Central Concerns: Al Avila couldn’t change Detroit’s direction

While reading about the Detroit Tigers’ firing of general manager Al Avila last week, I kept coming back to the number 7. That’s how many seasons Avila had at the helm before the Tigers officially conceded that it wasn’t working.

Rick Hahn failed to record a winning season during his first seven years as White Sox general manager. He didn’t breach .500 until his eighth, which also happened to be the year with the 60-game schedule.

At least Avila could claim that one of his teams won more than it lost. The Tigers won 86 games in his first year as GM before it all went downhill. Here’s the tale of the tape:

HahnYearAvila
63-99186-78
73-89264-98
76-86364-98
78-84447-114
67-95523-35
62-100677-85
72-89743-71
491-642Total414-579

Hahn has a better winning percentage, .433 to .417, but Avila has an edge in winning seasons (1 to 0), which effectively closes the gap. It’d be one thing if Hahn’s Sox got to that .433 winning percentage by oscillating between winning 95 games and 45 games — in fact, it might be optimal in the capped draft pool era — but there’s no upside to the way the White Sox continually came up short. Hahn admitted as such in his “mired in mediocrity” speech in 2016.

Avila wasn’t fired just for his record, but how they lost so many games. The Tigers failed to draft and develop difference-makers during that time, although when you stack Avila’s 2016-2020 run of first-round picks against Hahn’s, the difference mostly comes down to picking pitchers.

  • Avila: Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Casey Mize, Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson
  • Hahn: Zack Collins, Jake Burger, Nick Madrigal, Andrew Vaughn, Garrett Crochet

Manning is the only pitcher on that list to avoid Tommy John surgery as a pro, but he’s spent most of this season dealing with a shoulder issue.

Neither GM has success on the free-agent market, either, but whether by nature or nurture, Hahn’s approach has been far more conservative. Avila bookended his Tigers GM career with massive contracts to Jordan Zimmermann and Javier Báez, while Hahn opened with a three-year deal for Jeff Keppinger that foreshadowed his risk aversion on the open market.

Still, Hahn was able to remain in charge to string together multiple winning seasons and multiple postseason appearances, although a third of each remains in doubt. If the White Sox fall short this year, it’s hard to imagine anybody of consequence taking the fall for it.

Ownership is the obvious difference between the two teams. Tigers chairman and CEO Chris Ilitch stumbled a few times through the announcement. He couldn’t remember when he extended Avila, and he refused to hold himself even partially accountable for the Tigers’ failures.

“I would say to you: I didn’t trade those players away,” Ilitch said. “Our general manager did. Al did. That’s his role.”

Still, Ilitch put himself out there, both in terms of making the decision and explaining it in a public fashion. It’s just about impossible to imagine Jerry Reinsdorf doing either.

In fact, Reinsdorf does everything to obfuscate Hahn’s responsibilities. While Avila was promoted to GM after a clean break with his predecessor, Hahn still works under Kenny Williams, which has provided fodder for years of arguments about who’s really in power (the answer: it doesn’t matter). While Avila hired his own managers, Reinsdorf foisted Tony La Russa’s dead-fish presence on his front office.

Reinsdorf takes the path of least resistance and the most familiarity when it comes to major management decisions, so there’s no reason to expect anything else but internal promotions, regardless of whether they’re deserved.


Even if one could somehow control for ownership and give them both the same standards, Hahn differentiated himself by kicking out of a pin after the 2016 season. He traded Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Adam Eaton at the heights of their worth, and he created the opportunity to do so. Sale and Quintana arrived before Hahn’s ascension to GM, but he extended both, as well as Eaton, which enhanced their trade values. Those trades represent a sizable portion of the White Sox’s current fixtures: Dylan Cease, Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Lance Lynn (via Dane Dunning).

Avila had one year in the chair before he was pressured to trade Justin Verlander (with two years and $56 million left on his deal) and J.D. Martinez (free agent after the 2017 season). With the recent release of former top prospect Franklin Perez, the Tigers only have Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers to show for those two deals … barely.

Avila then compounded those failures by waiting too long to trade Nick Castellanos, Michael Fulmer and Matthew Boyd as the next good Tigers team failed to materialize. Alex Lange is a promising reliever, but he’s not the kind of guy you want to be the only active contributor from a series of high-profile trades.

Hahn’s ability to turn the page is the highlight of his career, but the problem is that it remains the highlight of his career. Outside of Luis Robert (who signed a contract that’s no longer allowed) and Vaughn (whose presence was made possible by a 100-loss season), the White Sox haven’t been able to make sustained additions to that core. They managed two postseason appearances and a division title when the chief competition collapsed, but now they’re running in third place, and you can make an argument that the first-place Guardians weren’t even really trying to win this year.

Meanwhile, the strategy Hahn previously used to pivot no longer bears the same returns. He again went the extension route with Moncada, Jiménez and Robert, but because players no longer sign their futures away as cheaply, none are bargains. All are obligations to varying degrees. Moncada’s looks worse than that.

We’ve discussed this all before and undoubtedly we will again, but it’s worth revisiting in the wake of a shake-up so close to home. GMs are never fired because of trivial or intangible matters like personality differences or losing the clubhouse. They’re dismissed because either they couldn’t see the dead end coming, or their best efforts to avoid it weren’t good enough. With a record-high payroll producing a team that’s difficult to watch — and the aforementioned fixtures only getting more expensive from here — the Sox are staring down that same barrel as we speak, and between Hahn’s tentative nature and Reinsdorf’s absentee stewardship, there’s no real reason to believe the Sox are capable of changing directions even if everybody agrees on the need.

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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lifelongjd

You make many great points here, Jim. The Sox are so dysfunctional as an organization it’s difficult to know how good of a GM Hahn really is. I believed the rebuild was going pretty well until this season when the bottom seems to have fallen out.

While Hahn does own this roster warts and all, his hands have been tied on many decisions that could be the difference between WS contenders and a middling team. Not being able to seriously pursue top level free agents and choosing the manager are showing to be huge missteps which has lead them back to the mediocrity Hahn so desperately wanted to escape 6 years ago.

Augusto Barojas

I don’t absolve Hahn from all responsibility, it’s on him that the Sox have an injured Kelly rather than Tepera. That move by itself was so obviously stupid that it defies any logic. But as you said, his hands have been largely tied. I mean, it’s not like Hahn does not know enough that if he had the power to choose, that signing Springer to a 5 year 130 million dollar deal would have been better than Eaton. Or that Semien would have been more of what they needed than Harrison and Garcia.

It’s all Jerry, in the end. He is why they have Tony, and why they absolutely never get any good free agents, and have the same roster holes that never get addressed year after year. He is why they have one World Series appearance in 4 decades, and why that will remain so until he either dies or sells. A new GM might help, but his hands would be tied as well. And it’s no given since Jerry would do the hiring, that it would be anybody better than Hahn anyway.

Last edited 3 months ago by Augusto Barojas
lifelongjd

Not absolving him at all. The roster is deeply flawed.

I just believe that if Hahn truly had full autonomy, things would look different. He signs expensive relievers, aggressively trades, & locks up young players because that’s what he’s allowed to do. Even when they made an offer to Machado, they couldn’t be normal about it.

It’s so dysfunctional I can’t believe it.

Augusto Barojas

I agree. If Hahn was able to operate the way Preller can, he would make much more exciting moves in the offseason, and they would easily be in first in this pitiful division at least. He can’t get better players than Harrison, Eaton, etc, because ALL good players want multi year deals. Grandal’s contract value is less than half what the Cubs gave Lester 8 years ago. That tells the whole story right there.

MrStealYoBase

Every GM has their “hands tied” to some degree or another. They all operate under constraints from ownership in some form. It’s what they do within those constraints that is the real job of being a GM.

To those who still want to defend Hahn and his record I ask: given 9 years, a $190M budget, and saddled with Tony La Russa, how many front office people would have been able to build a more competitive team than the one that the Sox have today? I’d wager most of them.

The best comparison isn’t to Detroit, it’s to Baltimore. Baltimore fired their GM after it became apparent that they needed a long-haul rebuild. They brought in a guy with a clear vision who invested in their player development and international scouting, rather than letting the old GM soldier onwards. Now they have a much deeper roster than the White Sox while spending basically no money on their payroll. They lack some of the same high-end talent but have all of the budget in the world to make splashes in the free agent market, while the Sox are perpetually stuck spreading money thinner and thinner around the roster to patch over holes. Whether Hahn gets fired or not wont make that big a difference at this point tbh. The bigger mistake was not bringing in a fresh perspective in 2016-17.

itaita

Whats so frustrating about Reinsdorf is we just saw with the Bulls that he has the ability to fire some friends and look outside the organization and (at least how it looks so far) hire people that do have a plan and know what they’re doing. But he cant let the fucking baseball team out of his grip yet i suppose. Maybe that changes if the team wet farts the rest of the season away. But you can look to the Bulls and at least find some hope in him doing the right thing.

MrStealYoBase

The Bulls seem to be the Michael Reinsdorf show, which would explain how that managed to happen. Unless he gives the same amount of control to his kids, I don’t see it happening.

Right Size Wrong Shape

I’m also not so sure that Paxson wouldn’t still be in charge if he hadn’t agreed to step away. It had kind of a Ventura feel to it.

metasox

I imagine he is embarrassed by what he is seeing. He agreed to a fairly large payroll and is not seeing a return from it and got personally involved when he coaxed La Russa out of retirement thinking he was handing over a potential championship team. I would expect something to happen.

Chris

There is one small problem with your statement: “The best comparison isn’t to Detroit, it’s to Baltimore. Baltimore fired their GM after it became apparent that they needed a long-haul rebuild. They brought in a guy with a clear vision who invested in their player development and international scouting, rather than letting the old GM soldier on-wards.”

The Sox have one of the smallest front offices in MLB. Reisndorf does not allow the appropriate resources for player development and scouting (International or domestic). The Sox have the same issue with their minor league coaching system, just like the front office. The coaching staff’s at the minor league level are all stocked with former Sox players, Sox draftee’s or people with ties to Reinsdorf. And, the results speak for themselves. There just has not been enough of home grown talent coming from out of their minor league system. This has been going of for decades.

Granted there is Marco Paddy and he has had some success on the international level. But, other than that, Sox do not allocate the same international resources that most other teams do.

Also remember, until the hard slotting system was put into place on the MLB amateur draft a few years back… Sox (Reinsdorf) were always one of the teams that would spend the least amount of money in draft year over year. And, if you look at the staff that is responsible for scouting / drafting amateur players… you have the same issue. All most all have ties to Reinsdorf.

I hate to say… but the mediocrity the Sox have is here to stay. Nothing is going to change with organization until new ownership with no ties to current organization is brought in. Then and only then, we might see the necessary changes made to this team.

upnorthsox

I pretty much agree with everything but the final conclusion, I think Hahn’s hold on his job is far more tenuous than the foregone conclusion you suggest. A playoff appearance may still stave off the inevitable but I’m confident that he wont last by coming up short.

One other thing that I’ll keep pointing out, 63-99. That should’ve been all Hahn needed to move on from Robin and yet he didn’t……for 3 more years. He will not get a chance at a 4th manager so the only way Hahn stays is if Tony stays.

soxfan

A fourth manager? Has Hahn even had a first? Williams was the guy out front calling Ventura a four star general and Reinsdorf clearly handpicked La Russa. Did Hahn have carte Blanche when hiring Renteria? As Jim says, the right answer is it doesn’t matter. While the writing is clearer by creating a composite character out of the front office in Hahn the only real comparison that can be made is how the non uniformed staff have performed together, or as Jerry Krause famously said, “organizations win championships.”

Augusto Barojas

Krause’s infamous quote was actually a misquote, and that what he said instead of “players don’t win championships, organizations do” was actually something like “players ALONE don’t win championships”. Changes it from a statement of apparently stupid arrogance and disrespect to a completely reasonable one with no disrespect at all. I thought he said that for years until I heard that corrected. The press can be an unscrupulous group of bastards.

upnorthsox

63-99, at that point he wears Robin.

I believe someone who is not so famous once said, “guys who blame their boss will be looking for a new one”.

MikeAndrews2

It’s one thing to have an owner self-confident enough to foist a 77 year old manager on his team; it’s another think for an owner who is so out of touch to tell his fan base “don’t look at me-I didn’t make those trades”. Give me Jerry Reinsdorf every day of the week. I may be in the minority, but I have always viewed Rick Hahn as a very bright man and a competent baseball executive. The problem is that he-and the organization-just have not been successful-like the unfortunate result of signing the young, unproven core to long term contracts. Is that because of their own skills (or lack thereof) or because of the constraints of ownership? We’ll see, Bruce Levine intimated yesterday that many changes top to bottom are coming regardless of how the season ends. Let’s see; minor league programming, player development, pro scouting, training and medical team management…anything else?

Augusto Barojas

The changes in your last sentence would be good. Add to them the two things that need changing the most – the manager, and the roster. All isn’t lost with a group that includes Kopech and Cease in the rotation. If they fired Tony and made a couple trades from areas of redundancy (Vaughn or Eloy) for something of real value, cut some salary, and filled at least one of their 2b/RF holes in free agency, this team could be enormously better as soon as the start of next year. If Tony is still managing and they do next to nothing in the offseason like the past two winters, then 2023 will be wasted as well.

MrStealYoBase

Even if they made all those changes yesterday, the results wont likely show up on the field until after most of this roster has aged out of their current contracts.

peanutsNcrackerjack

You had me at Jeff Keppinger.

calcetinesblancos

Hiring TLR was such a incredibly stupid, senseless move that nobody but the Sox would have done. Obviously there is no way in hell that Hahn made the call on that, and so that makes me immediately question every move Hahn has ever made and realize that indeed you can really never hold him truly accountable for anything.