you need succession plans. At some point, you have to fill holes from within, or at least give yourself options to do so if you choose.
It makes the continued development of Dixon Machado still very important and it makes the recent acquisition of young infielders for our farm system just as critical.
Slowly but surely, the foundation is getting stronger. Depth brings continuity. Depth establishes clear roles. Depth bonds a team.
Through it all, Mike Ilitch still has a steadfast “win now” plan, amazingly. But with Al Avila now at the helm, the philosophical approach to addressing both our present and our future is strikingly different.