Henning: Manager Hinch’s third year with Tigers looks familiar: ‘We lost the game’

Detroit News
By Lynn Henning |  Special to The Detroit News

St. Petersburg, Fla. − A few minutes after the Tigers had just wrapped up a, 2-hour, 14-minute, Opening Day tumble to the Rays, 4-0, at Tropicana Field, AJ Hinch stood Thursday against a blue-and-white cement-block wall in Tropicana Field’s basement corridor.

A manager’s expression for the 3 ½ minutes he spoke was as blank as the Tigers’ run-column. In his voice, scant emotion. No inflection. No animation as he stood, wearing a Tigers cap and Tigers hooded sweatshirt, and summed up all the grist he could take from the first of 162 games spanning these next six months.

“We lost the game,” Hinch said, and his tone was that of a person ordering coffee from the McDonald’s drive-through.

“At the end of the day we lost the game,” he said with a faint shrug. “I don’t take a lot away from games we lost. I’m proud of the way our guys competed, our dugout. But at the end of the day we lost the game.”

Get ready for more of these short, direct, somewhat stoic responses, especially early, as the Tigers continue their marathon rebuild and as Hinch settles into Year Three of his time in Detroit.

It’s going to be a two-sided season, probably: Tough early and well into the spring as roster pieces and new blood settle. Better − perhaps a lot better – toward summer as Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson grow as hitters and as a potpourri of players, some with legit talent, coalesce.

It’s why heading into April it’s probably not wise to underrate – or overrate − the 2023 Tigers. In the sense sports offers surprises and pivots, this could easily be the Tale of Two Teams, Detroit’s big-league baseball team, in 2023.

The manager will be a core conversation piece throughout.

BOX SCORE: Rays 4, Tigers 0

Which invites a question:

What exactly do the Tigers have in their dugout chief three years into Hinch’s reign? What does Hinch have in the Tigers?

Mostly, fans have the guy they thought they were hiring in October, 2023. Comerica Park is the work address for a seasoned skipper who was a celebrity at Houston and across MLB’s terrain before a trash-can-banging scandal sullied him and his 2017 world-championship Astros team.

Motown now owns a dugout boss who can run this Tigers team maybe as well as any manager could when the roster is still punching at a lightweight level.

More: Apprehension gives way to happiness for Tigers who survived the last cut

In essence, they have a skipper they needn’t worry about. They have a guy his bosses can trust.

That’s going to be disputed in some corners, for sure, as Hinch draws heavier sniper fire. But his smarts and stability are probably as important as any two traits any manager could bring to a rebuilding team.

Not that this view will fly with everyone in 2023, at least early. And that’s all a product of the Tigers’ long, exasperating, even disgusting, inability to build a team that might make the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Some recent history for review:

Think of 2021, late October, when Hinch was hired three weeks after the Tigers had just wrapped up a surprisingly upbeat 75-87 season that suggested reconstruction was over and better baseball times in Detroit were at hand.

Then, something called the 2022 baseball season arrived. Pitchers got hurt. A bunch of guys who in earlier years had hit suddenly looked as if their bats had amnesia.

The Tigers plummeted, finished 65-97, and Hinch’s halo tilted 45 degrees.

More: Riley Greene batting 3rd, Cabrera 7th in Tigers’ Opening Day lineup

Wasn’t the skipper accountable also for Javier Báez and Jonathan Schoop and Jeimer Candelario acting as if they all needed a refresher course at Triple A?

Welcome, Mr. Hinch, to Detroit’s case-study in how managers universally please the populace only when they’re waving to fans from a World Series float.

Jim Leyland can tell you all about it. He beguiled the Tigers’ crowd in 2006 when he was a first-year Detroit general and the team had a dreamy breakthrough season and a World Series ticket.

Later on, almost every season thereafter, he was a talk-radio clay pigeon, even if Leyland might have been the best manager modern-era Detroit has known.

Sparky Anderson? He, too, was about ready to get a Personal Protection Order in the early ‘80s when fans didn’t care for his trots to the mound, his hop-step over the third-base chalk-line, and his head-down stare when they delivered a rousing chorus of “Sparky sucks.”

Folks changed dispositions in 1984. And that seems to have stemmed from something known in the MLB annals as a 35-5 start and an October world championship. Extraordinary players and a solid manager can indeed flourish.

So, this scrutiny of Hinch, now more serious and more suspicious than would have been the case a year ago, is quite natural.

More: New Tiger McKinstry happy to get sprung from organizational jail with the Cubs

What will matter for Hinch – all that will matter − is that the team to which he attached himself almost 30 months ago evolves the way he at least faintly saw it crystallizing in October, 2023, when the White Sox hired Tony La Russa and Hinch said to the Tigers:

“Sure, why not?”

He has in 2023 new and more highly skilled position people in place. He has a starting rotation that hasn’t yet crumpled, demanding that 17 different starters begin a MLB game, as was the case during that black-cat 2022 calendar.

He has kids about ready to graduate from the farm (Parker Meadows, Colt Keith, maybe others) that will help immeasurably, as talented kids steadily maturing made all the difference for Anderson and for Detroit’s last world championship team.

He has a new boss, Scott Harris, who replaced Al Avila, the man who hired Hinch when Tigers forecasts were brightening, all before last year’s tumult created such trauma. It got a GM fired and it incensed fans who had bought into a rebuild that became, for them, a ruse.

This, too, likely won’t be breezy, these early weeks and games in 2023. Tampa Bay was not a team a young roster still being remodeled needed on opening weekend. Next week’s trip to Houston for a set against the Astros isn’t a reunion Hinch or his team deserved.

But wait this out. Wait as Harris re-wires his roster. Wait as pieces Hinch can manage, and win with, steadily are added – and that is a decent bet for a variety of reasons as Harris takes charge.

More: Tigers’ Harris says Comerica Park renovations still a work in progress

Hinch wasn’t much into analysis Thursday.

“At the end of the day,” he repeated, in a face-the-facts voice, “we lost the game.”

He’ll have a different, flip-side appraisal later on, at plenty of times even in 2023 when he dissects a victory.

The wait is what’s so wearying. All parties have had quite enough of this losing business.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News reporter.

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