For Scott Harris, new Detroit Tigers president of baseball operations, ‘this day was inevitable’

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers targeted Scott Harris from the beginning.

Prying him from San Francisco — at the onset of the CEO and chairman Christopher Ilitch’s search for a president of baseball operations — seemed improbable. Harris, in his third season as the Giants’ general manager, grew up in Redwood City, California, and at age 35, he stood second-in-command to Farhan Zaidi. The Tigers went through their process, with Harris seemingly their top target, and that process ended Monday morning, with Harris as the final candidate standing.

He is tasked with molding the Tigers, on and off the field, into a best-in-class franchise.

“I think he sees an ownership group that is going to spend money and an ownership group that believes in his vision and wants to follow it,” Jed Hoyer, Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations, told the Free Press. “I think it’s going to allow him to build something really special there. It’s a great opportunity.”

The opinion of dozens in the industry suggests the Tigers selected the best person to captain the journey ahead.

“He’s like a young Theo,” one person said, referencing former Boston Red Sox and Cubs executive Theo Epstein. Another described him as a “really, really sharp guy,” and someone else speculated he could run the show in Detroit for a long time. He is friendly, well respected, known for his leadership and blends a methodical plan with a killer instinct in player acquisition opportunities. Harris is the type of progressive, forward-thinking leader the Tigers need directing their organization and picking up the pieces left by former general manager Al Avila, fired in August.

What Harris surely knows is he’s joining the American League Central, the worst division in baseball, and the Tigers should be able to sport the biggest payroll among the five teams. Building a dynasty in the AL Central is more attainable than doing so in the National League West, where the Los Angeles Dodgers rule. Harris also inherits highly touted prospects like Riley Greene, on the highway to stardom, and Spencer Torkelson. Young pitchers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal underwent elbow surgeries this season, but come 2024, the pitching staff should be loaded with homegrown talents. The Tigers will have future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera’s $32 million off the books after the 2023 season, leaving Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodriguez as the only big commitments unless they exercise the opt-out clauses in their contracts.

One person described the Tigers’ rebuild as “60% complete,” and for Harris, that’s a solid foundation.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU:Meet Tigers’ president of baseball ops: Scott Harris helped end WS drought & loves his mom

More than just an on-field rebuild

Aside from the on-field product, Harris gets to construct his front office with the goal of getting the most out of every player in the system. Under Avila, the Tigers struggled to conceptualize and apply information, such as analytics and biomechanics, which negatively impacted player performance and development, amateur and international scouting, free agency and trades. Perfection is impossible to achieve, but the Tigers’ organizational process isn’t up-to-date compared to MLB’s best teams.

A change in leadership within the scouting departments appears necessary; the player development department, led by Ryan Garko, has delivered outstanding results since last year’s overhaul. For now, Harris has assistant general managers Sam Menzin, Jay Sartori and David Chadd, as well as vice president of player personnel Scott Bream.

More changes are coming.

“He’s going to develop a plan, based on their pieces and based on the market, to move from where they are now to becoming a great organization,” Hoyer said, “and he’s going to see that through. He’s got a great mind, but he’s also very convicted when he wants to do something.

“Once he sets that plan and knows the course, he’s going to stick to it. No one’s going to work harder and no one’s more passionate about what they’re doing than he is. That will serve him really well.”

Harris will have full control of the baseball operations department, while A.J. Hinch focuses on managing the team. Essentially, the Tigers have paired a best-in-class executive with a best-in-class manager. Hinch, a 2017 World Series champion as a manager, also spent time in the San Diego Padres’ front office. He understands how an entire organization is supposed to function and deserves a seat at the table for important conversations. That said, there isn’t a direct link between Hinch and Harris, though Hoyer worked with Hinch in San Diego and Harris in Chicago. Still, Hinch didn’t help Ilitch hire a close friend, probably the best decision for all parties involved.

For this to work, trust must be upheld on both sides.

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“What you want in these guys is a partner,” said Hoyer, who thinks Hinch would be a president or general manager by now if he would’ve stayed in the front office. “Intellectually, I think they’ll really hit it off. I know they’ve hit it off already. But I have no doubt that will be a great relationship. For anyone that was going to take the job there, A.J. was a huge asset.”

Getting to this point started with a best-in-class search process. There weren’t any leaks from Ilitch or Hinch — working together in the search — so those in baseball circles were left guessing about what might happen. Josh Byrnes, Dana Brown and Jason McLeod were hot names along the way, but it’s unclear if they interviewed. Eventually, it became clear the Tigers narrowed their search to a person currently holding a general manager title, and Ilitch would hire them away by applying the president of baseball operations title.

Minnesota Twins general manager Thad Levine was believed to be in the mix.

By late Monday morning, Harris’ name surfaced as the Tigers’ new president of baseball operations. A few hours later, the Tigers announced their decision along with written statements from Harris, Ilitch and Hinch.

“This is an exciting day for me and my family, and I’m humbled by the opportunity to lead baseball operations for the Detroit Tigers,” Harris said in a statement. “The Tigers have a rich history and tradition as a charter member of the American League, and I can’t wait to get to work on the next chapter of Tigers baseball.

“I’d like to thank Chris Ilitch for believing in my vision for this organization and being so accommodating throughout the interview process. I’d also like to thank Greg Johnson, Rob Dean, Farhan Zaidi, Larry Baer and the entire Giants organization for their support over the last three years.”

A winning pedigree

Harris comes to Detroit from the Giants and Cubs.

Epstein and Hoyer baptized him into the front office as Chicago’s director of baseball operations in 2012, thanks to a strong recommendation from Peter Woodfork. He immediately branched out to learn from people with all different kinds of baseball experiences, rather than gravitating toward people with similar backgrounds. Harris studied his bosses and colleagues as the Cubs went through their rebuild and snapped a 108-year drought with a 2016 World Series championship.

By January 2018, Harris was promoted to assistant general manager. His fingerprints were all over the Cubs’ potential player acquisitions, contract and trade negotiations and player evaluations. He also supervised the research and development and high performance departments. Then, he learned from the successes and failures as the franchise tried to maintain its reign.

“This day was inevitable,” Hoyer said of Harris joining the Tigers, “just like we knew it was inevitable that we would probably lose him at some point, and we did to the Giants. … Very quickly, it was apparent that he was going to move quickly in this game.”

In November 2019, Harris became the general manager of the Giants. He worked under Zaidi, who previously worked for Andrew Friedman with the Dodgers. The Giants failed to accomplish a winning record from 2016-20 but broke through in 2021 with franchise-best 107-55 record amid a soft rebuild that appeared a couple years from consistent contention. That October, Harris reportedly withdrew his name from consideration for the New York Mets’ president of baseball operations job, a role that would have required him to work for owner Steve Cohen.

But it’s not about the Cubs or Giants anymore.

Harris is now focused on the Tigers.

He will be introduced at a press conference Tuesday afternoon in the Tiger Club at Comerica Park in Detroit, where he will be asked to reveal as much as he can about the future of the Tigers. One of the biggest questions is whether or not the Tigers need to endure another rebuild in search of sustainable playoff contention.

Chances are, Harris believes he can formulate a plan to clean up the mess in quick order at the big-league level while sinking his teeth into other areas of the organization that need improvements before the Tigers can showcase themselves as a juggernaut within the division for years to come.

“He’s really had a chance to see two very different building processes,” Hoyer said. “He’ll probably take parts of what he learned with us and probably parts of what he learned with the Giants. Some parts, he’ll figure out and take a different tactic. Those are two pretty good places to learn, and both places were building up something when he got there.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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