Avila settling in as GM and putting his stamp on Tigers
LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) When Al Avila first started working in a major league front office, he wasn't sure the lifestyle was for him.
Avila was hired by the expansion Florida Marlins in 1992 as the assistant director of Latin American operations. Before that, he'd been a college athletic director and baseball coach, and the transition was a tough one.
''You were now not dealing with a team, you're just in an office, and when you went scouting, you went by yourself,'' Avila said. ''I traveled by myself, and when you get to a ballfield to scout, there might have been 20 other scouts, but they're trying to beat you.''
That routine can be a lonely one, but Avila stuck with it and over two decades later, his career choices have paid off. He is entering his first full season as general manager of the Detroit Tigers after a busy offseason in which he had a chance to put together another star-filled roster in Motown.
Avila took over as GM after the trade deadline last year when the Tigers let Dave Dombrowski go. Detroit was on its way to a last-place finish, and there wasn't much Avila – who had been an assistant GM for the Tigers since 2002 – could do about it at that point.
During the offseason, owner Mike Ilitch's deep pockets allowed Avila to sign outfielder Justin Upton and pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, part of a spending spree that Detroit hopes will lift the Tigers back into the postseason.
Although Avila will certainly be judged on how the Tigers play in 2016, there's a sense that he's also taking a longer view when he talks about how important Detroit's farm system will be going forward. There's a lot of continuity from Dombrowski's era, but the Tigers are doing some things a bit differently under Avila.
For example, the front office wants to start emphasizing ''The Tiger Way'' – a more standardized approach to the game through all levels of the organization that brings to mind The Oriole Way that Baltimore was famous for when Earl Weaver was there.
''When you move a player from, let's say, A-ball to Double-A, there should be consistency in everything – hitting approach, the way we run the bases, our fundamentals, our defensive strategy,'' Avila said around the start of spring training. ''We'll just create a Tigers' manual, everybody will have it, and the players will be taught it.''
Avila's family includes multiple generations of baseball men. His father, Ralph, was an executive for the Dodgers. Son Alex was a catcher for the Tigers for the last seven years before signing with the Chicago White Sox this offseason.
Al Avila initially wanted a job that allowed him to be on the field, and he coached at St. Thomas University in Florida before joining the Marlins.
''At the beginning, it was really hard on me, to the point where I didn't even know if I was going to continue, but I stayed with it, and things got better,'' he said. ''That front office, the player development, the scouts and all that, you learn how to make that your family.''
Avila became director of scouting for the Marlins in 1998, and the following year, Florida signed a young Venezuelan named Miguel Cabrera. Now they're both with the Tigers. Cabrera recalls meeting Avila as a teenager.
''I said, `Sign me, please,''' Cabrera joked.
Said Avila: ''When I met him, he was 15 years old. . I got to really know more his family – dad, mom. Miguel was just a kid playing marbles with his cousins – I mean literally, playing marbles with his cousins.''
Dombrowski was Florida's GM when Avila was there, and Avila eventually became an assistant GM in 2001. Not long after that, Dombrowski left to go to Detroit. Avila eventually went to the Tigers too, becoming an assistant GM for Dombrowski in April 2002.
''He'd been around the game for years,'' said Dombrowski, who is now the president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox. ''So he had a good, diversified background.''
Detroit's new front office turned the Tigers around – the team won American League pennants in 2006 and 2012 and AL Central titles every year from 2011-2014. The Tigers traded for Cabrera after the 2007 season, bringing one of the game's great hitters to Detroit for the prime of his career.
Last season, the Tigers finally faded, but Avila was given the resources to try to stave off the end of this terrific run. No matter what happens, Detroit's first full season with him in charge figures to be a compelling one.
''It's unbelievable. . He signed me,'' Cabrera said. ''Right now, he's our general manager. It's amazing because we're still here, and we want to win a World Series together.''
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister