| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila explains manager search, offseason expectations
Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila speaks with reporters Friday, October 2, 2020, following his team’s season to share offseason expectations.
Tony Gwynn Jr. first learned of Will Venable, a candidate for the Detroit Tigers‘ managerial vacancy, in May 2009. Playing for the Milwaukee Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate, Gwynn was on a plane to Portland, Oregon.
Venable played for Triple-A Portland in the San Diego Padres’ organization. And Gwynn’s father, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, spent his entire 20-year MLB career with the Padres.
But that’s not how Gwynn and Venable became friends. Venable’s girlfriend (now wife), Kathryn, was sitting in the same row as Gwynn on the flight to Portland. He learned plenty about Venable on the trip there.
“I don’t remember how the conversation started, but it got to baseball,” Gwynn told the Free Press on Wednesday. “And she was like, ‘I’m actually going to visit my boyfriend.’ Progressed into the Padres and, obviously, my connection to that organization through my father.
“I’m just kind of listening, but in the back of my head, I’m thinking, ‘All right, we’re gonna see tomorrow. We play these cats, we’ll see what’s what.'”
Gwynn never got the opportunity to face Venable. Gwynn was traded to the Padres the next day and went straight to the big leagues. By the beginning of June, Venable got called to the majors. They became teammates and grew close during their two seasons together.
Venable, 37, is now the third base coach for the Chicago Cubs and a candidate to be the Tigers’ next manager. His longtime friend, Gwynn, is advocating for him to get the job.
“I think he’s smart enough,” Gwynn said of Venable, a graduate of Princeton University, where he played baseball and basketball. “He’s that hybrid blend of having some old-school qualities mixed in with the new-school qualities. That’s important.”
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire retired in September before the end of his three-year contract, meaning general manager Al Avila needs a new leader for the 2021 season.
He has already interviewed George Lombard (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Marcus Thames (New York Yankees), according to MLB.com, and is considering A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora — both involved in the 2017 Houston Astros cheating scandal — as well as Don Kelly, Fredi Gonzalez and interim manager Lloyd McClendon.
Why Venable makes sense
Gwynn befriended Venable because each of them had to grind — Gwynn didn’t live up to his father’s Hall of Fame status; Venable was a seventh-round draft pick.
He immediately noticed Venable’s ability to absorb baseball strategy from teammates, coaches and managers over the years. That’s something Venable has accomplished as a coach in Chicago under two-time World Series champions Joe Maddon in 2018-19 and David Ross in 2020.
“The curiosity is one thing that stands out,” said Gwynn, a radio color commentator for the Padres and analyst for Fox Sports San Diego. “He’s always hungry for more knowledge, but he’s never above learning it. That’s so important, especially in today’s game. Baseball is evolving rapidly, and the mindset of the player is a lot different, even from when Will and I played.
“You have to be more open-minded, where you’re not a know-it-all. You don’t pretend to have all the answers, but you try to guide people the best way you can.”
Venable is known to be tough when needed but has a knack for “finessing the situation” to help a player comprehend information without an argument.
“That’s one of the toughest things to do in today’s game,” Gwynn said. “When we played, it seemed like guys were more willing to just accept what was being said. In today’s game, guys push back a little.”
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The Tigers are in the process of calling up prospects to the majors, beginning this past season with right-hander Casey Mize (ranked No. 2 by MLB Pipeline), left-hander Tarik Skubal (No. 5), third baseman Isaac Paredes (No. 6) and outfielder Daz Cameron (No. 7).
Next up: right-handers Matt Manning (No. 3) and Alex Faedo (No. 10), outfielder Riley Greene (No. 4) and catcher Jake Rogers (No. 12). Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, isn’t far behind.
By 2022, the clubhouse will feature a slew of young players seeking direction.
Venable seems to have that challenge covered.
“One thing young guys need is steadiness, especially from their manager,” Gwynn said. “You want to walk into the clubhouse and know you’re dealing with the same guy every single day. He’s not really a rah-rah type of guy. In today’s game, that goes a lot further than the guy who wants to get in your face and yell all the time.
“He’s a good listener. These guys are going to be dealing with things they’ve never dealt with in their careers. They had success in the minors, and when you get to the big leagues, inevitably, you hit a rough spot at some point. When you have a bunch of young guys like Detroit does, those rough spots are going to come more often than not early on. You need somebody that will be steady and won’t have the up and down. That’s one of Will’s strongest qualities.”
Why Venable doesn’t make sense
The easiest case to make against Venable is that he doesn’t have any managerial experience and has only been a coach for three seasons. His nine-year playing career ended in 2016.
The Tigers seem to be interested in a manager with experience, especially after watching Brad Ausmus’ tenure tumble downhill from 2014-17. But Gwynn isn’t ready to count Venable out.
Covering the Padres as a radio and TV analyst, Gwynn watched this season Jayce Tingler — at 39 years old — take San Diego to its first postseason appearance since 2006 in his first year as the manager. Tingler, however, has worked in baseball since 2007 in a variety of roles, from the minor leagues to the front office.
Still, it’s an impressive accomplishment.
“Regardless of who they bring in, and I’m obviously pulling for Will since he’s a close friend of mine, it’s a collaborative effort,” Gwynn said. “It’s not just ‘the GM is going to pick the players, you manage the players.’ It’s a collective idea. That’s also going to be important.
“The philosophies have to be hand-in-hand for the managerial spot and the front office. If they’re on the same page, that makes the job a lot easier.”
Gwynn, who knows Ausmus well, understands Venable isn’t much different in terms of experience. Yet the Tigers’ situations are polar opposites. When Ausmus got the job after the 2013 season, he inherited a veteran roster. The Tigers had advanced to the ALCS three times in a row.
This time, the Tigers aren’t projected to contend for a spot in the playoffs until 2022 at the earliest.
“In Brad’s situation, he’s dealing with a veteran club that has guys that have been doing it for a long time,” Gwynn said. “That’s a different dance than it is with a young roster. So, you approach it differently. A benefit is that Will is still really young. He is closer to being relatable to the players nowadays than an older manager.”
The Tigers have finished last in the AL Central four times in six years. Gardenhire’s tenure included 98 and 114 losses in two full schedules, along with a 23-35 mark in the shortened 2020 season. Two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera continues to regress, and the future is beginning to arrive.
A manager who has already guided younger teams to the playoffs, such as Hinch and Cora, might be the best fit for where the Tigers are at entering 2021. But many believe Venable will someday become a big-league manager, possibly soon.
And the Tigers won’t want to regret not picking him if he ends up as a success story elsewhere.
“I really hope this works out,” Gwynn said. “This is his second go-around with these interviews. He went through some last year, and he seemed excited about possibly having an opportunity one day, so I hope it works out.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.