Four things Detroit Tigers’ A.J. Hinch must do now that he’s manager

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Now that the Detroit Tigers have hired A.J. Hinch as their manager, the next step for the organization — after filling out a coaching staff — is to  flip the focus back to the future, with Hinch leading the on-field charge.

The 46-year-old Hinch already has taken a franchise out of rebuild mode and made it a champion, as he did with the Houston Astros, and he’ll have a chance to influence the Tigers’ budding crop of talent in a similar way, particularly Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, among others.

The goal is to win championships. 

[ Explaining Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch’s role in Astros cheating scandal ]

There’s plenty of  work to be done for a franchise that lost an MLB-worst 114 games in 2019, finished 23-35 in the shortened 60-game season in 2020 and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014. 

Will Hinch have the Tigers contending by 2022? Here are four things that should be on his to-do list as he begins navigating his new job: 

Who stays, who goes, who arrives?

Two of the franchise’s cornerstone pitchers of the future — Mize and Skubal — already have spent a year working with pitching coach Rick Anderson at the big-league level, and Hinch will have to decide whether he wants to maintain that continuity going forward. Anderson was a close friend of retired manager Ron Gardenhire but doesn’t appear to have connections to Hinch. Likewise, a decision will have to be made on hitting coach Joe Vavra, another friend of Gardenhire, and bench coach Lloyd McClendon, who might have the best shot to stick around. McClendon has long-term connections to the organization, including with former manager and current special assistant to the general manager Jim Leyland, who might back McClendon as someone to keep through the transition. Hinch can also lean on advice from Alan Trammell, another special assistant to the GM who managed Hinch in Detroit in 2003, and Kirk Gibson, the former Tigers hero who worked as Hinch’s bench coach in Arizona (before replacing him as D-backs manager) and was part of Trammell’s staff in ’03. Of course, Hinch and general manager Al Avila could always decide to clean house.

The only member of Hinch’s 2019 Astros coaching staff no longer in Houston is former Tigers player Don Kelly, the bench coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. After the sign-stealing plot went public, how many prospective assistant coaches would consider joining him in Detroit? The Astros already exercised the options for third base coach Gary Pettis and pitching coach Brent Strom. The idea of a Hinch-Kelly reunion as the manager and bench coach is interesting, though. Also, the Astros became an analytics powers under former general manager Jeff Luhnow, and it may be wise to try and lure a person (or two) to Detroit, though many of the key figures have taken jobs in other organizations already.

Talk free agency

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Avila won’t give too much away about his free-agency plans. He didn’t commit to spending when asked in early October, and when pressed again later in the month he didn’t budge. It seems the Tigers will steer toward another set of one-year contracts to plug-and-play in 2021 before spending big sometime during the next two offseasons. Right now, they have significant needs at catcher, first base and second base as well as a few veteran starting pitchers, likely on minor-league deals, to eat innings as the rotation transitions back to a 162-game workload.

But could Hinch influence a big signing a year earlier than expected, such as, for example, former Astros outfielder George Springer? A multi-year contract to Springer would give the Tigers a reliable option in center or left and would provide immediate help in the batting order. Even at 31 years old, Springer would require a lengthy contract. Hinch won’t determine exactly what the Tigers do (Avila and owner Christopher Ilitch also will have a say), but Avila has said he wants his next manager to be a key voice in the conversations within various departments, including the front office.

Set realistic expectations

Even with a Springer-like signing, the Tigers don’t project to have a winning season in 2021. Which means Hinch should be realistic about the organization’s situation. When he took over the Astros in 2015, they were primed for an imminent playoff appearance with a strong young offensive core already in the majors. For the Tigers, this isn’t the case. Hinch isn’t likely to be given much to work with next season, but he will get to see more MLB debuts unfold, possiblywith Manning, Torkelson, Greene and Alex Faedo complementing the 2020 arrivals of Mize, Skubal, Isaac Paredes and Daz Cameron.

In other words, the rebuild isn’t over just yet.

Establish a philosophy

This won’t be an overnight process for Hinch, but it needs to start right now. He was wrapped up in the middle of a sign-stealing plot — driven by bench coach Alex Cora and a group of players — as the Astros’ manager in 2017, leading to his firing and season-long suspension in January. His suspension concluded with the end of the World Series on Tuesday, and the Tigers hired him three days later. Some fans, and even some players, might not be as easily swayed by Hinch’s successes because of that past. It will be important for him to establish a clear philosophy, ingrained in strong ethics, and not waiver from the beginning of his tenure.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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