Henning: How the Tigers’ front office could be in AJ Hinch’s future

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
 
| The Detroit News

It pounds away like Miguel Cabrera in the batting cage, this thought that persists two weeks after the Tigers and AJ Hinch came together, much because of what might go down as a historic, four-hour dinner at the Hyde Park steakhouse in Birmingham.

Chris Ilitch was at that dinner where Hinch’s cavalcade of baseball philosophy and experience wowed a Tigers owner, as well as general manager Al Avila and his front office.

Because of what was learned that night, and the next day as negotiations turned urgent, Hinch will be Detroit’s new manager in 2021 and probably for at least a couple of seasons beyond.

What happens next is worth mulling even now.

Note that both the Tigers and Hinch were ultra-quiet, ultra-protective, about details on length of contract.

The Tigers and Ron Gardenhire, Hinch’s predecessor, were upfront in 2017 that Gardenhire had a three-year deal. Same with Brad Ausmus, who also got a publicly announced fourth-year option, when he was hired in 2013. There were early reports that Hinch and the Tigers had agreed on a three-year package. But those thoughts, tellingly, have been said by the Tigers, and by Hinch, to be false. And yet neither party will disclose corrections.

Why the secrecy now?

Probably because it’s complicated. And perhaps complicated in a way that could keep Hinch in Detroit beyond his years as Tigers skipper. 

Consider why this would be different, which is to recognize that Hinch is not just a manager.

He is a front-office resource of deep dimension and skills. Already, he has stripes on the development and scouting sides with big-league teams in San Diego and Arizona. That background proved to be huge as he settled in with the Astros as manager of an eventual world-title team, all the while immersing himself in Houston’s high-falutin culture of baseball analytics and science.

Hinch has been working since his 20s — since his big-league playing days — to digest all facets of baseball operations. While managing has been his fastest ticket to influencing a big-league team, he has the wits and, increasingly, the scope of skills to work as a GM, which in part explains why he was showing up at the Winter Meetings as far back as 2003.

He likely has grander designs on operating a big-league club than the dugout, alone, allows. That much was evident when he took those front-office positions with the Padres and Diamondbacks.

Similar scenario

Where this brings serious relevance to the Tigers is a matter of simple chronology, as well as history.

Al Avila turns 65 in August, 2023, which corresponds to what should be Hinch’s third year as manager.

Consider this more-than-plausible scenario:

Avila is happy with a long rebuild’s relative success and is ready, maybe not to retire from baseball, but to take on a slightly less stressful post with the Tigers.

Avila’s title, at the moment, is Tigers executive vice president and general manager. Ilitch’s title, as it applies to the Tigers, is chairman and CEO.

Note that the title of team president is non-existent.

Now, consider some past Tigers history.

Jim Campbell was Tigers general manager from 1962-83, adding the title of team president in 1978.

Five years later, in 1983, Campbell settled in solely as Tigers president, bequeathing the GM chair to his right-hand man, Bill Lajoie.

Lajoie was ready to run the club. He, in fact, had set up that Tigers team’s roster by virtue of his days as Tigers scouting director when he delivered Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, and others.

His first offseason as GM, it was Lajoie who lured Darrell Evans to sign a big free-agent contract with the Tigers, a few months before Lajoie made his grand move: getting Willie Hernandez in a March trade that brought to the Tigers a reliever who would win the American League MVP and Cy Young trophies, as well as seal for the Tigers a 1984 World Series party.

Throughout that year of baseball enchantment in Detroit, Campbell took it all in, including his own work forging a World Series winner, from the Tigers president’s office.

Repeating that brand of history and its popping champagne corks, or even in how the front office is rearranged, isn’t easy. But following a relative copy of that script is within the Tigers’ capacities.

Don’t let him get away

The reason it’s possible, if not probable, is that the Tigers understand, as does all of baseball, that Hinch is extraordinarily skilled. It is a safe wager that he will be some team’s GM, perhaps soon.

The Tigers won’t want him to get away. You can bet Ilitch doesn’t. Not after that Wednesday night dinner in Birmingham. Whatever confidential contract verbiage was worked into Hinch’s arrangement with the Tigers passed inspection in Ilitch’s office.

So, let’s speculate, firmly, on what kind of contingencies exist within that pact.

One thought is the managerial end of Hinch’s Tigers deal is probably, minimally, three seasons. That’s an easy length of time to which options, extensions, or rollover-guarantees can be secured that keep both parties happy. That’s also a possible timeline for when a skipper has gotten enough satisfaction from his dugout duties to maybe feel the front-office itch.

Where the Tigers would need to be careful, and where this gets delectably intriguing, is if another club comes at the Tigers with a request to speak with Hinch about a better job — a front-office position, either as a GM, or some other in-the-wings slot that Hinch would see as a quick path to running a team.

The Tigers, as one weighs possibilities, might well insert a right-of-first-refusal clause there.

In other words, your club wants to make Hinch its GM?

Uh, thanks, but we’re interested in his talents there, also. In fact, we’re ready to act — now.

Bingo.

Hinch gets his GM job while still in his 40s and the Tigers keep one of the brightest lights in big-league ball at their helm, all as Avila dusts off his hands, sees that a sound reconstruction is bearing fruit, and adjourns to the president’s office — or to Miami, whichever is his choice.

Admittedly, this is getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Then again, ignoring realities, or dismissing Hinch’s allure to other clubs, is how teams with lusty dreams end up blowing their best chances at creating an enduring, championship-grade franchise.

It would be no surprise if the Tigers have been flipping a few calendar pages ahead in considering a master plan that avoids the up-down extremes they’ve known during the past decade.

And in that pursuit, it would be no shock at all if Avila and Hinch, who worked late into the evening that second day of their October courtship as the contract details were hashed out, have a mutual understanding that could pay deep dividends to Hinch — and to the Detroit Tigers.

Lynn Henning is a freelancer writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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