| Detroit Free Press
What Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch watches for in early spring games
Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch explains what he looks for in early spring training games, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, before a game vs. Phillies.
Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
LAKELAND, Fla. — What a show of respect — from one skipper to the other.
When former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland arrived at spring training, current Tigers manager AJ Hinch invited him to a team meeting and introduced him to the players.
“He didn’t have to do that,” Leyland said. “AJ has been absolutely tremendous to me. I was so impressed and I was kind of flattered, really. I met everybody and that made me feel at home. Don’t get me wrong, I stay out of the way.”
Retired from managing, Leyland still works for the Tigers as a special assistant to general manager Al Avila.
MORE FROM SEIDEL: 5 reasons why Hinch feels like the right fit for the Tigers’ rebuild
“AJ told me that I was welcome at the meetings,” said Leyland, 76, who managed the Tigers from 2006-13, winning a pair of pennants. “I’m not gonna go to all the meetings, because I’m not noseyin’ around. But I thought that was so nice to include me. And he certainly has really made me feel good to be honest. We’ve had a couple conversations. He’s very smart, very bright.”
In many ways, Leyland and Hinch share some of the same qualities in how they handle players. Leyland used to walk around the clubhouse to get the pulse of the team and chat with different players during batting practice to try to understand them. To learn what makes them tick.
Hinch approaches managing the same way, trying to figure out the players.
“He’s really a sharp guy, has a good feel for it,” Leyland said. “He’s got a good way with the players. I think he got instant respect when he came in, and I think he’s made a good impression on the players for sure. I know he’s made a great impression on the front office, people like myself. He’s a detail guy — on top of everything. He doesn’t miss anything. And I couldn’t be happier for us because I think we definitely got a good guy.”
I realize Leyland is still getting paid by the Tigers and it would be understandable if anyone is skeptical about what he says, thinking he is just totting the company line. But to me, it is clear that Leyland believes this team has improved significantly, likes a lot of the new pieces and is excited about several prospects.
“We aren’t going to be the homecoming game anymore,” Leyland said. “We’re better.”
‘If I miss on that one, I’m totally off’
Leyland loves his gig with the Tigers. It’s a way for him to stay close to the game, doing everything from going to games to scouting players.
“I like it a lot — Al (Avila) treats me great,” Leyland said.
A few years ago, the Tigers asked Leyland to take a look at Riley Greene, who was playing in a high school game in Orlando.
“I went over with (assistant GM) David Chadd and Alan Trammell to see him,” Leyland said. “He was really impressive as a high school hitter and he’s carried that over. He looks like a man when he steps in that box.”
The Tigers took Greene in the first round of the 2019 draft.
“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Leyland said. “I had nothing to do with drafting him. But he’s a special kid. He’s a baseball player with a lot of talent. Sometimes you see some talented guys but they’re not really baseball players yet. This kid is a real talented guy, and he’s a baseball player on top of that and that’s a great combination. He’s got a real good presence about him. And he’s gonna be a really, really consistent major league player, in my opinion. If I miss on that one, I’m totally off because I’ve really been impressed.”
And Leyland has been impressed with Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning — the top three pitching prospects in the organization.
“They are extraordinary talented guys,” Leyland said. ” They are all three big-time prospects. And now it’s just up to them to refine a little bit and figure some things out and learn some things possibly at the minor league level or at the Major League level, whichever it is. I don’t know if all three will make it. I don’t know. I have no idea.
“They just have to put the finishing touches because the equipment is there for every one of them to be close to the top rotation guys.”
Leyland has been making trips around Florida, following the Tigers through the Grapefruit League.
On Tuesday, Leyland went to Bradenton and saw Spencer Torkelson play in his first game for the Tigers. He walked and scored a run.
“Guy’s got all the ingredients that everybody talks about,” Leyland said. “He’s got real good hands. He’s got a nice arm. Of course, big-time power. At some point, he’s gonna be an offensive force. But this kid hasn’t played any pro ball at all because of the COVID. But the projection — I think it’s accurate.
“I mean, he’s the real deal.”
A manager’s manager
That’s not all. Leyland is impressed with several subtle things that Hinch has done.
Like using Miguel Cabrera at first base a little bit.
“I think AJ pulled a very smart move when he talked to (Cabrera) about playing first base some,” Leyland said. “I think that’s going to give Miggy some extra energy, not just Miggy but anybody. Sometimes, anybody, not just Miggy, they can get in the DH spot and it can sometimes put you in a lull. Miggy is the type of guy who always had fun playing. He’s been a two-way player all his life. And I think that this is kind of a fun thing for him to think that he’s going to get out there and play some first base. I think that’s gonna be a big motivation for him. So I think it was really smart.”
Don’t get him wrong. Leyland was not bashing former manager Ron Gardenhire for not using Cabrera at first.
“I know Gardy didn’t do it, because he had to protect his health,” Leyland said. “It wasn’t anything that he did wrong. But I think Miggy is feeling better now. He looks great. And I think AJ made a real smart move by talking to him about getting out in the field some because I think that takes Miggy back to the old Miggy.” ”
There’s a lot to like
Leyland rattles off a long list of players who impress him, mentioning Isaac Parades and catcher Dillon Dingler.
“I love Willie Castro, I saw him at Double-A when he was with Cleveland,” Leyland said. “He’s got a loud sound on that bat when he hits it.”
Leyland has also been impressed with Parker Meadows, an outfield prospect who is not in the big league camp.
“I like him a lot,” Leyland said. “I think he’s got a bright future. Maybe, he’s going to take a little longer. He’s really a good looking prospect. He can run. He’s gonna get stronger. He’s a big kid, a fluid athlete. I think, at some point, he’s going to hit with big power.”
But those are all prospects.
Leyland is also impressed with some of the free-agent additions.
“We’ve got some players,” Leyland said. “To be honest with you, I think Al (Avila) and David Chadd did a great job with the acquisitions they made this winter. We’ll just see how the pitching develops, that’s always the main key for everybody.”
Most of all, he likes the pieces.
Especially Nomar Mazara.
“If this Mazara kid comes back — he hit 20 home runs for four straight years in Texas,” he said. “If this kid bounces back, we are quite a bit better.”
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.