Henning: Ron Gardenhire’s abrupt exit bodes more drama for Tigers, Al Avila

Detroit News

When news came Saturday that Ron Gardenhire was exiting as Tigers manager — at that hour and not when the season ended a week later — there were fears, all of them grave and warranted.

Gardenhire had surgery for prostate cancer in 2017 during a stint with the Arizona Diamondbacks as bench coach. He had stomach issues a few weeks ago that knocked him out for several days.

This was ominous history when a big-league skipper decides so suddenly to leave a job that for Gardenhire has always been as much passion as vocation. Some of us remember 1966 when Tigers manager Bob Swift was diagnosed in July with “food poisoning.” Three months later he was dead from lung cancer.

But nothing was concealed Saturday, nothing was couched, when Gardenhire said it was stress and stomach issues that had become too serious to trust even another week in the Tigers dugout.

There is no cancer recurrence. Gardenhire knows it. His bosses know it.

There is high blood pressure, and trembling hands, and stomach ills that are exclusively the product of stress Gardenhire has known in a meat-grinder of a Tigers job compounded by this cruel year and COVID-19.

Even one more week could have been dangerous to a manager’s heart and to what, at age 62, should be long and tranquil years ahead for him and for his wife, Carol.

There is the happy side to Saturday’s bombshell. Gardenhire can go home to Florida, where his son, Toby, is about to be married. He can see his daughter and grandkids in Oklahoma. He can play golf with buddies in Naples or Fort Myers or wherever and take long walks with Carol. No longer must he worry about Matt Boyd’s ups and downs or Miguel Cabrera’s knee or how he’ll patch a lineup when his center-fielder and first baseman are gone with a broken wrist and torn-up knee.

The Tigers were lucky to have had Gardenhire during three tortured years of baseball in Detroit. It was a job no one should have wanted. There was going to be at least one 100-loss season when he arrived, guaranteed, and two more that, at the very least, were bound to be a thistle patch. He knew it and so did anyone else who understood how deep and long would be Detroit’s baseball reconstruction.

Gardenhire’s knack for keeping his spirits soaring during the worst of days was one reason he was perfect for this chapter of Tigers history. His personal decency, his integrity, and his ground-floor baseball expertise were bulwarks during seasons that could have been a mess with any number of other men.

Now, the Tigers will look for a new skipper.

And it’s a wide-open search.

Candidates to consider

Lloyd McClendon, the best of soldiers and men, and a Tigers coach for so long, will interview. He also interviewed three years ago. He has managerial experience in Pittsburgh and Seattle. But what didn’t happen in the autumn of 2017 when he was bypassed isn’t likely to evolve this time around.

There are two fan favorites for the Tigers job who likewise rank as long-shots.

A.J. Hinch, the ex-Astros manager who is everyone’s hot ticket, might agree to an interview. He played for the Tigers in 2003 and has a good relationship with Tigers general manager Al Avila. The problem is Hinch knows the brand of job he can expect to win in the next year or so. Signing on with the Tigers when they’re still a long way from the playoffs isn’t likely to be the most appealing next stop for Hinch, who rather liked winning that World Series three years ago.

Don Kelly, another fan dandy, is a bench lieutenant with the Pirates after interning as a first-base coach under Hinch at Houston. The Tigers love him. If he were to come home, Comerica Park’s customers would dance and raise glasses and cheer the return of “Donny Kelly, Baby” — as the de facto cheer went — for a few months, anyway, until the realities of Detroit’s roster would catch up.

And then those same fans would personally escort him, with pitchforks and torches, back to Pittsburgh once they realized D.K. wasn’t going to compensate for a kiddie-corps rebuild that will still be laying its brickwork for at least another season or two.

Some names from past searches will probably make a final cut that isn’t close to being pared.

Mike Redmond, who knows Avila since their Marlins days and who interviewed three years ago, will probably sit for a chat. So, too, could some others, a few of whom were mentioned Sunday by Jon Paul Morosi of MLB Network: George Lombard, Will Venable, and two more ex-Tigers: Marcus Thames and Vance Wilson.

So many names have been pouring in, from internal and external research, that Avila hasn’t come close to forming a final crop of candidates, which could go as high as 10 men.

As many as half will be minorities, which is proper as a sport contends with its heavily non-white rosters and very heavily white manager’s offices.

Remember that the Tigers three years ago were close to hiring Dave Martinez, then a Cubs coach who now manages the Nationals and who last autumn won a World Series. The Tigers also had serious conversations with Alex Cora, and it was a good thing they didn’t unite. Cora later took the Red Sox job but ran into trouble, same as Hinch, because of sign-thieving when Cora was with the Astros.

Both Hinch and Cora are currently exiled. The difference is Hinch, whose one-year suspension is set to expire, later made a touching and contrite apology that earned significant forgiveness, while Cora disappeared and still hasn’t fully explained himself.

The Tigers will be looking for a new manager who can handle two ends of a yet-touchy job.

They’ll need a leader and personality who can hold authority in a clubhouse and who, like Gardenhire, can double as a team psychologist as he shapes a kid-heavy roster.

They also want a skipper who’s comfortable with analytics from fore to aft. Gardenhire was a newcomer there when he came to Detroit and eventually absorbed the mounds of data that each day landed on his desk. This time, with numbers meaning everything in baseball, the Tigers will want someone who from the get-go is facile in processing and applying the M.I.T mulch.

Roster evolution

How the roster evolves is a more basic issue. Players, not a manager, will determine whether the new skipper is Buddy Bell or Sparky Anderson.

The Tigers know they have pitching, as much as pitching and arms can be trusted: Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, maybe Franklin Perez or Alex Faedo, and definitely Joey Wentz after he heals from Tommy John surgery, are a good start on brandishing a playoff-grade starting rotation.

Positions and bats are the Tigers’ mystery planet.

The front office believes Jeimer Candelario is here to stay as a heavy mid-lineup bat. They think they have their shortstop in Willi Castro, who was landed by way of a slick Avila trade for Leonys Martin.

Isaac Paredes is going to hit — after he marinades for a few more months at Triple A. Same, the Tigers believe, with Daz Cameron, whose few-weeks cameo this month and earlier taxi-squad time has pumped his prospect stock. Cameron spent a month in a hospital and hotel earlier this year with COVID-19 and has convinced the Tigers that his 2019 slip-ups were just that — a one-season tumble he has reversed in impressive fashion.

It should be noted that neither Paredes, nor Cameron, was supposed to have been in Detroit this year, except as one of those come-aboard invitations common in September, at least before a pandemic turned the MLB season upside-down.

The Tigers — and Gardenhire — got whacked hard when C.J. Cron was lost at first base to a shredded knee and JaCoby Jones exited center field with a broken wrist. That necessitated hurry-ups with Paredes and Cameron.

Next year, providing the coronavirus cooperates, Paredes and Cameron will be getting finishing touches at Toledo, all as some heavyweight bats move closer to Detroit.

Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene are the grand prizes there. Also moving closer, if his past month is credible, is the Tigers’ second-round pick from 2018, outfielder Parker Meadows. He was brought onto Toledo’s taxi squad earlier this month and has been showcasing, alongside his good buddy, Greene, talents the Tigers thought they were tapping into two years ago.

He has been one of Toledo’s better and brighter surprises as this zany 60-game season, and taxi-squad laboratory, have combined to make the best of a lost baseball year.

Still to be decided is whether this year’s draft-pick crop, beyond Torkelson, can help any time soon. Dillon Dingler, Daniel Cabrera, Gage Workman, and Trey Cruz cannot be measured until they add to their college resumes’ some minor-league maturing that got knocked flat in 2020.

Also to be decided: whether Miguel Cabrera can play much past another year, even if he’s under contract through 2023. The Tigers understand his right knee will never allow for power that has vanished. Even after getting into wonderful shape, he has trouble with fastballs. He is 37. They’ll get him to 3,000 hits and 500 home runs next season (they hope) and then will decide whether he can help, or simply take into retirement a lovely parting gift of $60-million plus.

All of this drama, all of these good and bad days ahead, await the new Tigers skipper. Life got measurably better for fans this year a season after the old roster cratered and new greenery began to emerge. More vitality, for sure, will be coming to Comerica during these next years, probably spiced by a free-agent celebrity or two who should be showing up ahead of 2022, and beyond.

But this is baseball, that most lengthy of professional sports processes. It might also be remembered that a team some of us said three years ago was on its way to a possible mini-dynasty — the White Sox — are in the Tigers’ division and not likely to cut rambunctious rebuilders from Detroit any slack. Not soon.

Still, it projects to be an entertaining time, probably steadily, for the Tigers crowd. And maybe, too, for a new skipper who won’t confront a landscape as rocky as Gardenhire nobly embraced. Enough, finally, is happening on the farm to make a managerial job in Detroit better than advertised.

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