Henning: With many potential stars on horizon, next Tigers manager could shine brightly

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
 
| The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – One thought, held for some time now, got a boost Wednesday as the best of the Tigers minor-league kids pranced around Marchant Stadium in a game against the Blue Jays.

This will be a good managerial job for whoever replaces Ron Gardenhire as Tigers skipper.

Riley Greene. Spencer Torkelson. Parker Meadows. Colt Keith. Gage Workman. Daniel Cabrera. Bryant Packard. And, yes, an 18-year-old named Jose De La Cruz, who is an outfielder and right-handed muscleman with a body and poise hinting at a much older, and maybe more talented, prospect than was advertised.

Add in some others: Trei Cruz, Dillon Dingler (absent in this Instructional League), Kody Clemens, and for the first time in 40 years there appears to be a farm system sprouting that can support a contender. This would not have been a personal view in years past.

Not all of the above will make it. But a bunch of them will, along with pitchers who either now are in Detroit, or soon could be: Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Joey Wentz (back next year from Tommy John surgery), Alex Faedo, possibly Franklin Perez, and maybe also – relatively soon – a kid like Wilkel Hernandez, who is 21, and who was throwing serious stuff Wednesday.

What’s important, and different, about this crew of Tigers prospects is that there’s a quorum in place. Enough talent is of sufficient skill and even maturity to give you a sense for a nice roster that will show truer colors in 2022. Not since the 1970s have there been this many Tigers prospects who have a chance not only to make it, but to be decent everyday players.

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A manager interested in the Tigers job know this. A potential new skipper in Detroit will know also that there is only one nasty contract on the books: Miguel Cabrera’s, which in three short years will be gone.

A guy hoping to get hired in Detroit will be told – not emptily – that owner Chris Ilitch will spend on free agents that make sense. That point in time is getting close.

This is a job a new manager would be catching at the right time, assuming he can absorb some welts in 2021 and ahead of the kids showing up en masse in 2022.

Is it a carbon-copy of when the Tigers grabbed a free-agent skipper, Sparky Anderson, in 1979?

Not completely. That Tigers team already had in place Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, and Jack Morris. This team is at least a year behind, with obviously no guarantees that there will be two or three Hall of Famers, as the ’79 team already had in hand.

But this is the job you want. This is a job that, unlike when Gardenhire came aboard, offers a shot at something close to .500 next year with bolder thoughts afterward.

Who gets Hinch?

So, who gets it?

A.J. Hinch, ideally – if he doesn’t first get gobbled up by the White Sox.

One overriding plus ties to Hinch’s candidacy:

The Tigers need to hit a home-run with a hire. What they haven’t been able to do in player free agency the past few years – sign a star – they can do now that Hinch is sitting there, waiting for the right suitor. Their fans want someone to excite them. Hinch is the easy pick, apart from his well-documented skipper’s smarts and skills. He was a hit with a world championship team in Houston – at least until a cheating scandal for which he appears to have paid a penitent price – and owns luster from managing Carlos Correia, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Jose Altuve, etc. And yes, those names have every reason to do with why he’s the hottest of all tickets on the manager market. Great players make for good skippers.

The White Sox are Detroit’s hose-kink. The Sox are on the outskirts of owning the American League Central Division for the next half-dozen years or more. Hinch understands this, of course. In landing this job he would be bringing a pick and shovel to a gold mine.

But the White Sox aren’t necessarily going Hinch’s way.

Not after it became known this week that owner Jerry Reinsdorf and his stewards could opt for Tony La Russa.

In fact, that makes sense. La Russa is a young 76. He has been working in front offices, including Detroit’s as a kind of intern for a spell, after he quit managing nine years ago.

He got his start with the White Sox. La Russa knows he could be walking into a South Side mini-dynasty. He knows what he has learned in the nine years since he ceased managing.

There could be too much magnetism between him and Reinsdorf, in particular, to keep this handshake from happening.

But say it doesn’t work out. Say the La Russa romance doesn’t flourish. Say the White Sox move on and hire Hinch.

The Tigers will have lost the celebrity free-agent game ahead of 2021, at least as it applies to dugouts.

Alex Cora would be a nice consolation prize. He is tainted a bit more than Hinch by the sign-stealing ruckus that came down heaviest on Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, but the forgive-and-forget game is easily played in sports. The Tigers interviewed Cora three years ago and might want to talk with him again, particularly if he begins with an apology he didn’t quite offer as he left the Red Sox for a year in exile.

Other names are there, none carrying quite the degree of starlight fans want, particularly those who want a M.I.T. scientist as much as they want a sharp skipper in Detroit’s dugout in 2021.

The science degree – a Ph.D in analytics is the least Detroit’s baseball Einsteins insist upon – is not only essential to high-IQ fans but also to a front office that has spent five years trying to match the best and brightest from baseball’s mathematics classrooms.

Different job now

Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, went through this managerial drill three years ago and will want a different brand of skipper as he sorts through resumes that are still pouring in. It’s a different job now. The clean-up was carried out by Gardenhire. The rebuild is officially rolling.

It’s hard to say which way Avila will go among the current crop of names.

Hinch he knows from Hinch’s days with the Tigers in 2003 when Avila was the Tigers’ assistant GM. Fredi Gonzalez, now the Orioles bench coach who earlier managed the Marlins, got an interview three years ago and likely will get another. Marcus Thames, the ex-Tigers slugger, and Yankees hitting coach, has already interviewed. Hensley Meulens, now Mets bench coach, was grilled three years ago and presumably will also get another chance in these next three or four weeks. Same with Mike Redmond, now employed as Rockies bench coach, and a past Marlins manager (2013-15) who might well be Avila’s pick.

An interesting footnote here: The Tigers in October 2017 quizzed Dave Martinez, then Cubs bench coach under Joe Maddon. It is believed Martinez finished second to Gardenhire, and maybe not by much. Martinez’s consolation prize: He was hired at Washington and last autumn rode in a World Series parade.

One thing that might be acknowledged as Martinez, and Hinch, and even Sparky Anderson, are remembered as the World Series-delivering skippers they have been.

They had, first and foremost, the roster goods to win.

A lot of work’s ahead in Detroit before any managerial messiah has the brand of champagne party the Tigers last knew in 1984. Trades, free agents, rookies arriving who can become a contender’s nucleus – so much talent needs yet to funnel into Comerica Park.

But what was obvious even Wednesday, and what has been clear through the past three drafts – with another set of early picks on tap in 2021 – is that the farm and roster are turning over. It isn’t just bodies anymore occupying those lineup spots.

Talent on the field is how you win. There’s enough of it now in the pipeline to give that new skipper at least a shot.

Andrew Jay Hinch knows it. And so do plenty of others who respect Detroit’s pedigree as a baseball town and who want only to get Avila’s congratulatory call and blessing.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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