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Detroit Tigers: What does Ron Gardenhire’s future look like?

ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - AUGUST 17: Manager Ron Gardenhire #15 of the Detroit Tigers looks on during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on August 17, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - AUGUST 17: Manager Ron Gardenhire #15 of the Detroit Tigers looks on during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on August 17, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /
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They say “it’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars”. Suffice it to say Detroit Tigers Manager Ron Gardenhire has some scars.

Ron Gardenhire is not in any way a shallow baseball guy. He carries the scars of a veteran manager. He was hired in Detroit because he had the ability to do the job. He’s just been given nothing resembling a competitive major league roster on the Tigers. There have to be days when his love of bowling or time spent hunting and fishing in his north woods cabin have to look better than another drubbing during a long road trip.

The question now is, “what does the future hold in Detroit for Ronald Clyde Gardenhire?”

The Detroit skipper would almost certainly bristle at the term “caretaker”. But he was brought in with the likely understanding success wasn’t going to initially be judged by the win column. It seemed Tigers GM Al Avila, after stripping the roster bare at the end of the Brad Ausmus Experience, wanted an old steady hand to guide the ragtag Tigers through this ugly forest. Despite Avila’s insistence, the Tigers were embracing analytics, years after many others, Gardenhire was allowed to bring in a fair number of familiar faces from his Twins days to occupy his staff…his Minnesota minions. Gardenhire was never considered at the analytics forefront in Minnesota and the odds of him having a battlefield conversion to such a mindset in Detroit didn’t seem likely.

Gardenhire took over from longtime Twins stalwart leader and two-time World Series champion Tom Kelly in 2002 as a young core was coming together.  This enabled Gardenhire to have a sustained run of success in Minnesota with six playoff appearances in his first nine seasons. If any scar tissue was built up in those years it was from a 6-21 post-season record that included only one playoff series win over the Moneyball A’s.

Gardenhire was nearly deified in those days. Tigers fans often openly spoke enviously about “the Twins way” of the hustle, the discipline, and playing the right way. “The Piranhas” were a pesky creation of Gardenhire’s system.

But after guiding the Twins to a 94-win season in 2010 led by Joe Mauer, Carl Pavano, and Delmon Young (no, really…look it up) and withstanding injuries to Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan, the days of reckoning came.

Mauer stopped catching. Morneau’s concussion issues festered. Delmon remembered he was Delmon. Pavano lost the magic. Productive bench guys like Nick Punto suddenly became the Brian Dinkelman’s of the world. Signing a shortstop from Japan, Tsuyoshi Nishioka failed ignominiously. The farm system went fallow.

The 2011 Twins would crater to 63-99 and usher in an era that would see Gardenhire become only the 4th manager to lose 90+ games in four straight years for the same club. Gardenhire would be shown the door after the 2014 season despite having the second-longest stint of job security at the time behind only the Angels Mike Scoiscia.

After a successful stint in Arizona as a bench coach, Detroit brought in Gardenhire. The Tigers have limped to two ugly seasons in his tenure. 64-98 in 2018 and 47-114 in 2019. Gardenhire’s personal streak now stands at six consecutive 90+ loss seasons as a manager.

How long can that go? At what point will Tigers owner Chris Ilitch and GM Avila decide that a “caretaker” is unnecessary and a “winner” is needed. More importantly, is Gardenhire both?

Ilitch visited Tigers camp in late February and proclaimed he “has the fire inside” to build a winner. Gardenhire needs to know if the relatively sedate sounding Ilitch views his internal firestorm as a raging forest fire which might include a hook for a manager of another bad club. Or is the flame inside Ilitch just the icky intestinal turmoil one gets after eating a gas station bacon-cheeseburger giving Gardenhire more time?

By all appearances, the Tigers have another 90+ loss season on tap. If so, that’s seven in a row for Gardenhire with the three in Detroit. He’s not at fault in nearly any way for it but how long can he reasonably survive? The manager often becomes the symbol of an era. This era has been about losing. He wears it for now.

Some may point out that not many Tigers on the big league roster have noticeably improved under the tutelage of Gardenhire and his staff. For every possible glimmer of hope from a JaCoby Jones, there has been a struggling Jeimer Candelario. However, this may also be a case of Avila not exactly supplying his manager with many talents capable of being developed.

No…the Tigers hopes are mainly in the minor leagues. The bevy of young pitchers is rising through the system and Detroit has to believe they have the ability to firm a bedrock to build the team upon. We know the names. Mize, Manning, Skubal, Wentz, Burrows, and others. Some of these arms will likely emerge in 2020. However, the more likely scenario probably sees the Tigers showing patience and seeing more of these pitchers in ‘21 and ‘22.

Can Gardenhire expect to be given the reigns that long? Long enough to see it all through to the year the Tigers ask Ilitch to take his internal fire and light the fuse toward winning by spending once again to add offense around a young pitching staff?

Two World Series champs in the last decade went through massive rebuilds similar to what the Tigers are doing now. The Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs however both turned their teams over to a new face once it was decided it was time to win. AJ Hinch took over from Bo Porter in Houston. The lure of Joe Maddon enticed the Cubs to terminate Rick Renteria without much regret.

It’s easy to see why. A fresh young face or a big name is brought in to wipe away the stench of futility fans had put up with during the rebuild days.

Ron Gardenhire is 62-years old. Barring any unforeseen set of circumstances, he has at least one more bad year to survive. Maybe two. Can he show enough reasons why he should merit seeing the process through? Does Al Avila have the job security to avoid making another manager switch to assuage Ilitch? Time will tell.

Gardenhire hasn’t caused this era of losing. He’s been well compensated to endure it. His reputation probably hasn’t taken a massive hit because of the roster’s weaknesses. It would be nice to see him get the opportunity to lead a club with the talent to compete in Detroit.

The odds probably favor a new face when that club is finally assembled, however. Whether that’s a younger analytics-oriented skipper or a popular former Tigers face like a Don Kelly.

Meanwhile, the scar tissue from the struggles of a bad team continues to build in the Tigers dugout for Gardenhire. How far away is the end date?

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