The focus starting next week in Detroit is almost certainly going to center around the search for a new manager for the Detroit Tigers.
Whether the first choice ends up being Detroit Tigers fan-favorite Don Kelly or the embattled former Houston Astros skipper AJ Hinch, many might wonder if Tigers’ GM Al Avila can automatically get the skipper he views as his first choice. Just how coveted is the gig in Detroit?
Actually, it seems a certainty the Tigers’ job will be highly sought after. This isn’t about being named the manager at the Beef-a-Roo Restaurant in Iron River, MI. (no offense intended…love The Roo!) There are only 30 of these positions available in the world of baseball. Assuming the Tigers cast a wide net they should be able to have substantive conversations with any available person. This is about taking the reigns over a storied franchise. Everyone will take the call. But they’ll have legitimate questions.
The main question to be asked by the candidates and answered by the Tigers front office is almost completely about the intentions of owner Chris Ilitch and his underling, Avila. How aggressive are they looking to be this off-season in securing free agent talent and pursuing trades? Do they intend to wheel and deal enough to put all top candidates on notice about the worthiness of the Detroit gig?
The Current View
The Tigers have some great pitching in their system but pitching prospects are volatile. You still like seeing Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, and more in your pipeline. Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene are both fine prospects as well for the offense but behind them, there are plenty of question marks. A Top 5 pick is looming again but that’s not always important to a new manager who might not be kept around to ever see the kid debut.
The major league lineup has a few players having a successful run in the short season but no one you can mark down as locked in as a productive regular for the next three-plus seasons. Bats will need to be brought in eventually.
The job will also include massaging the Miguel Cabrera situation for the next three years. While the $30M/year is a sunk cost, it is the only large contract left starting next season. That shouldn’t sink the ship. The bigger piece of managerial art will be coaxing Cabrera along as his skills likely continue to diminish or his body breaks down. But at some point, there will be a reckoning over how untenable it is to have Cabrera batting third in a lineup of a team that intends to win.
The Tigers will also be measuring the level of investment needed in the manager slot and the staff that’ll come along with that person. How big a piece to the ultimate success or failure of the Tigers organization will be from this hire? It’s really a fair debate. If the next skipper is merely a caretaker for the rest of the rebuild that merits a different investment than hiring the individual you suspect will be in charge when they’re ready to go places.
In some respects, it’s obvious to note the Tigers are still a fairly long way from really contending for anything beyond third place in their division. They are in 5th place now with a handful of games remaining and have struggled mightily since opting to not sell at the trade deadline. If a prospective manager is looking to be a quick fix artist, Detroit’s roster isn’t very tempting right now.
A manager who exhibits a more patient view is likely to see a growing farm system that’s starting to graduate a few players to varying degrees of success and some prime talent waiting in the wings. This person might also see Tigers owner Ilitch’s net worth and relish the idea of having the vast resources of the Ilitch Empire at his disposal should Ilitch follow through on his public statements to be ready to provide Avila with what he needs…and we assume that’s more than a Little Caesar’s gift card.
Front Office Intentions
Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the end. If the Tigers retain Lloyd McClendon, make a fan-friendly choice of Donny Kelly, or make the bold controversial choice of bringing AJ Hinch back to the dugout. All of these are probably legitimate choices…but in the end, it’s the direction chosen by Ilitch and Avila which probably matters most. It’s a GM-driven sport in many ways. A couple of weeks ago in this space, it was speculated that this off-season might be the time for Ilitch to put up or shut up on his promise to invest to win. Does he intend Avila to return the Ilitch brand to being power players on the MLB landscape or Winter Meetings cocktail party pretenders talking a good game? The answer to this question probably tells us the ultimate point of the next hire in the dugout.
If the Tigers intend to flex the Ilitch fortune a little to add veteran talent to the youngsters rising in the organization it will be easier to make the splash hire and roll the dice on a guy with a ring (tainted or not) like Hinch.
If the Tigers remain bargain bin shoppers for the CJ Cron’s of the world and continue to bask in the glow of good prospect rankings, it’s easier to see them give the fans a pat on the head and hiring the inexperienced but mostly beloved Kelly. Or staying the course Ron Gardenhire was charting by retaining McClendon.
How it shakes out
The overall value of managers will be discussed over the course of this search by the Tigers. There are good arguments to be had and there is no doubt a certain percentage of observers will nitpick any choice to death.
Looming behind the inevitable good feelings of the introductory press conference for the manager will be a much larger issue that will determine the club’s success. Its whether Ilitch and Avila are looking to loosen the purse strings now or wait until ‘22.
The speculation here…the Tigers look to add a piece or two in free agency and shake things up with the Hinch hire. The Tigers will take any PR hit to get their man and Ilitch will be able to feel he’s made a move to get this club moving north in the standings.