It’s a lost season for the Tigers—something they could scarcely afford, but an easy thing to have seen coming, really. When they jettisoned longtime general manager Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers also seem to have thrown out whatever larger sense of direction they might have previously had. The roster Dombrowski left behind was, of course, an expensive, aged, and rigid one, but nothing Al Avila (Dombrowski’s lieutenant-turned-successor) has done over the last two-plus years has amended that, and to whatever extent that roster also held the promise of one or two more honest shots at a postseason berth, Avila has squandered those.
Last offseason, Avila took the half measure of trading Cameron Maybin in order to limit the team’s budgetary strain, but then (perhaps hamstrung by ownership, or perhaps out of a simple inability to find the right deals) went no further down the path of rebuilding. Crucially, he also didn’t load the team up with any significant reinforcements. It was a tough winter of needle-threading, with the health of then-owner Mike Illitch so obviously in decline and the countdown clock on Illitch’s Tigers dynasty dreams ticking down, so perhaps it’s understandable that Avila mostly missed his chances to guide the team out of mediocrity (in either direction), but fail he did.
What Illitch’s death in the spring began, the Tigers’ uneven and unimpressive first half finished. The notion of one more competitive season fueled by a few stars dragging their sub-replacement compatriots toward October fizzled, and Avila took decisive action at the trade deadline, sending J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, and his son Alex Avila to contenders in order to rebuild Detroit’s weak farm system. Alas, he whiffed on both of those key trades, getting unimpressive talent in return for players with real potential to impact playoff races. He was the baseball equivalent of a man going to the store to buy a full-course chicken dinner, and realizing only once he arrives home that all he bought were two boxes of instant mashed potatoes, a six-pack of Amstel Light, and a Kit-Kat.
Avila is, by all accounts, a good talent evaluator, and he’s garnered considerable respect for that skill set across baseball. He doesn’t seem to be as good at sheer talent valuation, though, and he’s a ham-handed shaper of rosters. (For the latter fault, blame his mentor Dombrowski, who’s been building rosters as subtle and resource-efficient as a yellow-gold Hummer since before Hummers came in that color.) It’s possible he was promoted one level past his competency. It’s possible, too, that he has mostly been a victim of circumstance thus far, because of the inconsistent signals he’s gotten from ownership and because of the player personnel (at all levels) he inherited. At this point, however, it might not matter. There’s enough wrong with the Tigers that a case could be made, at least, for a change of leadership.
That brings us to a fascinating moment, one I’ve written about recently with regard to the Giants, the Twins, and other teams, as well. Regardless of why it happens, the point at which a team decides to replace the primary architect of its philosophy and its roster is pivotal. For now, I’m not fully ready to recommend that the Tigers confront that moment, but I do think this is an opportune time at which to consider the different models of regime change popular in MLB right now. It might be relevant to Detroit, or to one of a small handful of other clubs, in the near future.
Model #1: The Title Bump
This one comes in two flavors, but given how different the circumstances in which those variants take place are, the mechanics and outcomes of each are surprisingly similar. Title Bump Variant A is the straightforward kind, the one we think of as just an organization protecting its best talent from poaching by other organizations. The Giants promoted Bobby Evans to GM when Brian Sabean moved up to a loftier title and broader responsibilities. Across the Bay, Billy Beane moved up, allowing David Forst to make the A's day-to-day moves. The Indians' maintain a parade of these guys, such that when Mark Shapiro left for Toronto, Chris Antonelli simply moved up to Shapiro’s president gig, and Mike Chernoff could step up to the GM level.
Title Bump Variant B is a little less pretty. There are guys who are simply impossible to fire, in some organizations. Kenny Williams was one in Chicago a few years ago. John Schuerholz was certainly that way in Atlanta. Walt Jocketty had the whole world convinced that he was doing the Reds a favor just by being with the Reds, so ousting him was never on the table. Yet, all of these men got behind the curve at a certain point, and their once-successful brands of team building became either inconvenient or downright unsuccessful. Thus, they each got promoted to a level that allowed them to maintain basic control of the baseball operations department, but that also gave the fresh ideas and greater adaptability of their right-hand men (Rick Hahn, John Coppolella, Dick Williams) more room to take root and (eventually) bear fruit.
This latter form of relatively peaceful change seems a bit noncommittal, but in each case, it’s led to an interesting, aggressive, and well-regarded rebuild. (The jury is out on any rebuild, though, until it delivers the promised return to prominence.) Most recently, the Cardinals gave John Mozeliak a bump up to president of baseball operations (and elevated Mike Girsch to the VP and GM role) in the midst of a disappointing season in St. Louis.
What we tend to overlook is that, even in the first case, the continuity this method of regime change promises is a mirage. The qualities individual executives bring to bear in the primary decision-making chair within an organization (whatever the title attached thereto) matter a little more than we sometimes believe. That makes the first version almost riskier than the second, because in the latter case, it can act as a needed shakeup without the mania that comes with firing a GM and starting over. It’s a bloodless coup. On the other hand, if the team is having success and that kind of change is still needed, it’s probably because the top executive is looking to move beyond doing the things that have fueled that success, and that probably means that adequately replacing them will be a challenge.
Model #2: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Buy 'Em
When an organization is ready for a bit more of a true rebranding, they usually do it by publicly firing their top executives, and then bringing in someone (or, as seems to be the cutting edge of the trend now, several someones) who’s lately been credited with helping build some other team into a powerhouse. The Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer Cubs are an example. The Jeff Luhnow Astros are, too. More recently, the Diamondbacks (an organization that desperately needed the PR that comes with such a visible change) bought into the value of having former Epstein disciples build out a modern front office, and the Twins plucked very ripe fruit from the vines of the Indians and Rangers in order to do the same.
The Angels are surprising people this year in part because of the talent for arbitrage that Billy Eppler learned from Brian Cashman in New York before being brought over to Anaheim. The Brewers’ rebuild is ahead of schedule because they brought in David Stearns (who was part of Luhnow’s Astros as they leaped into contention in 2015). Of course, what works in one place doesn’t always work in another, and (as noted earlier) what works for one particular guy doesn’t always work for even his best and brightest underlings.
Model #3: The Cult of Personality
I have to stop and confess something that should already be obvious: there are very few pure cases of any single model at which to point. Most firings and hirings take these possible models and blend them together, and it just comes down to which one makes up the largest portion of the decision. For instance, anyone who hires Epstein is embracing the Cult of Theo Epstein. He’s as much brand as man, even though it’s his ability to think boldly and creatively and originally that set him apart, not any particular mode of operation. In fact, that’s what the Cubs banked on when they ponied up to get him out of Boston. They wanted to emulate the Red Sox’s recipe for success, but in order to do so, they felt they needed to hire their head chef. That’s not always the right way to do it, but it’s how many MLB owners think.
These are billionaires. If they see a smaller competitor doing something brilliant and cutting edge, they might charge their R&D team with creating a project to rival it, but they’re also going to look deeply into buying that rival outright. That’s why the Red Sox went and got Dombrowski, even though it ultimately cost them some of Epstein’s last, best holdovers. They felt like he was the key to Detroit’s recent success. The Blue Jays pushed Alex Anthopoulos aside in order to make a play for Dan Duquette, then turned to Mark Shapiro when that fell through. The Dodgers gave Ned Colletti the Type II Title Bump, then became the team to finally pry Andrew Friedman loose from the Rays.
Nor is it always about stealing from another club. John Hart, who has become part of the Braves’ top triumvirate, wasn’t in any particular team’s employ when they coaxed him back into the fray. The Phillies got Andy MacPhail to spearhead their new direction after he’d been away from running teams for a few years. The Mets pulled Sandy Alderson out of what was shaping up to be a second extended stint with the commissioner’s office. A certain amount of experience and reputation can still overwhelm the almost universal impulse of baseball teams to make progressive, new-age hiring choices. The availability of a guy like that can even prompt teams to move on too soon from efforts to move forward on the saber-savvy track, as (one could argue) the case of the Red Sox makes clear.
What Doesn’t Work
Each of these ways of thinking about regime change and prioritizing the assets of an incoming leader has its merits, and each has its weaknesses. There’s one model, though, that only a few teams have undertaken recently, and from their names alone, it should be clear that this is not a notion worth emulating. The Marlins and the Rockies have each, within the past half-decade, gone through a modified version of the Title Bump in which they fired the guy at the top of their organizational ladder, but left the people he assembled in place to succeed him.
Larry Beinfest and Dan O’Dowd did plenty to earn their firings, but in each case (and notwithstanding the modest success of each of those teams this year), getting rid of them and promoting their own underlings to fill the void sent mixed messages and muddied the water for both fans and people inside the organizations. That, of course, is what the Tigers have done, too, by firing Dombrowski, then promoting Avila. They might do well to learn from the relative listlessness of Colorado and Miami, and make the tough call required in order to set a clear and lasting direction for the franchise.