Ron Gardenhire is done as Detroit Tigers manager. Bring on Don Kelly.
Ron Gardenhire retired on Saturday, and while it was sudden and unexpected, it wasn’t terribly surprising. Gardenhire is a month shy of his 63rd birthday, he’s had previous health concerns, and his contract was set to expire at the end of this season.
There will be a time for a proper eulogy for the Ron Gardenhire era, but right now it feels entirely forgettable. So much of success as a manager depends on the players you’re given, and Gardy was shorthanded in all three seasons in Detroit.
That doesn’t completely absolve him, of course — his lineups and bullpen management could be puzzling at times. But in the end, Gardenhire should be neither praised nor derided for his performance in Detroit.
Ron Gardenhire was put in charge of a sinking ship, and his task was simply to keep his crew engaged as they took on water. He did the job. His 132-241 record with the Tigers has very little to with his skills as a manager, or his quality as a person.
We at Motor City Bengals wish him health and happiness in his retirement.
The next Detroit Tigers manager won’t have the luxury of such low expectations. The organization’s young talent has begun to arrive, and players like Matt Manning, Spencer Torkelson, and Riley Greene may reach the majors next year.
The 2021 Tigers will be young and inexperienced. They could hire another veteran skipper like Gardenhire and Jim Leyland, or they can go with a familiar young name…
Enter Don Kelly
Don Kelly’s playing career in Detroit saw him slowly evolve from an afterthought to a fan favorite. At first the adulation was seemingly ironic, driven by Leyland’s clear affection for a wholly underwhelming player, but many fans grew to appreciate Kelly’s versatility and penchant for coming up big in the playoffs:
Don Kelly was sold as an overachiever who made the big leagues with brains and hard work. That does hold a grain of truth, but it ignores some strong physical gifts. Kelly wasn’t a terribly talented hitter, but you don’t find many 6’4 players who and can capably man CF, 3B, and 1B in the same game. He’s one of just eight players in MLB history who played all 9 positions and DH at least once.
He spent parts of six seasons with the Tigers, hitting .230 with 23 home runs, but he departed Detroit after the 2014 season. He saw time with the Miami Marlins in 2015 and 2016 before hanging up his cleats with a career bWAR of -0.1 — though it was 0.7 with the Tigers
Is Don Kelly Qualified?
Detroit Tigers fans are right to be wary of hiring another inexperienced former player as manager. Alan Trammell and Brad Ausmus both took their first managerial jobs here, and both had disastrous runs as manager.
But this wouldn’t be a pure public relations stunt. After his retirement Don Kelly immediately joined the Detroit Tigers as a scout, and spent two years in that role. In late 2018 he was hired by the Houston Astros and served as first-base coach for their 2019 World Series run.
Kelly was then hired away from Houston, and he has spent the 2020 season as bench coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team for for whom he made his big-league debut. That’s a fairly rapid ascent, and it points to a career as a manager in the near future.
Is it the Right Fit?
That’s the big question. Don Kelly is obviously familiar with the Tigers organization, so there should be no issues there. The Astros were one of the most forward-thinking teams in baseball, so his time there should help. And spending a year as a bench coach theoretically gives him feel for the preparation and strategy required of an MLB manager.
Hiring Don Kelly would be justifiable, but risky. And that’s the rub. If this hire doesn’t work out, General Manager Al Avila almost certainly won’t get another chance. Would he risk going with a green manager knowing this is his last shot?
With a young team and actual expectations, it seems far more likely Avila and the Tigers will pursue a veteran skipper with a more proven record. But don’t be shocked if Don Kelly is a finalist.