Lakeland, Fla. — You’re sitting on lobby furniture opposite a man with dark eyes and features that connote some kind of exotic lineage — maybe Italian, perhaps Slavic, in origin.
He is 6-foot-2, thick and solid, with the build of a middle linebacker.
You ask this man, this ex-big-league outfielder and first baseman who had some major whacks against Justin Verlander during Verlander’s days in Detroit, and who now is in charge of turning Tigers prospects into polished performers, a question that has lingered for years:
“Isn’t the quest to develop MLB players more a matter of drafting and signing players with legitimate MLB potential? If valid talent isn’t being drafted, how can talent be developed?”
Ryan Garko’s face, which in fact bears Italian and Austrian ancestry, brightens. It’s as if he just recognized, in a split-second, a hanging curve he plans on knocking into the seats.
“We don’t pick the players,” Garko said, with a kind of half-shrug, his voice shifting into a higher gear. “But we can make ‘em better.
“You’re building people and men, as well as players.”
This conversation took place 11 days ago, just after the Tigers had flown to Detroit ahead of Opening Day against the White Sox. Garko was speaking in the Tigers’ offices at TigerTown in Lakeland, which will be his headquarters seven months after Al Avila, the Tigers’ general manager, hired him to oversee the teaching, grooming, preparation and overall development of Detroit’s MLB prospects.
Garko’s hiring last September as vice president of player development was bigger news than an audience perhaps appreciated.
The Tigers are working to catch up with baseball’s best thinkers in how their young talent is shaped. Development, as it is known, for too long in Detroit, has been about where analytics were when Avila took over in 2015. The Tigers have, and had, been bottom-tier until racing into the 21st century seven years ago.
A first task was to expand the Tigers’ analytics team from one person to more than 10. Mission accomplished.
A second push was to get owner Chris Ilitch’s blessing on investing millions in new technology: computers, cameras, biomechanics assessors, trackers — any aspect of science that could be used to measure and enhance performance.
Once the above was intact, Avila last year got the go-ahead to bring aboard staff, much of it from that Silicon Valley-like baseball realm where the Dodgers have been key in doing all the bright-light stuff now considered avant-garde in baseball’s circles.
This is the hatchery from which famed Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter hails. It’s where one of his old cohorts, Gabe Ribas, who now heads the Tigers’ pitching development, formerly worked before Avila hired him last autumn.
And it is where Garko also earlier had been stationed and where he got to know Fetter, all before Garko moved to the Angels as a coach and video coordinator. It was Fetter who endorsed Garko as one of the many people Avila interviewed before Avila made Garko the Tigers’ new development chief.
Note that Garko is a Stanford man, same as a certain Tigers manager named AJ Hinch. Garko two decades ago was playing baseball for the Cardinal, majoring in American studies, planning on law school — until Cleveland in 2003 drafted him in the third round ahead of what became a six-year MLB career with the Indians, Rangers and Giants.
There has been a supposition that those Stanford alumni connections probably made Hinch and Garko a combo easily sold to Avila. But, in fact, their time at Stanford never overlapped. It was Fetter who had done most of the endorsing as Avila worked last year in putting together a new team that ideally would transform the Tigers’ development side.
Tigers students can appreciate why there was overdue emphasis here.
An occasional complaint heard from the minor-league side as all that R&D investment began to produce reams of data and research is that, you bet, it was great having all the new info. But there needed to be better synthesis of that data. It needed to be more streamlined and, most of all, it needed to be presented in such a way it could be incorporated into on-the-field dividends.
That’s what Garko — and a bundle of new hires — have been asked to incorporate throughout Detroit’s system.
“If you’re going to sustain success, player development has to be part of it,” said Garko, who still lives in Laguna Nigel, California, with his wife, and two young children, but who will be relocating — all of them — soon to Lakeland.
“Every player in a system matters. Every conversation has to be meaningful. The more options we can give Al, the more flexibility he has. The margins are so small.”
As an example, he talked about how polishing a fourth outfielder to his full potential at Double A might make that player a fourth outfielder in Detroit. If that happens — and it’s the kind of thing that occurs all the time with good developmental clubs — Avila’s roster gets a bonus, minus having to invest extra dollars or deals in a 26th player.
“It’s a combination of many things,” he said, talking specifics about building players, “but where you may see the most growth is in some performance areas.
“Nutrition. Sleep. Recovery. In all those areas, we’re improving our R&D. What makes a player who’s average-to-good become good-to-great can be on the performance side.”
Which is fine. But what about those golden oldies? Hitting cutoff men in textbook fashion. Making more accurate relays to home plate. Hitting smarter in specific situations. Cutting down on strikeouts. Taking pitch counts deeper into at-bats. Or, conversely, chopping down on pitch counts as pitchers move into this era of shorter starts and bullpen games.
Garko said there was no ”Tigers Way” instructional binder being crafted by him, in cahoots with Hinch, Ribas, Avila and all the new developmental blood and instructors who have been amassed.
“We’ve been talking all mini-camp,” said Garko, who says he and Hinch speak almost daily. “You take things like PFP (pitchers’ fielding practice). I think people think we plugged into this Dodgers-Astros computer. But it’s the same language everywhere.”
Eyes on all levels
Back to an earlier point, which persists.
Can you develop what you don’t get from each year’s MLB Draft? Can you turn that 16-year-old kid you just signed out of the Dominican Republic into a big-leaguer if the requisite skills aren’t there? To use some shopworn lingo, does the sow’s ear have any kind of shot, other than mythological, at becoming a silk purse?
Garko understands this business of grooming baseball players in fact isn’t alchemy. There has long been a romantic illusion in Tigers World that the Tigers have lost untold talent because they simply didn’t “develop” kids who couldn’t hit a tough slider. Or, who couldn’t spin a breaking ball with enough sass to avoid that pitch being sent on a long arc beyond a steady stream of minor-league ballpark fences.
Garko was ready for it.
“We’ve synched up with Scott Pleis’ staff,” he said, speaking of the man who heads amateur scouting for the Tigers.
The goal has been to work with Pleis’ scouts to help evaluate players and ceilings when they’re drafted.
“Then, let’s make sure,” Garko said, “that every player, whatever they have in the tank, they leave it on the field.”
He will be spending most of his time in Lakeland, where the Tiger’s minor-league headquarters is seated, and where the rookies and low-Single A players compete. He will be visiting regularly the teams at West Michigan, Erie and Toledo.
And he will be spending heavy time in the Dominican Republic, at the Tigers’ academy there, where the Latin teens recently signed will be working alongside new director Euclides Rojas.
Rojas is expected to have an imprint, as are two newcomers who, like Fetter and Ribas, were imported from the Dodgers: Ryan Sienko, the Tigers’ new director of coaching, and Stephanos Stroop, who will be instructing pitchers at the farm’s entry levels.
‘This just felt right’
Garko’s last season in the big leagues was 2010. This was after he had bashed a couple of homers in 26 at-bats against Verlander and run up a .950 OPS against him during some Indians-Tigers duels. He later played a year in Korea, then joined Stanford as an assistant coach before the Dodgers made him their Double-A manager at Tulsa.
He was the head baseball coach at the University of the Pacific for three seasons before hooking on with the Angels, which was followed by last September’s move to Detroit.
“This just felt right,” Garko said, mentioning that Avila and Ilitch had made clear the development side was going to be a focus, with funding to match.
Hinch had told him to expect just that: a commitment, with continuity. It’s the theme, he said, of a developmental culture heavy on “care.” He sees it playing out in Detroit.
“There are a lot of common beliefs,” Garko said, referencing his relationship with Hinch. “I’ve never seen anybody have better relationships with players than AJ. He has an incredible feel for people.”
It means this development business isn’t confined to baseball careers. There’s a grander game, life, that can also benefit from stewards who, as Garko says, are “building people and men, as well as players.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.