Detroit Tigers: Al Avila Using the Farm System Properly


Dave Dombrowski made some brilliant trades during his time as the general manager of the Detroit Tigers. However, he always seemed to leave the cupboard a tad bare when it came to prospects. That model won the Tigers four straight division titles, but the team paid for it last season.

During the 2015 campaign, the young players Dombrowski’s minor-league system produced simply didn’t make the grade. This led to a disappointing season that included, among other things, seeing the team become sellers at the trade deadline. David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria were all shipped to contending team as Detroit tried to replenish a barren farm system. The three different deals brought the Tigers plenty of prospects with exciting futures like Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and JaCoby Jones.

While Norris went straight to the big-league rotation, Fulmer, Jones and the other prospects acquired joined a minor league system that already featured intriguing players like Beau Burrows, Paul Voelker, Joe Jimenez, Dixon Machado and Steven Moya.

The Tigers’ group of top prospects is by no means the best in the league. However, the talent in the system is much improved and filled with some promising talent—and Avila has kept it that way.

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One of Dombrowski’s few pitfalls was his tendency to trade the team’s top prospects for major-league upgrades instead of moving more second-tier prospects for additions. Maybe the Tigers wouldn’t have come away with the same players, but the team would have been better positioned to avoid seasons like 2015.

For example, Anthony Gose is a fine player, but was he worth giving up Devon Travis? Travis would have been blocked by Ian Kinsler in Detroit, but the fact remains that the Toronto second baseman was worth 2.4 WAR in only 62 games. Gose, for all his speed, has a 2.1 WAR number over the course of his entire career.

That kind of move is exactly what Avila has avoided. The general manager has been keen to hang on to young starters like Norris, Fulmer and Matt Boyd. He was quoted saying as much in a recent Detroit Free Press story as saying, “We did everything in our power to keep them.” The Tigers decision maker would go on to say that “every move that you see us make has been for that. It’s to put the best team on the field for 2016, but also looking toward the future as best we can.”

Avila has instead opted to trade prospects from places of depth, not ones like Travis who were the team’s best prospect at a position.

This has meant saying goodbye to the likes of Javier Betancourt, Chad Green, Luis Cessa and Gabe Speier. However, those prospect-based trades have allowed the Tigers to bring in Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Miller and Cameron Maybin.

Betancourt was perhaps the team’s best trade chip. The middle infielder was blocked not only by Jose Iglesias and Ian Kinsler, but also by Machado. The case could be made for Jones being ahead of Betancourt on the organizational depth chart as well. The infielder was flipped to the Milwaukee Brewers for Rodriguez.

Similarly, Green, Cessa and Speier were also stuck behind numerous prospects in addition to major league talent.

Starting pitchers Green and Cessa, who went to the Yankees in exchange for Justin Wilson, were expendable. This was mainly due to the presence of arms of fellow young starters like Norris, Fulmer, Boyd and Burrows among others. Speier wasn’t anywhere close to the major-league level, and was well behind the likes of Voelker and Jimenez.

These are the kinds that Avila needs to continue making. Deal the good, but not great prospects to improve the major league product. This way the team improves and is able to graduate its best prospects into the big-league roster.

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If he continues to make moves like this, the Detroit Tigers will be set up to succeed in the short term and the long term.