By: Holly Horning
Last week, we addressed the reports about Al Avila’s trading skills that were based upon interviews with other Front Offices and baseball scouts. We also dug a little deeper to examine his performance on other facets of his job, which were also “underwhelming.”
Yet, despite the reviews that don’t paint a flattering picture and tend to show a man in over his head, Chris Ilitch extended his GM with a “multi-year” contract. Is Ilitch oblivious to his GM’s performance?
Or is the extension part of a bigger plan that he’s not yet revealing?
First of all, let’s examine the extension itself. Announced at the last minute on a Friday afternoon, the day after the Fourth of July. Done so quickly that few reporters were able to attend or were on vacation. All the better so there would be fewer questions, especially with the absence of those who cover the team nationally. On a long summer holiday weekend.
It’s what is done in Washington when you want to bury a story and avoid being called out.
And then, Ilitch did not attend. He left his own GM to make the announcement about himself. Talk about awkward.
But Chris did publish a statement. It read:
… “I’ve been impressed with Al’s leadership and focus, and the steadfast way he has led our baseball operations since becoming general manager.
“Al has methodically implemented his plan, and the execution of that plan has demonstrated progress and results in scouting, drafting, player development and analytics. I am especially pleased with the progress we have made in securing a stable of talented prospects which bodes well for our future. Al has a proven track record in this game, and his nearly three decades of experience is paying dividends in this rebuilding phase.”
(Excuse me, I had to run and get my waders….)
No wonder he didn’t show up for the press conference. Or answer reporters’ voicemails, especially those inquiring about exactly how long this “multi—year” extension is. Chris – and the entire Tigers organization – isn’t saying. It’s a secret apparently.
And the Tigers remain as the only MLB franchise to not release contract extension dates. All the other 29 teams expressly publish the dates of continued employment for their GMs.
Folks, none of this indicates that there is support for Avila by the owner. If it did, there would be contract details and the owner would have planned a proper press conference – and shown up for it.
All of it indicates that there is something else going on.
Over 2 years ago, I indicated that there were signs that Ilitch was preparing to sell the team.
And today? There are renewed signs.
Let’s go through the clues……
On the personal side, a variety of financial publications point to the estate tax issues as well as to family members who are pressuring him to sell the team so they may collect their inheritances. Also in print is the cash flow issue – money needing to be freed up so other projects may receive funding.
As for the team itself, Mr. I left the organization in the red. What was left was a bloated payroll, MLB’s highest team operating expenses, a down-trending team and declining attendance. These past 2+ years have been a time of righting the books in order to maximize the selling price.
As I wrote in an earlier blog, the Tigers made their first profit in over a decade last year. Revenue, believe it or not, has remained stable despite 2 last place finishes with 98 losses.
Under Mr. I, the Tigers had double the operating costs of the average MLB team. Today, it’s one of the lowest.
In just 2 short years, payroll has gone from one of MLB’s highest at just over $200 million to an Opening Day payroll this year approximately around $110 mill. Almost halved. And also the explanation for all of the most expensive Tigers being traded or non-tendered (who are actually tradeable). Expect this pattern to continue in the off-season. There are now only 5 Tigers making more than $1 million.
And the financial papers are also reporting significant cuts in personnel, esp. with those who work at Comerica.
And if we look at the team itself, we see that the wallet has been slammed shut. The Tigers have been without a 5th starter now for most of the year, despite the injuries to 4/5th of the starting rotation. Al Avila is not being allowed to go out and get another starter, even one at a bargain rate. Not even when the team is forced to use Brandon Dixon as a pitcher. Additions to the team are only reclamation projects at this point and making minimal salary.
The goal appears to be getting the payroll down to an absolute minimum, cutting costs as much as possible and stocking the farm system. A farm system that now, btw, is now publicly ranked among the top 10. All keys to maximizing the sales price of the team.
But the biggest clue that the team is being readied? A visit by Steve Greenberg, Hank’s son, to Comerica 2 years ago. And the media thought that he was visiting his father’s statue. They didn’t notice that he was there in a pinstripe suit clutching a briefcase. And they probably don’t know what he now does for a living.
Greenberg is the former Deputy Commissioner of MLB before becoming the sports world’s (esp. baseball) biggest mover and shaker in the selling and buying of sports teams. And he had a track record with Mr. I. He’s also super-secretive and keeps his info, work and name out of the media.
He’s also the one behind creating MLB.tv. Potentially, there could also be a tie-in with Chris Ilitch’s statement about exploring the creation of a regional sports network. Which, btw, is something you can do even if you don’t own the team anymore. Owning a sports network is actually more profitable than owning a sports team – and costs much less to run it, too.
Which now brings us to Ilitch’s contract extension for Al Avila. Chris may just be putting the future of this team on auto-pilot until the Tigers are sold.
To make changes in an organization, especially by firing employees under contract and hiring and training new ones, costs money. Chris has shown through his business track record that he is loathe to spend money when he absolutely doesn’t need to do it.
It is simply easier and less expensive to keep the status quo. And when you consider that Avila is the lowest-paid GM in MLB, it makes all the sense in the world.
In this case, Al may simply have the job as a glorified gatekeeper until a new owner takes over. It’s fair to assume that this secretive contract is one that actually terminates upon the sale of the team. It’s the only way to explain the refusal to reveal the length of his contract.
And that type of contract is actually a selling point for a new owner. No one wants to buy something and come into the agreement having to pay out salaries of people they no longer want. They end up paying two salaries – the one that they fire and the one that they hire. It also makes it much easier for any new owner as they are removed from the firing process.
But until that day arrives, don’t expect the Tigers to make any other personnel changes. No new coaches, trainers or Front Office personnel. It is much less expensive to simply keep them on until the papers that transfer ownership are signed.
Who knew that keeping the old-boys club together could actually mean something good?
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