Henning: Front-office shuffling shows AJ Hinch the Tigers ready for postseason push

Detroit News

A subtext to last week’s Tigers moves, which saw some front-office and development staff shuffled, is the team’s big-league manager, AJ Hinch.

The Tigers will want to hang onto Hinch every bit as much as they want their on-field product to be playoff-grade — soon. In that context, consider that the moves last week were made not only with progress in mind, but also as a kind of reaffirmation.

Tigers GM Al Avila wanted everyone to know even before the 2021 schedule wrapped up that he is serious about an express-lane path to the playoffs.

His shake-up, which included promoting two new assistant GMs and rearranging his developmental chiefs working on the minor-league fields, was made in a bid to say to his staff and to fans what he has said to his team’s owner, Chris Ilitch, as well as to a skipper the Tigers know they are fortunate to have:

The rebuild is (somewhat) over. The push to be a playoff team has officially begun.

Ignoring the presence of Hinch in all of this is ignoring the obvious.

Let’s say Hinch and the Tigers down the road, however long that road might be, have satisfied contract details that for reasons they agreed on were never made public when the Tigers hired him last autumn.

Hinch will need to be encouraged, if not outright pleased, by what he sees within the Tigers’ realm.

If he likes what’s happening, assuming Avila likewise is happy, no issues. Hinch knows the Tigers have made perhaps more relative progress in 2021 than any team this side of the San Francisco Giants. He is aware the Tigers have quality lineup and rotation pieces moving closer to next season’s roster. He is satisfied with Ilitch’s vow that free-agent help will arrive.

Hinch understands Detroit is a good place to work if all parties continue to make smart, focused, aggressive moves that put the Tigers on the same plane as baseball’s best and brightest clubs.

There is where last week’s moves become even clearer.

Hinch is that rare manager who can optimize a team’s overall and individual skills. He has done it in countless ways this season. He is the best ally Avila can have as this brutal reconstruction gives way to better years and an on-field product that can contend — and this is key — for extended seasons that doesn’t subject a town to extremes as tough as the past six years have been for Tigers World.

Hinch also is steeped in baseball science. Avila is committed to the same, and has been since he began moving the Tigers from their place in baseball’s Pleistocene Age to a level common to 21st Century MLB teams.

More: Henning: Tigers’ front-office moves may signal line of succession for Al Avila

Note that the boosts handed last week to new assistant GMs Sam Menzin and Jay Sartori were to two of the team’s sharpest numbers guys who have been in the vanguard of Detroit’s analytics ascent.

That by no means is coincidental.

Hinch, too, likely will have been the person who most wanted a different philosophy in the Tigers’ developmental ways. He is from the Astros galaxy, remember, and no one was better than the Astros at grooming farm kids for big-league life. He absorbed other lessons from his time with the Padres and Diamondbacks. That body of experience and academia is all part of a manager’s makeup today.

The Tigers have been trying to do at once a couple of things that are in neither case easy:

They have dived into the realm of baseball metrics and have done a solid job in playing catch-up since Avila began changing the Tigers’ overall culture.

But one ongoing problem, underscored by the past week’s moves, has been to convert all the numbers and data and science into a developmental blueprint. Processing all the M.I.T. stuff into on-the-field applications ensures you’re maximizing player improvement at those early, essential years of building big-league players.

The Tigers seem to have conceded this is an area that has to improve, now, which is why Avila made clear he is shopping for a new Commander in Chief to head his minor-league tutors and shapers.

You can bet, no matter who gets the job, it will be a man Avila — and Hinch — agree is the absolute right guy. You can bet it will be a move that Avila, and Hinch, believe will unite big-league and farm philosophies and curriculum. And you can deduce that Hinch sees the Tigers as granting him the right amount of voice to please him, and his GM.

This has been a crazy time for baseball, and for a rebuild. A half-season was played a year ago, minus a minor-league schedule. This year’s pitchers have been governed with one eye on what they were, and weren’t, able to do in 2020.

Minor-leaguers have been playing catch-up after essentially losing a year, which has as a corollary all the school kids who saw a pandemic ravage their academic years — then and even now.

But the Tigers are gaining in putting a franchise on firmer footing. Those moves last week were made for a reason: They not only are planning on being the most ambitious team a Detroit baseball franchise can be, they’re announcing it for all the MLB world to see.

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

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