| The Detroit News
Detroit — The Tigers haven’t done much winning lately.
But they’re winning the offseason, on the back of a single move. They hired AJ Hinch to be their manager.
Even if you disagree with the hire — and I’ve heard from many of you who aren’t at all thrilled about giving Hinch a second chance in the wake the sign-stealing scandal that rocked the game, cost him his job in Houston, and earned him one of the longest non-lifetime suspensions in Major League Baseball history — you must at least acknowledge, the Tigers got themselves the best manager available.
He’s won a World Series (tainted or otherwise), and two American League pennants. He knows how to build up a young, promising roster, and how to manage superstars. He knows how to handle a bullpen, and how to comprehend and then utilize the analytics. Most good managers are said to be worth two wins a season. Hinch is worth more.
Hinch shouldn’t have been available for the Tigers to hire to replace Ron Gardenhire — so many things had to fall in place: the scandal, the suspension, the unusual lack of managerial vacancies this offseason, and the the White Sox stunningly passing on Hinch in favor of 76-year-old Tony La Russa — but that’s the Tigers’ good fortune.
But the hire only matters if has the pieces to work with, like he did with the Astros.
The Tigers, obviously, don’t have all the pieces, not even close.
It’s time, right now, to starting getting some of them.
Sitting at a dais at Comerica Park on Friday afternoon, wearing masks and separated by several feet, CEO Christopher Ilitch and general manager Al Avila billed the hiring as the biggest sign yet that the team expects to contend at least in the next three years, and more realistically in the next two.
The next sign will be Ilitch living up to his word and starting to spend on free agents. There’s no time like the present.
For starters, if the Tigers are to contend in 2022, as many think they will or should, then you have to start acquiring foundation pieces now to complement the young prospects, particularly the pitchers, you expect to be impactful soon.
Remember the 2006 Tigers? On the surface, sure, they came out of nowhere to get to the World Series. But the reality is, that foundation was laid in the offseason before the 2004 season, when Mike Ilitch signed Pudge Rodriguez GM Dave Dombrowski traded for Carlos Guillen. The following winter, Ilitch signed Magglio Ordonez; that summer, Dombrowski traded for Placido Polanco. Then, in the winter before the 2006 season, they added some finishing touches in signing Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones.
Combined with all the up-and-coming young talent, like Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya and Curtis Granderson, a winner was born.
It didn’t happen overnight then, and it won’t now, either.
Secondly, just like the Tigers lucked into Hinch, they could luck into some marquee free agents — if they choose to spend, and let’s best honest, they absolutely can spend, given the books are as clean as they’ve been in many years, with Miguel Cabrera’s contract the only multi-year commitment.
The fiscal uncertainty of MLB, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, figures to play a major role on free-agency this winter. Nine-figure paydays aren’t likely, even if they’re deserved, given MLB just completed a 60-game season with no fans, and it doesn’t known when or if there will be a gate in 2021, either.
That’s a hindrance for most if not all ballclubs, to be sure, including the Tigers, who’ve had to lay off and furlough staff. But if the Tigers choose to be forward-thinking, they could pick up a superstar or even two for a significant discount, in years and dollars.
DJ LeMahieu, the two-time batting champion from Birmingham Brother Rice, should absolutely be on the radar. He plays second base. The Tigers need a second baseman. He also grew up going to Tigers games, and would be the first hometown Tigers star since Kirk Gibson.
George Springer, Hinch’s former star in Houston, should also get a long look. He plays center field. I imagine JaCoby Jones can play left or right field.
Even starting pitching should be considered. Yes, the Tigers have the talented kids coming, but you can never have enough starting pitching, and a veteran atop the staff could do wonders (remember Rogers) like James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Marcus Stroman or even Jon Lester.
If the Tigers want to solve their years-long catching problem, then give JT Realmuto’s agent a call.
The top shelf is there for the Tigers’ taking, just like the good old days — which, as hard as it to believe, weren’t all that long ago. The second shelf should be the Tigers’ floor.
Look, the deals for Jonathan Schoop and C.J Cron were dandy last offseason, and both panned out — at least until both got hurt. But those always were place-holder contracts.
The place-holder days are over, or at least they should be. It’s time for some fixtures.
MLB free-agency began Sunday, with nearly 200 players up for grabs. The department-store doors are open, so stop the window-shopping.
Christopher Ilitch resembles his dad more and more with each passing day, but only in the face. Tigers fans, understandably, still don’t know what to make of Junior, because his tenure as de facto owner has taken place entirely during the rebuild. So all we’ve been left with is talk.
And, to be fair, he has said all the right things. He doesn’t want to sell the franchise. He loves baseball. And he’ll spend when the time is right.
Tigers fans, eager as can be to see postseason baseball again, have been left to take him at his word, and let’s be frank here. His word is heavily tarnished by two words: District Detroit. The failed jail is the favorite to be finished first, and it won’t be finished.
The Hinch signing was, at least, a fine first sign that Ilitch is committed to the Tigers. Rightly, he didn’t get hung up on perceptions, locally or nationally; as Hinch said, his story is his story, not the Tigers’. Ilitch went out and got the best man available.
And getting the best man available shouldn’t stop now. It can’t stop now.
Otherwise, you run the serious risk of Hinch’s time in Detroit being a waste.
And, then, years from now, Tigers fans will have one Friday in late October 2020 to look back on and wonder, what was the point.