Detroit Tigers Rebuilds Part 1: Joe McDonald

Before the hiring of Randy Smith in 1996, the Detroit Tigers experienced a transition of ownership that resulted in three different general managers to start the 1990’s. Part one focuses on Joe McDonald and his approach to building the team.

Ah, the ’90s were such an interesting time in not only pop culture but for Detroit Tigers baseball. For some, it can be traced to 1991, which oddly enough, was when the music scene changed in a whole new different direction.

Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was released in September of 1991, around the same time the Tigers’ first season under new GM Joe McDonald was drawing to a close. On January 11th, 1992, “Nevermind” was the number one album on Billboard’s Top 200, beating out Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” and forever changing the course of how the music scene would playout for the rest of the decade.

Now, how does that relate to the Detroit Tigers? Well, it was a change in philosophy was coming that would define the decade. Why revisit this part of Tigers’ history? I wanted to see what has changed since the days of the Tigers being the winningest team of the 1980s and what may not have changed.

Jim Campbell and later Bill Lajoie built two World Series-winning ballclubs and provided a run of Tigers baseball that saw some dark times (mid-1970’s) but saw, for the most part, a great run of talent that Tigers fans still discuss to this day. When Bill Lajoie resigned in January of 1991 due to reported clashes with Sparky Anderson and that Campbell (who was the team President and CEO until August of 1992) let McDonald run the farm system instead of him, it ended an era of stability. Lajoie was responsible for scouting and developing most of the talent that was on the 1984 Tigers roster and was key to signing Darrell Evans.

The previous owner John Seltzer made a point to tell Lajoie and Campbell to run the team as fiscally responsible as they could.  That also spilled over to new owner Tom Monaghan (another way to phrase it as cheaply as possible)

When the farm system started to dry up in the mid-’80s, former Mets and Cardinals GM Joe McDonald stepped in and took over the farm system as the Director of Player Development.  What he soon discovered set the stage for the Tigers rebuilding process to kick off the decade. This article will cover how three different GM’s handled the Tigers’ rebuilding process. (Note: Mcdonald’s actual title was vice-president of player procurement and development)

Joe McDonald

McDonald’s first task was to not only rebuild the farm system with fresh talent but was also to build up the staff and coaching. It’s strange to think this was a thing but until the late ’80s, the Tigers only had one or two coaches in their minor league staff per location. Detroit was the only big league organization that did not have a full-time pitching coach for their Triple-A team. McDonald also had to hire pitching coaches at Double-A London and their new minor league team in Single-A, Niagara Falls, which would be their third single-A team, this time for short-season play.

He would also beef up scouting, hiring seven scouts, and two former GM’s in Joe Klein and Hall Keller. One of those hires came in 1988 that should sound familiar to Tigers fans in Dave Littlefield.

It would not be until Tigers president Bo Schembechler finally fulfilled the request McDonald was looking for in video equipment for the minor league systems that the Tigers started in small steps, getting more modern with the game.

Detroit had its highest pick in 14 years in the 1990 draft before McDonald took over as the GM but was responsible for the direction of what the Tigers would draft from 1987 until 1992. Only Glenn Wilson, the Tigers 18th pick in the 1980 draft, was the only pick to be a regular in the majors from the Tigers drafts of the ’80s. They were too busy winning, granted, and that’s why they had lower draft positions, but the lack of player development was lacking.

“The baseball draft is not scientific and it’s not sophisticated in comparsion to basketball and football. Baseball’s got to make more mistakes, You’re dealing with a product that’s not well known” Joe McDonald-June 3 1990.

Catcher Bill Henderson, SS Travis Fryman, OF Steve Pegues, 1B Rico Brogna, and Tony Clark pitchers Greg Gohr, Justin Thompson, and Rick Greene were first-round picks under McDonald’s time. It wasn’t until the 1992 draft that produced some regulars like Chris Gomez, Frank Catalanotto, and Bobby Higginson. Under McDonald, only Fryman, Higginson, and Gomez would be the drafted regulars in the Tigers’ lineup throughout the decade. Catalanotto was too but not in Detroit.

The roster lacked minor league options for the outfield that the Tigers turned to veterans to fill the gap. From 1988 to 1992, this was the list of Tigers outfielders appearing in at least 10 games in one season since 1988.

  • Skeeter Barnes
  • Dave Bergman
  • Mark Carreon
  • Darnell Coles (yep, he came back in 1990)
  • Milt Cuyler
  • Rob Deer
  • Dan Gladden
  • Larry Herndon
  • Pete Incavigila
  • Tracy Jones
  • Chet Lemon
  • Scott Lusader
  • Fred Lynn
  • Lloyd Moseby
  • John Moses
  • Dwayne Murphy
  • Gary Pettis
  • Tony Phillips
  • Rob Richie
  • Larry Sheets
  • John Shelby
  • Pat Sheridan
  • Gary Ward
  • Ken Williams

For the most part, Joe McDonald felt his approach of building the team from the minors was working, but with injuries and the prospects not developing yet, Sparky Anderson could only do so much.  Detroit was 15 games back out of first heading into August of ’92 and was heading towards the bottom of the AL East and with that, changes were coming.

New owner arrives

Before Alan Trammel and Jack Morris were voted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, the last Tigers player to go in was Hal Newhouser and that happened on August 3rd, 1992. This would not be the only big event that would happen that month.

Mike Ilitch was named the new owner of the Detroit Tigers in a press conference at Tiger Stadium on August 26, 1992. The same day, Mcdonald, along with 21 others, would lose their job. Almost immediately, there were reports that Bill Lajoie would come back to run the Tigers.  For now, Jerry Walker would take over as the Tigers’ new GM to finish the 1992 season.

McDonald’s approach to building the Tigers was just doing what he could with what he had and pushing Detroit to update their farm system. He was successful in building up teams with stops in New York and St. Louis as I mentioned before but until 2019, he was still scouting for the Boston Red Sox, and in 2012, he received the Legends of Scouting Award from the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation.

The big “what if” to me is what if Joe McDonald was given enough time and resources? If you think about it, Tony Clark, Bobby Higginson, Travis Fryman, and Frank Catalanotto all came under his watch.  He had the pedigree, rings from the 1969 Mets, and the 1982 Cardinals.  In hindsight, I don’t think McDonald was given enough time to tear down the roster and start over. But his influence, like Lajoie, is still being felt today. In part 2, we look at Jerry Walker and Joe Klein.