These Tigers aren’t like the Astros AJ Hinch inherited, but they’re close

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
| The Detroit News

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Detroit — AJ Hinch — after winning 481 games, two pennants and a World Series title with the Houston Astros — was suspended and fired in the span of 24 hours in January for his role in the cheating scandal that rocked Major League Baseball and tainted the 2017 championship.

That’s how his 2020 started.

“Being suspended, being terminated, being the talk of baseball – there was some reflection on that,” Hinch said Friday after signing a three-year contract to manage the Detroit Tigers. “There was some growth from that.

“Just a lot of learning, a lot of growing. A lot of facing yourself in the mirror on what I needed to do to be a better leader, a better person, a better husband and a better father. I had a lot of time to do that.”

He spent most of his time navigating his family — wife and two daughters — through the perils of COVID-19, the cancellation of his eldest daughter’s high school graduation ceremonies, the disruption of his youngest daughter’s academic year. In September, he tested positive for the virus himself.

All the while, he was trying to stay positive and hopeful that once the suspension was lifted (which happened on Tuesday after the Los Angeles Dodgers completed their World Series triumph), he’d be able to resume his career.

“I’m a baseball enthusiast,” he said. “I don’t have an off-button. Having baseball on was great for me as I got hungrier and hungrier to get back.”

He knew he’d get another chance. Tigers general manager Al Avila called him to express his interest the day after former manager Ron Gardenhire retired in September. He called him again on Tuesday, 30 minutes after the final out of the World Series, inviting him to fly to Detroit for an interview.

Two long days later — he had some explaining to do — Hinch was hired.

“We knew there were some important conversations to have about AJ’s time in Houston,” Avila said. “Throughout that dialogue, he was clearly remorseful and used that time to reflect on the situation, and we believe he will emerge as a better leader because of it.”

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As Major League Baseball’s investigation showed, Hinch wasn’t the mastermind of the Astros’ sign-stealing endeavors. He was, in fact, opposed to them. But, as he readily admits, he didn’t do enough to stop them and thus took responsibility as manager of the team.

“We have high expectations on how we’re going to perform on the field in terms of wins and losses,” Tigers chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch said. “But also how we conduct ourselves. And I believe to my core, that AJ is going to conduct himself in an appropriate manner — beyond appropriate, in all regards.”

Been there before

Ilitch went as far as comparing the hiring of Hinch to when his father, Mike Ilitch, hired legendary Scotty Bowman to coach the Red Wings in 1993, just ahead of their run of Stanley Cup championships.

“It just reminds me, when that (Red Wings team) was at a certain point, as an organization, we felt we had to go out and get a very accomplished and successful coach to lead us,” Ilitch said. “I think this team is similar.

“We’re still developing and there is still work to be done, but we are starting to see a lot of positive signs with a lot of talent coming up. AJ is exceptionally well-positioned, where our organization is at, what we need and with what we have coming, to help us grow and become a highly competitive team and hopefully a World Series champion.”

Hinch has certainly been in this position before. In 2015, he was hired to manage a long-suffering Houston Astros team. The rebuilding Astros had lost 416 games the previous four seasons. The Tigers team he takes over now has lost 345 games the last four seasons — a number lowered only by the COVID-shortened 60-game season this past year.

“One of the things that stood out for me was that Al continually talked about we’re past the rebuilding stage and we’re getting to the building stage,” Hinch said. “And we are going to get into the fun pretty soon.”

Not as soon as he did with the Astros, though. There isn’t likely to be a Sports Illustrated article predicting the Tigers will be World Series champs in three years, as there was with the Astros the year before Hinch was hired. The Tigers farm system, though impressively restocked over the last three years and now among the 10 best in baseball, doesn’t have as much big league-ready talent as the Astros had in 2015 — certainly not as many game-changing offensive players.

In Hinch’s first season in Houston, Jose Altuve was 25 and an established All-Star in his fourth full season. Shortstop Carlos Correa was 20 and would win American League Rookie of the Year honors. George Springer, 25, was in his second season, and Marwin Gonzalez, 26, was in his fourth and established as one of the top super-utility players in the game.

On top of that, Hinch inherited a rotation that featured 20-game winner Dallas Keuchel and 19-game winner Collin McHugh as well as a bullpen with five pitchers who appeared in at least 60 games with a WHIP just over 1.0.

Hinch a ‘difference-maker’

Hinch will likely find the cupboards a bit emptier, position player-wise, in Detroit next season. The Tigers’ top offensive prospects — Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson — are still at least a year away from making a full impact. The same could be said for Isaac Paredes, Willi Castro and Daz Cameron, who got their first taste of the big leagues in 2020.

“I’m aware of where the farm system is,” Hinch said. “I’m aware of the recent drafts. I’m aware of the development of the young pitchers. When you look at the development that’s already happened and some of the development I think I can fast-forward with the help of a good coaching staff, this is an exciting opportunity.”

Part of the reason Avila went after Hinch so aggressively was the breadth of his experience. The Astros were lead dogs on the analytical front during Hinch’s five years. His background also includes stints as director of player development (Diamondbacks) and director of pro scouting (Padres).

“He’s a well-rounded, experienced guy, but he can also communicate it and execute it,” Avila said. “I was looking for a difference-maker. I was looking for a guy I could partner with to lead this team to a world championship.”

Certainly, Hinch has no delusions about the Tigers’ readiness to contend in 2021. But he can see that a strong infrastructure has been built relative to data, technology, scouting and player development. He knows the Tigers presently have one long-term contract on the books (Miguel Cabrera). He knows the history of the Ilitch family, its hunger to bring a championship baseball team back to this city and its ability and stated willingness to pay the price for it. He can see a stable of young, talented starting pitchers from veterans Spencer Turnbull and Matthew Boyd, to rookies Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal on through to prospects Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz.

What he can see, unlike the immediate success he walked into in Houston, is a franchise that’s steadfastly building something sustainable, a team that can compete and contend for a long stretch of years — which is what, ultimately, he had and lost through the sign-stealing scandal in Houston.

“Players want authenticity, they want someone relatable and they want to see things you can do to help them become better players,” Hinch said. “Those things have to be earned, and I have some relationships to build. I have a lot of history and experience to share and we have to do it pretty quick.

“We are going to expect to win this day’s game. That mindset has to be installed from the beginning of spring training. And I will remind the players, their story is not my past. That’s my story, and it’s something I have to deal with and handle. I want the players to focus solely on being the best version of themselves on the field.”

Twitter @cmccosky   

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