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Al Avila Dug His Own Grave

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 4: Al Avila laughs during a news conference at Comerica Park after he was promoted to executive vice president of baseball operations and general manager on August 4, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. Avila replaces Dave Dombrowski who was the Tigers' general manager since 2002. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

You know you’re doomed when your boss says to anyone who can hear him or her, I didn’t do this stuff. He did.

So Al Avila got doomed as the general manager of the Detroit Tigers, and owner/failson Chris Ilitch referred to two 2017 deals that sped him on his way:

In 2017, the Tigers traded star pitcher Justin Verlander and All-Star outfielder J.D. Martinez, but the players the Tigers got in return didn’t end up helping in the majors. “I didn’t trade those players away,” Ilitch said Wednesday. “Our general manager did. Al did.”

And that’s your Tigers replay for today, and for 2021, and 2020, and 2019, and…

Avila’s record sort of explains it all, although not nearly as pithily as Ilitch did. Going back to his first full year in 2016, the Tigers have been the second-worst hitting team in baseball, the second-worst pitching team in baseball, and the second-worst team in baseball by the more rudimentary metric of wins and losses. Only Baltimore has been worse over that time, and the Orioles have done some weird kind of trade-deadline deal with Satan in which they try to tank and instead are now a half-game out of a playoff spot. Nobody’s firing Mike Elias today.

Then again, Mike Elias didn’t guarantee a quarter billion dollars in current and future salaries to players who have amassed a 43-68 record, worse than every team in baseball save Oakland and Washington, who have shed payroll to be bad. Spending more to be just as bad is, well, spectacularly contraindicated.

That was the Avila legacy in an envelope. He gave them his son Alex as a catcher and in exchange steered the team into a ditch. His best year was his first, and that’s never a good way to keep the boss from snarking you up on your way out the door. The current team is on pace to have its second-lowest runs per game output in franchise history (and since we know you’re going to ask, 1904) and the fewest homers in a full season since 1954. We’d call them God-awful, but God has lawyers.

And truthfully, seven years is probably enough time to do whatever it is you intend to do. Avila got his job in August 2015 after Dave Dombrowski got fired, and he’d been to four consecutive playoffs, including one World Series. Whatever his shortcomings, he at least didn’t get a seven-year runup.

More intriguing, though, is the fact that when we list the teams we find most aggressively awful, the Tigers don’t get mentioned the way the A’s or Nationals or Royals or Pirates or Reds or Cubs are. Even the Angels get more condemnation, but that’s because unlike the Tigers, they kept their best players and still failed. The Tigers just … faded away. Neither hated nor condemned, they just eased into the Phantom Zone and stayed there. They’re not even appreciated for playing the fastest games in the majors, which is the one blessing you can provide your fans when you stink on a daily basis.

So Al Avila got doomed. The team failed with the precision of the atomic clock, and it is likely to take years to resuscitate it. If anything, Ilitch might have been more patient than most owners. But he’ll have to show that patience again as the rebuild that Avila could never do starts again. If it works, maybe then Ilitch will say of the next GM, with unearned pride, He didn’t do this stuff. I did.