Detroit Tigers: AJ Hinch Hiring Puts Onus on Ilitch
By Jon Erkkila
You don’t hire Brad Pitt for a local used car commercial. Also, if you’re Detroit Tigers owner Chris Ilitch, you don’t hire AJ Hinch to come to Detroit to preside for very long over the Island of Misfit Toys roster.
“Nothing” is a bad word. The easiest thing in the world is often to do nothing. “Nothing” isn’t usually very scary. People are paralyzed into doing nothing by the fear of failure every day. The Detroit Tigers can’t afford a Nothing Burger of an off-season now when it comes to the hire of AJ Hinch. More on that later…
The Big News
Detroit made a move on Friday to bring in the embattled but successful Hinch to be its new manager. There is little doubt signals are being sent by the Tigers front office with this hire.
Expectations have to now be in place. Many may agree Ron Gardenhire was the curmudgeon with a heart of gold brought in to be a caretaker during the rebuilding phase. Gardenhire was there because he proved in Minnesota he could absorb a brutal amount of losing and not flip his lid while the paychecks rolled in. He did the same in Detroit rather admirably. AJ Hinch isn’t here for that.
Doubtful Hinch smokes, however…
AJ Hinch replacing Gardenhire is the new “Leyland replaces Trammell”. Hinch most likely won’t win a pennant in year one but winning must soon become part of the equation at Comerica Park. After Tigers legend Alan Trammell endured three years of losing while keeping a stiff upper lip. Then Leyland’s first club had rather modest expectations but rode an incredible 76-36 start out of nowhere to an AL Championship.
Hinch and Leyland both had a World Series ring to show off when they hit Detroit. Under much different circumstances, they also had rather abrupt and unfortunate endings to their prior gigs. Hinch had the scandal that enveloped the Houston Astros. Leyland walked out of a bad situation in Colorado claiming to be tired. Both showed up in Detroit with something to prove.
However, Hinch can’t find this white stallion to triumphantly ride into town on his own. Detroit will now need to put an upgraded roster on the field to join with the fruits of its now highly ranked minor league system of talent.
Hinch might be GM Al Avila’s perfect blend of analytics savvy and old school smarts but you can only do so much “savvying” when Victor Reyes is your best outfielder and Matthew Boyd still might be the Opening Day starter if no changes get made.
It has to start at the top…
In this space, we’ve made the case a few times lately the Tigers’ next step toward success is subject to the whims of Chris Ilitch. Is he prepared to start to invest in major talent and when will that begin if he is?
While it appears new Mets owner Steve Cohen is wealthy enough to regard Ilitch’s pile of money as “a nice start” there is still no reason Ilitch, as the 4th wealthiest owner in MLB, can’t look to seize the day and supply his splash hire in the dugout with a handful of similar moves to round out a competitive lineup.
Yes, COVID-19 is an insidious wildcard in all this. We don’t know how bad the disease will rifle through the populace this winter. We don’t know how the world economy will be hit. The Tigers don’t know if Spring Training and the subsequent season will start on time. No one knows how many fans can attend a game then. There is instability everywhere. Granted.
But it’s also looking like a chance for the Tigers to go against the grain. Spend on talent while the rest of baseball turtles up. This could be a way to close the talent gap quickly in the AL Central and give Hinch his best path to being the next Leyland in Detroit instead of the next Phil Garner.
Is that a pie in the sky?
Can $60M to $65M added to payroll get George Springer, JT Realmuto, and Jackie Bradley Jr. (or insert whichever names make you happiest) to multi-year deals plus adding two decent veteran pitchers looking for a home in a soft market on short deals? I don’t know. But the Tigers won’t know either unless they try.
Some are saying the Tigers should wait a year before joining the fray for premium free agents. But there are no guarantee things will look better than around the sport. There is also no guarantee by waiting they’ll be able to land one of the big time shortstops in next year’s class. Some of those guys will get re-upped. One might get hurt. Nobody knows.
Which is why the Tigers should not wait. Next year’s bonanza might never occur. But this year’s super-soft free agent market looks like it’s certainly going to happen. It’s not a year out. It’s in their grasp now. Ilitch has resources. It might not be perfectly sound business-wise to drop cash at this time but from a lineup, perspective to put this club in a position to do better things, it’s a move crying to be made.
The Tigers didn’t go out and aggressively sign AJ Hinch to languish in 5th place with a GIGO roster. They could have kept Legendary Lloyd around for that. Hinch is here to put the ship on course. The Tigers should take the next aggressive steps now adding legitimate veteran talent to meld in with its young farm system talent soon to be arriving.
Fortune favors the bold.