Detroit Tigers’ rebuild is far from done, but AJ Hinch is here to breed winning culture

Detroit Free Press

When the Detroit Tigers hired AJ Hinch as manager in late October, the future plans became undeniably clear. You don’t hire a former World Series champion to start from scratch.

This isn’t 2017, when the Tigers succumbed to the rebuilding process by trading away Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, Alex Avila and Justin Wilson. So far, the Avila/Wilson package — merely one trade — has netted a stronger return than the Verlander, Upton and Martinez trades combined. That’s why it’s difficult to project the end of a rebuild.

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But it’s not 2023, either, when esteemed prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene — all homegrown products from past MLB drafts — could gain league-wide respect.

The rebuild, undoubtedly, is not over.

Because the winning has not begun.

“I think we’ve got every possibility to win the next game that we play,” Hinch said. “Our players have shown the right attention to detail, the right enthusiasm, the right focus. Obviously, we’ve got to go out and do it. But absolutely, I think our mindset is right where it needs be.”

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The Tigers enter 2021 with a 198-345 record across the last four seasons, just a .364 winning percentage. The Tigers have finished last in the American League Central Division in three of the last four years.

Based on this season’s projections, from every which way you look, the Tigers seem destined to make it three consecutive years behind their four division rivals: the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals.

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So, when will the rebuild be over?

The answer depends on perspective and, most importantly, results this season.

“To be successful down the road, one of the most important things for us is to get the pitching right,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said. “The additions of Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal on the roster is important.

“So, what’s going to be an important thing to accomplish this season? Get our young pitching established. … We’ve got to get that pitching right as we move forward to have any kind of success.”

‘Winning brings credibility’

In Hinch, the Tigers have a manager who knows how to win. And not just the in-game moments. Rather, the 46-year-old understands the necessary foundation — instilling his way into his players — to become a champion. He secured the 2017 World Series and made playoff appearances in four of his five seasons with the Houston Astros.

Third base coach Chip Hale and bench coach George Lombard earned their World Series rings during the last two years — Hale with the Washington Nationals in 2019 and Lombard with the Los Angeles Dodgers last year.

“Winning brings credibility,” Hinch said. “Ultimately, it brings belief and trust, even before you’re able to get in front of the team. That doesn’t minimize the importance of having to develop relationships and trust, but when you’ve done it before, it helps with the players believing that anything we do is focused on helping us win.”

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Still, the Tigers aren’t an overnight fix. This spring, Hinch went back to the drawing board, creating a plan to get the organization — without All-Stars in the lineup — back to displaying glimpses of winning ways.

On Hinch’s to-do list: Defensive versatility in the infield and outfield, elevated fastballs, countless lineup configurations, pitchers winning the battle to two strikes, bullpen flexibility, aggression on the base paths, shift combinations, pre-pitch setups and defensive spacing.

“We were on them pretty hard about every detail of any given play,” Hinch said. “The players have responded favorably across the board. … For us, the mindset has been good and clean the entire spring, and that starts with openness from the players and their commitment to taking this team to the next level.”

A baseball guru, Hinch’s philosophy starts with the details.

“It’s all about perfection,” outfielder Robbie Grossman said. “I’m excited to turn this thing around. I’m excited to make the playoffs. Like, we want to be in the World Series. And just have that attitude of we’re not slacking off today, we’re trying to get better. We want to win, and this is what it takes to win ballgames. I’m just excited to be led by AJ because he’s been there, he’s done that.”

Hinch is a master communicator and an elaborate teacher. He learns what makes each individual tick with one-on-one meetings in his office, and then he contemplates how to combine 26 different personalities to create a winning culture. 

“It’s nice to know I have that on my side,” Avila said. “There’s a lot of communication, and it’s effective communication. He knows how to get the most out of the players. He puts his whole heart into it.”

New faces, new development

Grossman is one of seven newcomers to the Opening Day roster, along with Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo, right-hander Jose Urena, catcher Wilson Ramos, outfielder Nomar Mazara, righty Julio Teheran and left-hander Derek Holland.

They’re joined by key returners: pitchers Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull, relievers Gregory SotoJose Cisnero, Buck Farmer and Daniel Norris, infielders Willi Castro and Jeimer Candelario and outfielders JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes, as well as likely future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera.

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop re-signed this offseason. Without a defined first baseman, Hinch is going to shuffle his infield often, meaning Schoop will appear all over the infield.

“We have veteran guys, and we’ve got young guys that are hungry to produce in the big leagues,” said Candelario, who will play first and third base. “We have really good hitters, and we’re going to continue to look forward and work hard.”

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Avila said it was crucial for Mize and Skubal to continue their development at the major league level. Manning isn’t too far behind them. He is likely to make his debut midway through the year. Three more pitchers could also debut: Joey Wentz, Alex Lange and Logan Shore.

“My goal is to contribute,” Mize said. “Be a guy that’s going to toe the rubber every fifth day and give confidence to my teammates, everybody in the dugout, everybody in the organization and the fan base that we’re going to win today’s game.”

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Third baseman Isaac Paredes tested second base as a secondary position this spring. The 22-year-old is destined to get called up from Toledo for another go-around in the majors.

“They brought in some good pieces with the young guys that we have,” Schoop said. “I think this year is going to be better. We’re going to win as many games as possible, try to make a run for the playoffs and try to make a run for the World Series.”

Of course, the World Series isn’t a realistic expectation this season. To officially move past the rebuilding stage, reaching the postseason isn’t even a requirement. Remember, Hinch was brought in for long-term success, and he wasn’t given a current roster worthy of playoff projections.

Instead, the Tigers must lay the groundwork for the future.

The details, as Hinch preaches, must take priority.

“The attention to detail, the continual development, the harping on everything that we’ve done during the spring is going to continue into April, May, June and the rest of the season,” Hinch said. “I’m proud of our guys for the work, attention to detail and openness to this new staff.

“We’re ready for games. It’s game time.”

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

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