This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.
The last time the Tigers searched for a new chief baseball executive, Comerica Park was just a couple seasons old, Phil Garner was the manager and the roster included Bobby Higginson, Damion Easley and Jeff Weaver.
That was in 2001, when the Tigers hired Dave Dombrowski as team president and CEO the day after the World Series ended. It wasn’t so much of a search as a pursuit, as late owner Mike Ilitch — who was serving as team president — saw an opportunity to hire Dombrowski away from a Marlins franchise in the midst of an ownership change. It was a masterful move that set the course of the Tigers for the next two decades.
Detroit already had a general manager at the time, but Dombrowski took over that title from Randy Smith six games into the 2002 season. A roster rebuild followed, then a decade of contention that included two World Series berths and four consecutive division titles. When Ilitch parted ways with Dombrowski right after the 2015 Trade Deadline, he stayed in-house and simultaneously promoted Dombrowski’s top assistant, Al Avila, who kept most of the front-office staff in place.
Add it together, and the Tigers have been led by the same group for the past two decades, even as Avila modernized the baseball operations department to adapt to the rise of analytics and technology. It’s a level of stability rarely found in baseball anymore. That’s what makes last week’s decision by Tigers chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch to part ways with Avila a big deal, one that could have as massive of an impact for the franchise as Dombrowski’s arrival did.
So, how does this search work?
Ilitch kept that open-ended when asked about it last week.
“I’m not going to put a timeline on it,” he said. “It’s all about finding the right leader for our baseball operations.”
The one deadline arguably would be the start of the offseason, when somebody has to be in charge of the moves. That said, a new GM would preferably be in place well before then. The end of October is when contracts are usually up for scouts, instructors and other evaluators. They usually don’t go year to year, more like every two years, but that leaves a lot of baseball people in career limbo. Likewise, if a new GM wants to bring in new people, October is the time to talk.
That said, this won’t be quick, and unlike the Dombrowski hire 21 years ago, it won’t be focused on one person.
Ilitch is one of eight owners on Major League Baseball’s executive council, and he has become increasingly involved in the direction of the sport. MLB requires teams to look at a diverse pool of candidates and consider minority groups when filling top front-office positions, including general manager.
Ilitch wants to look at a wide group.
“We will deploy the full resource of our entire organization to ensure we identify the best candidate to lead our baseball operations into the future,” he said. “I’m going to tap into every resource at my disposal within this organization, and the contacts and folks that me and all of my colleagues in our organization have throughout the industry. This will be an exhaustive, thorough search.”
It’s significant that Ilitch said manager A.J. Hinch will be part of the process for hiring a general manager. It’s a different dynamic than a lot of GM searches, but it works this way for a couple of reasons. First, Hinch is under a long-term contract, and whoever gets the GM job will need to forge a good working relationship with him. He has already identified areas to address going into the offseason.
“Obviously, this organization has committed a ton to me, and vice versa,” Hinch said. “And I want to help get it right. [This move] is another reminder that we haven’t succeeded.”
Second, Hinch also has front-office experience, having served as a player development director in Arizona before his first managerial opportunity and then as an assistant GM and scouting director in San Diego. He was part of the process when the Tigers hired Ryan Garko as vice president of player development.
Hinch is not only experienced in the area, but he’s also well-connected. He was a Stanford baseball teammate of former Mets general manager and longtime agent Brodie Van Wagenen. He worked with former Padres and D-backs GM Josh Byrnes at both stops. MLB senior vice president Peter Woodfork worked with Hinch in Arizona’s front office and was reportedly a candidate for the Astros’ GM job before James Click was hired.
That doesn’t mean Hinch and the Tigers are destined to find a former GM — Ilitch left the qualification of experience open when asked — just as Hinch’s success with the Astros doesn’t make his old boss, former Houston GM Jeff Luhnow, a logical candidate. But the Houston experience does put Hinch in tune with the pipeline of executives to come out of the Astros’ organization, a path the Orioles took in their rebuild four years ago by bringing in Mike Elias as GM and Sig Mejdal as his assistant. Pete Putila has been in the Astros’ front office for over a decade and an assistant GM for two seasons, focusing on scouting and player development, and has been viewed as a future GM.
“The Detroit Tigers’ organization is a good place. We have a ton of opportunity,” Hinch said. “This is the same place that was attractive a couple of years ago when I came here — obviously, the players, the fan base, the commitment from ownership, the opportunity to build kind of your own brand here with a fresh start.”
Two other factors could play into the search. First is the dynamic of Ilitch, who has been running the Tigers since 2017. In that time, he has made a point to gain a better understanding in baseball analytics with help from assistant GM Jay Sartori (an internal candidate along with top assistant Sam Menzin). Ilitch also connects with analytics through his business background; he worked at IBM before joining the family business. At the same time, Ilitch has sat in on organizational meetings including scouts, and he has shown an appreciation for the process.
Second, while the Tigers are changing GMs, they’re not expected to change course on building through player development. The organization, notably Ilitch, has invested too much in upgrading technology and facilities in that area to not make that a continued priority for the next group. That creates an opportunity for someone to rise out of that background to become a GM. Royals senior vice president/assistant GM Scott Sharp has been viewed as a GM candidate in other spots, including the Angels, for his background in that area and his ability to blend scouting with analytics.
“This organization has made so much progress over the last few years,” Ilitch said. “We need to just re-establish that momentum that we had heading into this season.”