Henning: Race tightens as Tigers work toward hiring a new general manager

Detroit News

News leaks are verboten within Ilitch Holdings. There is a furious search for a new Tigers general manager moving closer to completion, but no one is talking.

A best guess is the Tigers will move this month, with the first half of September a more likely target for naming a new front-office leader. There is abundant business ahead and a massive retooling likely as the Tigers recover from a 2022 season that has been nothing less than devastating.

Three people are believed to be under heavy consideration among a group that no doubt is broader in number as final interviews and decisions play out:

► Josh Byrnes, 52, Dodgers senior vice president of baseball operations. Byrnes the past eight years has been part of Andrew Friedman’s masterly ways that have turned the Dodgers into baseball’s showroom model for how a MLB franchise can operate.

Critics remain unimpressed by his earlier work as Diamondbacks GM, even if he drafted Max Scherzer and Paul Goldschmidt, among others, and where he hired a manager named AJ Hinch. They are unmoved by his latter stint as Padres GM. But he had low payrolls at each stop and helped both teams improve markedly. He also was an assistant with Theo Epstein during the Red Sox resurgence, after he had broken in with the Indians.

Given the breadth of his background, and his relationship with Hinch, it’s possible Byrnes is the man to beat.

► Matt Slater, Cardinals special assistant to the GM, player procurement. Another radiant resume here: Slater, 51, has been with the Cardinals for 15 years in all facets of personnel and scouting. He worked previously for nine years in scouting roles with the Dodgers, and earlier was with the Brewers. He has business and law degrees. He has been a student not only of John Mozeliak’s deft ways with the Cardinals, but has also been groomed by the likes of Pat Gillick, Rollie Hemond, and Bob Gebhard.

There are reasons, self-evident, why Slater is being taken seriously by the Tigers.

► The primary internal candidate is Sam Menzin, 31, a Tigers assistant GM and vice president, who for the past 10 years has worked in the analytics, operations, and personnel sides for the Tigers. Menzin played baseball at Swarthmore College and is known to enjoy great favor with Hinch.

It is unknown how many others from the assistant GM or scouting-director ranks are being vetted and interviewed by the Tigers. But a list of those who would be appealing to the Tigers and who might — a key word there — find the Tigers job alluring is understood to be long:

Pete Putila (Astros), James Harris (Guardians), Randy Flores (Cardinals), Sig Mejdal (Orioles), Carlos Rodriguez (Rays), Dana Brown (Braves), Daniel Adler (Twins) — all are viewed as contestants or, at the very least, as people the Tigers likely have vetted or considered.

It is not known if two more Dodgers execs and Friedman assistants — Brandon Gomes and Jeff Kingston — have budged from their earlier disinterest in other open GM jobs. But either Gomes or Kingston would have had natural appeal to Chris Ilitch, the Tigers chairman and CEO, as well as, perhaps, to Hinch who is viewed as Ilitch’s co-pilot in the hunt for Al Avila’s replacement as Tigers GM.

What is known 20 years after Avila arrived as then-GM Dave Dombrowski’s prime assistant is that the GM’s job has changed, dramatically if not radically, even from the time Avila was handed the keys following Dombrowski’s dismissal in 2015.

It is more than a rise in analytical dependency in making player evaluations. It is incorporating data into on-field performance. Making inroads there in earlier years proved elusive for the Tigers even as Avila was bringing up to speed a MLB team previously lagging in metrics and baseball science.

Data wasn’t the problem, said field generals then in place on the Tigers farm. It was applying it to player-training and schooling that seemed lost in the scramble to make a MLB team savvy to methods other teams had earlier mastered.

Progress at any rate was steadily evident. Avila boosted by 1,000% and more the Tigers’ analytic side. A year ago, he brought on Ryan Garko as a director and symbol of Detroit’s new focus and resolve to boost player development.

It is not a barren organization in terms of resources and personnel, nor a lifeless farm, that a new GM will inherit.

But what is known about any GM job anywhere in baseball in 2022 is that business acumen is indispensable in building rosters. There is portfolio stewardship, as it were, that demands expertise in assessing such biz-school tenets as risk-mitigation. Determining finite assets, knowing when to sell for 60 cents on a dollar, not to mention a need for raw salesmanship — all are skills a GM requires nearly one-quarter of the way through the 21st century.

Any litany of needs on the personnel-analytics-business side implies that it at least is possible the Tigers would have a conversation with a man they well-know: Mike Smith, who functioned as kind of a one-person analytics staff under Dombrowski as director of baseball operations for the Tigers, and who now is a senior vice president for Invest Detroit, Inc.

Smith is a Yale grad and remains close to the game — after having added seven years of business enrichment to his earlier 15 years in MLB roles.

While Chris Ilitch is making evaluations there, he also knows he will need a person to lead his organization with authority as well as function as face of the Tigers. It is a high-profile job with highly diverse demands that make this hire perhaps as important as any Chris Ilitch has confronted in all his years of running a business sphere worth billions of dollars.

Ilitch’s new general, once named, will instantly get busy with a GM’s ultimate task: pumping talent into the Tigers’ system, from rookie leagues to Comerica Park.

Discussions with MLB officials across baseball (all have requested anonymity out of respect for the Tigers’ opening and their particular jobs) have led to a kind of consensus:

► The Tigers likely will overhaul their international talent operations after too many years of too few dividends.

► There is less certainty about the domestic-draft side. Directors and scouts might remain, but a change in strategy likely will be ordered. An organization embarrassed in 2022 by its lack of hitters finally made a tactical move toward drafting bats — and on-base percentage — early in this summer’s MLB Draft while focusing on pitching later. It was the very policy the Tigers had been widely urged to adopt previously, just as the Orioles under Mike Elias did in turning around a longtime sad-sack MLB franchise and making it one of the game’s best stories in 2022.

► Trades are expected to be made with more aggression and more initiative than was practiced by Avila. Volume dealing is expected. More overtures are anticipated. The Tigers have little choice there, with arms likely to be marketed in a bid to add even incremental help to their suffering offense.

There will be a follow-up from fans:

Payroll, they shout. Isn’t the key to making the Tigers better a matter of fattening salaries and buying free-agent help?

On the pitching side, probably so, especially when it is possible to get rotation and bullpen help at affordable prices. Supply helps there. And it makes replacements for traded assets a bit easier to achieve. The Tigers almost certainly will be adding arms, in the plural, ahead of 2023.

Hitters, always, are the challenge.

The Tigers will need a proven everyday bat for their 2023 outfield. And good luck finding that hitter, at a defensible price, at this autumn’s free-agent mart, where shopping figures to be extraordinarily expensive a year after Aaron Judge turned down $213 million from the Yankees, and after Juan Soto told the Washington Nationals that $400 million-plus was not enough to keep him from free agency, and from a subsequent trade to the Padres.

The culling and winnowing and interviewing of candidates carries on as Ilitch moves closer, perhaps within a few weeks, to naming a new Tigers chief.

Candidates have lined up for a job viewed with zeal by many who understand Detroit’s baseball roots, and the passion of fans wanting again to be sitting within those seats at Comerica Park that filled during what once was a playoff-baseball season ritual in Detroit.

Ilitch wants to be right in 2022 — and not for a moment more than his broad Tigers baseball audience.

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

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