| The Detroit News
Detroit – By now, Tigers general manager Al Avila and his staff have interviewed more than 10 potential managerial candidates, with another round of Zoom chats scheduled this week.
Some of the names have been reported – Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames, Royals bench coach Pedro Grifol, Cubs third base coach Will Venable, Pirates bench coach Don Kelly, Orioles bench coach Fredi Gonzalez and Dodgers first base coach George Lombard.
But with all due respect to these men and any others brought in before the end of the World Series – all of them superb baseball men and worthy candidates – none can rightly be called a leading candidate. The leading candidate hasn’t been interviewed yet. He’s serving the last week of his suspension and can’t be reinstated until after the conclusion of the World Series.
Let’s not kid ourselves about this. A.J. Hinch checks every box for the Tigers. Still just 46, he took over a young Astros team in 2015 that was two years removed from 111 losses and won a World Series with them two years later. The next Tigers manager will be tasked with making a similar transition.
Hinch was ahead of the analytics curve in his years in Houston, but his background is steeped in player development and scouting. He was the director of player development for the Diamondbacks before being hired to manage them in 2009 and from 2010-2014 served as vice president of pro scouting for the Padres.
He also has a degree in psychology from Stanford and played parts of seven seasons in the big leagues, including 27 games with the Tigers in 2003.
His credentials are unassailable. His character, however, not so much.
It’s been besmirched, fair or not, by the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. He’s tainted, even though Major League Baseball’s exhaustive investigation revealed that he neither sanctioned nor approved of his players using a replay monitor to decode signs. Even though twice he KO’d monitors with a bat.
He’s tainted because by not doing enough to stop it, he essentially gave tacit approval. As commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in his report, “The manager is responsible for ensuring that the players both understand the rules and adhere to them. Therefore, there was no justification for Hinch’s failure to act.”
Hinch and Alex Cora, who was the Astros bench coach in 2017 before being named manager of the Red Sox, were both suspended for a year and fired on the same day.
Hinch took accountability for his lack of action, he apologized, he made no excuses and he’s served his suspension. He’s granted one interview of any length during the suspension and it was with MLB Network’s Tom Verducci.
“I do (want to manage again),” he said. “It’s up to other people to determine whether I’m the right fit, but I love managing. I love players. I love the competition. What I’ve learned about myself over the last few years of doing it is that player-manager relationship, that coach-manager relationship, the front office, I love being in that center hubcap of that wheel that makes it all go around. That comes with a lot of responsibility.
“I’ve been proud of how I’ve handled it. I’m not proud of talking about the issues in 2017 with the sign stealing, but I’m not going to let that deter me from my hope and desire to have a long career in Major League Baseball doing what I love.”
There seems little doubt from a baseball standpoint that Hinch is the right man to lead the next phase of the Tigers’ rebuild. But Avila and CEO Christopher Ilitch will likely have to weigh any negative public reaction that will certainly come from hiring a manager who allowed a cheating scandal to occur on his watch.
It will always be part of the story, but it doesn’t have to be the incident that ultimately defines him. If Hinch was a hands-on participant in the cheating, if he was the mastermind, it would be impossible to endorse him for another job.
But he wasn’t. He was the field manager and had a responsibility to stop the sign stealing. He failed to do that and consequently lost his job and was suspended for a year. He did the crime, served the time and now should be allowed to resume his career.
Yes, if the Tigers hire Hinch, he will have to explain his role in the scandal at his introductory press conference. It will be a headline story for a day or two. The morality of the hiring will be debated. He will be asked about it in every city the Tigers play in.
But that will pass soon enough. Eventually, the focus will be solely on baseball and his leadership of a young Tigers team.
It would be a mistake, in my opinion, for the Tigers to let public relations concerns stop them from hiring the best man for the job. The reality is, somebody is going to hire A.J. Hinch to manage their team.
And when that team starts winning, the public relations narrative will change from, “Why would you hire a cheater,” to “Why didn’t you hire that guy when you had the chance?” The latter narrative might be harder to live down.