Detroit Tigers' Al Avila at Detroit Economic Club: We have 'a lot of areas to clean up'

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General manager Al Avila isn't proud of his team's 18-30 record, putting the Detroit Tigers in the cellar of the American League Central, where they've finished in three of the past four years.

Avila acknowledges the facts: The team's defense is one of the worst in baseball, the offense is streaky, the bullpen is a trainwreck and — for the most part — the starting pitching looks well on its way to becoming a dominant force.

"Our defense has let us down," Avila said Wednesday, speaking to Detroit Economic Club members in a virtual meeting alongside manager AJ Hinch. "We've had tremendous pitching performances, and then all of a sudden, we make an error here and an error there. That puts more pressure on the offense.

"There are a lot of areas to clean up."

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Tigers GM Al Avila watches during practice on Wednesday, March 31, 2021, at Comerica Park, a day before Opening Day against the Cleveland Indians.
Tigers GM Al Avila watches during practice on Wednesday, March 31, 2021, at Comerica Park, a day before Opening Day against the Cleveland Indians.

From April 15 through May 7, the Tigers loss 18 of 21 games and the offense had a .197 batting average. They have since played a more competitive brand of baseball from an offensive standpoint, winning nine of their past 15.

The defense remains a problem, committing 31 errors in 48 games. Avila said the Tigers need better defense at the shortstop and center field positions in particular. They hav also stranded the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning in each of the past two games and entered Wednesday on a four-game skid.

"The wins and losses are not where we want them to be," Avila said. "We went through a stretch there that we lost some games. If we just had a few things that went better for us along the way, our record would be very different.

"But we do feel good about the progress. We don't feel good about the wins and losses, but we do feel this team will play better and win more games as the season develops. At the end of the year, the main goal is to find some players that will be there to help us win as we move forward in the future."

[ Spencer Turnbull's no-hitter for the Tigers is only the beginning: 'I belong here' ]

Casey Mize #12 of the Detroit Tigers warms up in the bullpen before the game against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on May 17, 2021.
Casey Mize #12 of the Detroit Tigers warms up in the bullpen before the game against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on May 17, 2021.

The progress that pleases Avila is found within his starting rotation.

The Tigers rank 14th-best in the majors and fifth-best in the American League with a 3.96 ERA from their starting pitchers. Former No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize is evolving into a solidified frontline starter, and former top prospect Tarik Skubal is making strides as of late. Matthew Boyd is having a career year, Spencer Turnbull recently delivered the club's eighth no-hitter, and Jose Urena consistently pitches into the sixth and seventh innings.

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Despite the problems on offense, defense and in the bullpen, Avila takes pride in knowing his top priority for the rebuild — establishing the starting rotation — is shaping up.

"From the very beginning, we wanted to get the pitching right," Avila said. "We wanted to make sure that develop continued in a positive manner. We've seen it develop. ... As far as starting pitching, we've done a marvelous job. The players have really done well. We feel very good about that."

"I feel pretty good about our pitching matchup every given night," Hinch said. "That's a good start. It does not guarantee success, but it does give you a good start to the day when you feel like your pitcher is going to give you a chance to win."

The bullpen, however, has not met expectations. Detroit's relievers have a 5.75 ERA — the worst mark in the major leagues.

[ Michael Fulmer lights up radar gun, blossoming in new role as key reliever ]

Michael Fulmer threw just six pitches against the Royals on Sunday, so, yeah, we're kinda surprised one of them was captured in a photo.
Michael Fulmer threw just six pitches against the Royals on Sunday, so, yeah, we're kinda surprised one of them was captured in a photo.

Ex-starter Michael Fulmer is the lone bright spot, developing into a high-leverage reliever with the ability to shut down his opponents in the most critical moments. His fastball velocity reaches the upper 90s, and his old slider is back. Left-hander Gregory Soto has displayed spurts of greatness by firing 100 mph fastballs and executing his slider, but his erratic command causes him to stumble.

Besides Fulmer and Soto, the Tigers aren't getting positive results from their bullpen. Asked to handle a significant role, Buck Farmer was designated for assignment in early May because of his 12.66 ERA in 12 appearances. Bryan Garcia and Daniel Norris own ERAs above 5.00, with Jose Cisnero at a 4.82 ERA.

"Coming out of spring training," Avila said, "we actually expected the bullpen to be better."

While Avila is excited about the growth of the starting rotation — thanks to pitching coach Chris Fetter — as it pertains to the rebuild, he knows the Tigers must make improvements in other areas: Offense, defense and relief pitching.

Until then, the losses will continue to pile up.

"When our starting pitching goes through six innings and keeps us in the game, you have a chance to win every single game," Avila said. "That's not the only way, but that's the most important thing for us. Obviously, you need good defense, and then you need timely hitting."

Here's more of what Avila told Detroit Economic Club members about the 2021 Tigers:

• More about the pitching developments: "The pitching is the most difficult thing. You got out in the free agent market, it's the most expensive thing that you're going to get. It's going to be also the riskiest from a health perspective and injuries. I've said it from Day 1, we need to have a good nucleus of homegrown pitching talent, which we're developing as we speak. ... Pitching is important."

• On development of position players: "We're still trying to figure some things out, who are going to be the mainstays and who are going to be part of the future and things of that nature. I think Willi Castro is still a work in progress. The guys are working with him very hard, but the potential is there. The two catchers in (Eric) Haase and (Jake) Rogers, we can see the difference behind the plate from a defensive perspective. In the infield, you've got guys like Harold Castro and Jeimer Candelario really coming through. Now, Niko (Goodrum) is a bit inconsistent, but we're continuing to work with him."

[ Tigers giving Willi Castro a 'long leash’ to make improvements this season ]

Detroit Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop (7) and third baseman Jeimer Candelario (46) exchange high fives following a 4-1 victory against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park.
Detroit Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop (7) and third baseman Jeimer Candelario (46) exchange high fives following a 4-1 victory against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park.

• On Jonathan Schoop's struggles after re-signing him to a one-year, $4.5 million contract this winter: "One of the bigger issues that we've had is guys like Jonathan Schoop, who we brought in to stabilize that lineup. He came in late, several weeks late (to spring training), so he started a little behind everybody else. He's just catching up now, and we all know how tough it is to catch up once the season starts. Now that the weather is getting warming, and he's been around for several weeks, we expect him to really step up and take off."

• On Robbie Grossman's veteran presence: "In the outfield, Robbie Grossman has been as advertised: A true professional, professional at-bats, professional in the clubhouse. Just the way that he does everything on the field and off the field. He's been a blessing to us as we move forward, and I look forward to having him the rest of the year and next year."

[ Robbie Grossman is waking up for Tigers. Here's why AJ Hinch isn't surprised ]

Tigers center fielder Akil Baddoo runs towards third base against Cleveland during the seventh inning at the Comerica Park on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.
Tigers center fielder Akil Baddoo runs towards third base against Cleveland during the seventh inning at the Comerica Park on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

• On Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo: "Akil Baddoo was the talk of Major League Baseball for a whole month. If you see his numbers today, they're very good numbers, very respectable numbers. When you just think that this guy hadn't played beyond A-ball (in the minors), it's really mind boggling. We think we have a really good player for our future there."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila: We have 'a lot of areas to clean up'