In Detroit, Al Avila ascends to the GM spot after 14 years serving as Dave Dombrowski's top assistant. Avila has been working in pro ball since 1992 with the expansion Marlins, where he also served under Dombrowski. The pair was instrumental in building the 1997 world champion Marlins, and their drafting and development also laid the groundwork for Miami's '03 title. Avila becomes the first Cuban-born general manager in MLB history.
In Boston, 39-year old Mike Hazen has been appointed as GM (ironically, by new BoSox president of baseball ops Dave Dombrowski) after nine seasons in their front office. Unlike Avila who was born into a baseball family, Hazen broke into the business side of the game on a recommendation from HOF writer Peter Gammons, whom Hazen worked with in the summer of 2000 while scouting the Cape Cod League.
While other GM hirings have and will continue to trickle in, these two represent an interesting contrast in age, experience, and assets on hand. The similarity between the two is that they'll be expected to spearhead winning ballclubs and continued minor league growth, to appease both rabid fan bases and equally rabid owners.
Let's take a quick look at the history of Detroit and Boston's new top lieutenants, what kind of situations they're walking into, and how their strengths may influence the direction of their clubs.
Old School: Al Avila
Al is the son of Ralph Avila, a retired vice-president of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Al has spoken about tagging along as a youngster with a sort of baseball 'Rat Pack': Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, GM Al Campanis, and his father - the Dodgers' ace scout. Ralph was the key man in igniting a player pipeline to the Dominican Republic by establishing player academies there, a trailblazing endeavor that has led to all 30 major league teams operating Dominican facilities.
Born into a baseball family, Al has seemingly held every job you could across the game: from scout to top-ranked NAIA head coach, to assistant GM, to physically building the bullpens and warning tracks at his fathers' Dominican academies. He now gets his shot at running an MLB team for the first time, and he'll try to right the ship in Detroit with Miguel Cabrera - whom Avila himself is crediting with discovering as a scout for the Marlins - and a farm system improved by midseason trades.
After ranking dead last in minorleagueball's April farm system rankings, Detroit infused much-needed talent into their organization in deadline deals of David Price and Yoenis Cespedes this summer. LHP Daniel Norris slots in as the teams' unquestioned top prospect and the Tigers are hoping Michael Fulmer, acquired from the Mets in the Cespedes trade, can be a mid-rotation starter within the next couple seasons after a dominating year at AA ball. A lot is riding on this particular pitching pair, as Detroit is heavy on raw, toolsy position players and college pitchability-type arms down on the farm - a combination that's led to their bottom-ranked system. It's fair to wonder if next years' farm rankings will even see the Tigers climb out of the bottom three despite their recent trade bounties; there's still a lot of work to be done in the Motor City.
It will be interesting to see Avila get to work, now that he's been given autonomy with all personnel moves after serving as Dombrowski's assistant GM for nearly 15 years. Owner Mike Ilitch is highly competitive and has been known to flash his cash when it comes to luring impact free agents, as deals for Ivan Rodriguez, Victor Martinez, and Prince Fielder are just a few of the big splashes they've made in the last decade or so. Expect deep-pocketed Detroit to remain active in this years' free agent market, with superstars such as Justin Upton, David Price, and Johnny Cueto all looking for future employment.
Avila's real test will be improving the lackluster farm system. According to Tigers blog Bless You Boys, Detroit never spent more than $600,000 on an international signing during Dombrowski's tenure. Given Avila's lifetime of experience in Latin American scouting, we can expect this to change under his watch. The Tigers' recent drafts have also left something to be desired, with the same source citing that just four players on Detroit's 2015 opening day roster were drafted by the team. The club has been 'hindered' with low draft picks and in some years lacking a first-round pick altogether, but the Cardinals and Dodgers have proved that shouldn't be a deterrent to obtaining and developing above-average major league regulars.
It'd be a tall order for any one person to come in and fix all that ails the Tigers, a team that's last in the farm system rankings and in the AL Central. But in Al Avila, a man born into baseball scouting royalty and preparing to be a GM for his entire life, Detroit may have found the one guy up to the task to lay the framework for another World Series run in Motown.
New School: Mike Hazen
Compared to baseball 'lifer' Avila, the 39-year old Hazen is a fresh face in the front office scene. The former All-Ivy League outfielder at Princeton was a prospect himself once upon a time, but chronic injuries during his first year of full-season ball led him to explore other opportunities working in the game. Hazen was introduced to Peter Gammons through a connection with his college coach; he began to assist Gammons on writing Cape Cod League scouting reports in the summer of 2000. Gammons later urged then-Indians GM Mark Shapiro to consider Hazen for an intern position, which he did - within one day of reading some of his reports, as the excellent gammonsdaily.com notes.
After a few years in Cleveland's front office where he moved from advance scouting to pro scouting to player development, Boston GM Theo Epstein took note and lured Hazen back to his New England-area home and hired him to be the Red Sox' assistant farm director in 2006. Hazen has been a quick riser in the organization ever since, and the work he's done as assistant GM the past five years under Ben Cherington led to Hazen being a hot name among the multitude of current GM openings.
While it's possible that Hazen bypassed more money and power from other organizations (it's been confirmed that new Red Sox prez Dave Dombrowski has final say in all personnel decisions), the Abington, Mass. native seems thrilled with the promotion and the prospect of continuing to work with an eclectic, effective front office group that's been assembled in Boston. And Hazen should be thrilled; despite potential back-to-back last place finishes in the AL East, the Sox are brimming with young talent and could absolutely be competitive as soon as next summer.
It promises to be an eventful offseason in Beantown. As John Sickels noted in his midseason review of Red Sox prospects, Dombrowski comes in as president of baseball ops with a history of being a 'prospect-trader'. On the flipside, new GM Hazen may be hesitant to part with any of the impact talent that he's helped to scout, sign, draft, and/or develop.
Fortunately, with the way the major league club is already stocked with outfielders and expensive veterans, there shouldn't be any rush for Boston to deal high-end prospects including Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, or Manuel Margot for a quick fix in the rotation. Instead, the team has a plethora of offensive excess to deal from in order to patch holes in the pitching staff, with players like Brock Holt, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Travis Shaw all potentially available in trade. In a perfect world, the team would surely love to move on from the Hanley Ramirez experiment if they can find a plausible taker. A Hanley trade would have the two-pronged effect of both opening a lineup spot for a more productive young player and freeing up payroll that could be offered to free-agent aces Cueto, Price, or Greinke.
We'll get our first look at the way fast-rising GM Mike Hazen does business as soon as the MLB postseason comes to a conclusion. Given the state of the Red Sox' robust farm system coupled with their veteran fixtures already in the lineup, Hazen and the new regime could experience instant success if they're able to find a frontline starter and patch a tattered Boston bullpen.