Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila showed up in the press box Wednesday morning for what was described as an impromptu chat with reporters, his first such talk since the end of spring training.
Hours later, the Tigers completed a four-game sweep of the Cleveland Guardians at Comerica Park. Now the team hits the road against three American League Central foes, sitting at 34-47 with 12 games to go before the All-Star break.
“We’re all responsible,” Avila said Wednesday, a few months after stating a goal of making the postseason. “The players have to be accountable. The coaching staff has to be accountable. The front office has to be accountable. And it all starts with me.”
This season has left plenty to be accountable for.
An confluence of injuries and underproducing players has left the organization befuddled. The Tigers, with one of the worst offenses in baseball history, have a 0.5% chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs‘ simulations.
The bright spot is rookie center fielder Riley Greene, who has settled in as the team’s leadoff hitter at 21 after missing the first two months of the season with a broken foot. His June 18 debut has sparked the Tigers to a 10-7 record with 5.29 runs per game, compared to an average of 2.6 runs a game before Greene’s promotion.
“At this point, you can see that there could’ve been some mistakes, and we’re trying to correct them,” Avila said, when asked about his construction of the roster. “At the same time, we got to get the players that we have on the field better.”
Eduardo Rodriguez: No communication
Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez signed a five-year, $77 million contract with the Tigers in November 2021.
The 29-year-old hasn’t pitched in the majors since May 18, and he hasn’t pitched for the organization since June 9, when he dominated in a rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo. The Tigers placed Rodriguez, reportedly dealing with a marital issue, on the restricted (and unpaid) list June 13.
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Since then, there has been no communication from Rodriguez.
“We’ve reached out, but obviously, he hasn’t reached out back,” Avila said. “We’re just kind of waiting it out. It is unusual, but we have no choice but to wait it out right now and see what develops as we move forward.”
Have the Tigers considered trying to void Rodriguez’s contract?
“I’m not going to get into that at this point, because obviously that’s a situation that, right now, it’s a private situation on his part,” Avila said, “so I won’t get into any of that, all those legalities.”
For a team to void a player’s contract, there must be language in the contract that would allow it. Before a contract is finalized, a team submits guarantee language to the player’s agent. Typically, it’s the final hurdle in the process. Every team has different guarantee language, usually a couple paragraphs in total. Some teams won’t budge from the language, and some teams will approve a few tweaks to the language.
Voiding Rodriguez’s contract seems highly unlikely. Also, if the Tigers tried to void his contract, the MLB Players Association would fight to prevent a precedent from being established.
A.J. Hinch’s contract
Less than two weeks after Hinch refused to clarify his contract, Avila addressed the speculation about an opt-out clause in his manager’s contract, reported by The Detroit News in April 2021.
“There is not an opt-out,” Avila said.
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What about a handshake agreement between Avila and Hinch that would allow Hinch to leave the Tigers for a different managerial position before fulfilling the terms of his current contract?
“There’s no handshake agreement,” Avila said. “It’s a very straightforward, simple, normal contract. I hope that’s the last time I ever have to say that.”
The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported Hinch has a five-year deal, covering 2021-25. The Tigers hired Hinch in October 2020.
Christopher Ilitch’s comment
Owner Christopher Ilitch discussed the 2022 Tigers when speaking at the introductory news conference for Detroit Red Wings head coach Derek Lalonde on July 1 at Little Caesars Arena.
His words sparked criticism from fans: “I’m very pleased with the progress at the Detroit Tigers. Despite a very slow start this season with our team, there’s actually some good progress happening with some of the young guys that have come up and developed and so on and so forth.”
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On that day, the Tigers had the third-worst record in the American League, and the offense averaged an MLB-worst 3.00 runs per game. Before the season, Ilitch said the rebuild was over and the franchise expected to compete for a spot in the postseason in 2022.
“I think what he’s talking about is, if you look at our minor leagues, we have some good players that are actually producing or performing,” Avila said. “We brought up some young pitching that has helped us through the process. As we move forward, the rest of this season and into next season and in the future, you see that there’s some pitching depth that’s going to be good for us and help us win. Obviously, the progress with Riley Greene coming up and being an impact player right away has been a positive. If you go in the minor leagues, you’ll see that we have certain pockets of hitters that are doing pretty well, and pitchers, too.
“These are the things that he’s talking about, not necessarily the wins and losses. Nobody’s happy about that. We expected to be better, and we’re working to be better.”
Spencer Torkelson to Toledo?
There are 157 position players with the necessary plate appearances to qualify for the MLB batting title this season.
Rookie first baseman Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, ranks 152nd with a 70 wRC+. That makes him one of the worst offense players in baseball — though not worse than shortstop Javier Báez (68 wRC+, 153rd) and second baseman Jonathan Schoop (58, 157th).
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Will the Tigers demote Torkelson to Triple-A Toledo?
“Right now, we’re evaluating that ourselves,” Avila said. “A.J. and I talk about that on a regular basis. Tork is going to be a good baseball hitter. He’s going to be a good hitter. He’s making himself into, I think, a Gold Glove first baseman. It’s just a matter of time. Right now, I’m not sure what we’re going to do. Which way is the best way to go? We’re still evaluating that. Time will tell what we do there.”
Torkelson earned a spot on the Tigers’ Opening Day roster, despite an underwhelming .238 batting average in 40 games for the Mud Hens last season. (He also played for High-A West Michigan (31 games) and Double-A Erie (50 games) in 2021.)
The Tigers have given Torkelson a long leash in the majors because of their improved infield defense, which happens to feature the three worst qualified hitters on the team: Schoop, Báez and Torkelson.
Torkelson went 1-for-4 Wednesday to raise his average — by one point — to .193 with five home runs in 73 games.
“If we were to send him to Toledo earlier, could that have been better? Maybe,” Avila said. “But at the same time, that pitching is different, and our defense would be a little bit weaker here. It’s about, ‘Let’s see if we can get this going here.’ We know if we send him to Toledo, he’s probably going to go off again, and then come back here, and then what? We’re trying to make it work here as best we can.”
Javier Báez ‘wouldn’t be happy either’
And then there’s Báez, the 29-year-old the Tigers signed to a six-year, $140 million contract in December 2021.
The two-time All-Star is hitting .209 with seven home runs, 11 walks and 68 strikeouts in 67 games. He has a .605 OPS, his worst since posting a .599 OPS in the shortened 2020 season.
“If you talk to Báez, he wouldn’t be happy with it either, right?” Avila said. “Obviously, he’s a better player than that. His history shows that. I think he’s working towards that. He’s an impact player.”
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Báez hit .189 with a .520 OPS over his first 50 games. Since then — thanks to a June 15 meeting with his agent and Hinch — he has a .269 batting average with an .838 OPS in 17 games.
“You can see, from time to time, what he can do, not only defensively but offensively,” Avila said. “He’s still trying to put together a better season, for sure, but we got a player that’s in the prime of his career that can make an impact, and that’s what he’s working towards, that kind of consistency.”
Isaac Paredes trade
Before Wednesday’s game, Hinch appeared on WXYT-FM (97.1) and received a question about the Tigers’ April 5 trade of infielder Isaac Paredes to the Tampa Bay Rays for outfielder Austin Meadows.
“We didn’t think that Paredes was a wash-out,” Hinch told WXYT. “You don’t try to win the trades by giving them somebody bad and you taking somebody good. They’re smart, too. But it makes you think about how we didn’t untap the power. And I think that’s where we look internally: What did we see, what did we not see?“
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Paredes, 23, is hitting .254 with 13 home runs, 11 walks and 25 strikeouts in 43 games this season. He has a .902 OPS and has produced 1.7 WAR (according to Fangraphs), more than any position player on the 2022 Tigers.
For the Tigers, Paredes hit two home runs with a .592 OPS in 57 games across parts of two seasons.
“When you make a trade like that, you’re not making a trade thinking, we’re trading a bad player for a good player,” Avila said. “We acquired Paredes (from the Chicago Cubs in 2017). We liked Paredes. We thought he was a good player. At that time, Riley Greene gets injured. We’re trying to win. We’re trying to get a more established major league player than can impact us right now.”
Meadows is without a home run in an injury- and illness-plagued season, despite blasting 33 in 2019 and 27 in 2021. The 2019 All-Star has played just 36 games but is under team control through 2024.
He began a rehab assignment Wednesday with Triple-A Toledo and is scheduled to return to the Tigers before the All-Star Game.
“As an organization, we always evaluate everything that we do, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent,” Avila said. “We always try to get better. We’re always trying to think about, how do we get better, whether it be personnel, process or certain analytical numbers that we’re looking at.
“There’s a big process there that we’re always going to take a look at: If we did miss something, what could it have been? In this case, it’s not like we missed. You can think, ‘Oh, the Tigers missed something.’ No, we traded a player that we thought was pretty good — we acquired him, too, remember that — for a player that we thought was going to be a productive player.”
The 2022 trade deadline is set for Aug. 2.
The Tigers, eager to improve their MLB roster, will listen to offers for all players except Greene.
“The trading deadline this year, kind of like last year, we’re not a rebuilding team anymore,” Avila said. “We want to be better than where we’re at right now. But that doesn’t mean we have to take a step backwards. The step backwards is right now and the record that we have.”
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The team has five players on expiring contracts: right-handed starter Michael Pineda, outfielder Robbie Grossman, righty reliever Michael Fulmer, catcher Tucker Barnhart and righty reliever Wily Peralta. Among these players, Fulmer will receive the most interest from other teams.
Another name to watch is left-handed closer Gregory Soto. He is under team control through 2025, meaning he could net the Tigers a significant big-league hitter in return. Righty reliever Joe Jiménez, who becomes a free agent after the 2023 season, also has some value.
“We’re going to try to make the team better as we move forward,” Avila said. “Whatever that means — whoever we acquire and whatever it takes — we’ll have to consider every option that we have.”
Jeimer Candelario’s future
Third baseman Jeimer Candelario enters his final year of arbitration eligibility this offseason, so he becomes a free agent after 2023.
But the Tigers could speed up that process.
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If Candelario — hitting .188 with seven doubles in 63 games — doesn’t improve, he will be a candidate to be non-tendered — not offered a contract — by the Tigers in late November 2022.
Last offseason, for example, Candelario was tendered a contract and received a $5.8 million salary for 2022. The 28-year-old was rewarded for hitting .271 and tying for the MLB lead with 42 doubles, while tossing in 16 home runs.
“It’s a big second half for Jeimer, for sure,” Avila said. “No doubt about it. Talk about all the reasons, here’s one more reason: The guy led the league in doubles last year, and for two years in a row, he’s Tiger of the Year. He’s struggled this year. It’s spread around the whole team. It’s a big second half for him.”