Henning: Scott Harris’ Tigers task: Bring winning back to baseball town starving for it

Detroit News

Monday’s news that Scott Harris is arriving as new front-office general for the Tigers was proof how much the Tigers mean to big-league baseball. This always was going to be their good fortune, this genuine status, from the day last month when Al Avila was discharged following seven years of too much losing.

Begin with Detroit’s status as an old and venerated baseball town dying to reunite with a playoff-grade Tigers team. There, for MLB’s intelligentsia, was a first reason for wanting that Detroit job — knowing the passion and fire waiting to be unleashed at Comerica Park.

It led to a blue-chip batch of contestants, among them Josh Byrnes of the Dodgers and Matt Slater of the Cardinals.

Adding to the Tigers’ allure was ownership: stable, for now, with ample money to cover a front-office chief’s year-to-year needs and at least some of his dreams. Factor in that the ownership family, the Ilitches, headed by Chris Ilitch, stays clear of day-to-day baseball decisions, and the plum that was viewed to be the Tigers job takes on greater dimension.

Harris, all of 35 years old, triumphed and is the Tigers’ new director of baseball operations. It’s a sophisticated title that places him a cut above anyone at Comerica Park and second only to Chris Ilitch in overall baseball authority.

Harris has a four-car garage full of academic ties and degrees (UCLA, Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, Columbia, London School of Economics) and a fistful of years working at high-end jobs for the Cubs and Giants. He has ultimate responsibility in Detroit that surpasses the latitude he had as GM with the San Francisco Giants, where Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ director of baseball operations, was chief steward.

“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.”

More: What they’re saying: Tigers hire Scott Harris as president of baseball operations

The Tigers are looking to be space-age with their baseball product. They are shedding, at least in strategy, any older-era habits that Ilitch no doubt considers to be at the root of a team’s ills and eight-year failure to make MLB’s playoffs. They are aware business and mathematical minds have become the ticket to playoff runs and world championships at places like Los Angeles, Houston, Tampa Bay, and even Baltimore, where business and science have melded with baseball wits to resurrect the Orioles.

Now, for the drama.

It began with Monday’s news and the obvious fact this clearly was Ilitch’s call. AJ Hinch, the Tigers manager who had been considered a co-pilot in this safari, doubtless had input on Avila’s replacement. But he might well have lost on the man he was believed to favor, Byrnes, of the Dodgers, who had worked with Hinch when both were at Arizona.

Hinch will be teaming with a boss from an MLB franchise different from any with whom he has past relationships. That new man at the top, Harris, figures to have people from his own experience he will want in place, now or later, as almost always happens when a new, outside executive is put in charge.

How this shakes out in terms of instant to-do lists will make for interesting theater throughout the coming autumn, winter, and beyond.

How much of the existing staff sticks? Hinch was on board Monday with Harris, effusively. It is fair to believe smart men know when they can work together. Managers and front-office chiefs invariably have their squabbles, but we can rest on Hinch’s words Monday that this pairing can and will mesh.

Scouting: One would expect major overhauls. The Tigers have done much better of late, but there is a reason this team has had too many 100-loss seasons, and it begins with too little talent pouring into the Tigers’ farm.

Coaching and development: Different story here, but will all this Dodgers-influenced personnel that has had such a marked impact on grooming Detroit’s farm talent the past two years — from Chris Fetter to Ryan Garko to Gabe Ribas and others — comfortably merge with Harris and his vision? An early guess is, yes.

Roster: Big decisions are ahead, beginning with Miguel Cabrera’s future. Harris could decide there is no way he can carry an oft-injured designated hitter who next year turns 40, even if he is a first-ballot Hall of Fame lock. A lovely $32 million parting gift for 2023 (Cabrera’s last full contract year with the Tigers) could be in the picture, with Harris perhaps hoping Cabrera will make this an amicable call.

There are roster spots in need of major upgrades as what looks like another 100-loss season grinds to a close. Hinch will have firm ideas there as he and Harris convene.

Harris knows also Ilitch spent more than $200 million last autumn on free agents and extensions. An owner, or at least a man functioning as owner, has not closed his checkbook, as surely was made clear during their chat.

A problem is that the coming free-agent market is no shopping mall. Even if Ilitch and the Tigers cared to offer, say, Aaron Judge the $300 million or so that he has in mind, would Judge be keen on joining a Tigers team, which might be two years or more from the playoffs? Not likely.

This will make it tougher on Harris to retool a roster that just now is adding pieces (Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Ryan Kreidler, etc.) to a roster redeemed by some surprising pitching depth. Other farm kids figure to help in time, maybe dramatically. But the Colt Keiths and Jace Jungs and others are a year or two from Comerica Park.

Harris, of course, did his homework on all of this ahead of what had to have been a boffo interview with Ilitch and his lieutenants. He will have sized up the Tigers’ situation, now and for the foreseeable future. He likely offered hard plans and thoughts on what the Tigers can do to win baseball games and make it back to the playoffs, as had been their earlier crowd-pleasing habit.

He had to have known that building a solid baseball product in Detroit is tapping into a kind of happy mania. This, to repeat, is a baseball town, waiting to taste again those giddy summers when Comerica four times hosted 3 million fans, all during a playoffs heyday that extended, with some bumps, from 2006-14.

Ilitch has his man. Harris has, with full freedom, his MLB team. Fans only wonder if they have, at last, a contender waiting to be embraced at Comerica Park.

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

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