The Detroit Tigers needed a bang.
Owner Christopher Ilitch knew it. General manager Al Avila knew it. The fans knew it, begging for a sign that the rebuild was speeding up, or at least getting an outside stimulus.
That’s where AJ Hinch, hired by the Tigers as manager on Friday, comes into play. He is the bang — a direct sign that Ilitch is going to spend (either this offseason or next) to build a postseason-caliber roster by 2022, and that Avila won’t hold prospects back because of service time.
He doesn’t come without baggage — his involvement with the 2017 Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal is bound to upset many Tigers fans before he even takes the field. But if the hire results in a return to the playoffs, that disgrace will fade away and fans will embrace the success.
“The Tigers matter to this fanbase, and it’s our job to deliver for them the quality of baseball that they’ve been known for generation after generation,” Hinch said Friday. “Puts a lot of pressure on him (Avila), puts a lot of pressure on me.
“It’s a pressure that we welcome. The celebration when you win is unlike anything a city has ever seen before if you haven’t done it in a while. I look forward to delivering that to the fanbase as soon as we can.”
When Ilitch was asked if Hinch’s hiring signifies a push toward contending for the playoffs, he made sure his voice was heard: “Yes, for sure.”
The Tigers went to the World Series in 2006 and 2012 but lost in both appearances. Five years after Detroit was swept in ’12 by the Giants, Ilitch’s father, Mike, died in February 2017. Known as “Mr. I” by many, Mike loved baseball. He was a shortstop for Detroit’s Cooley High School in the mid-1940s and even signed a minor-league contract with the Tigers in 1951.
And then, in 1992, Mike bought the Tigers. He spent millions — and not always wisely — to win a World Series, not only for himself but for the city he grew up in. Now, it’s his son’s turn to slam his foot on the gas pedal and make the Tigers a competitor.
Hinch is a part of the formula.
“Talent wins,” Chris Ilitch said, flashing back to his father’s hire of Scotty Bowman to coach the Detroit Red Wings in 1993. Bowman, who came to Detroit with six prior Stanley Cups as a coach, won three more Cups soon after. “This team is similar. We’re still developing. There is work to be done. But I do feel we’re starting to see a lot of positive signs for this organization. There is a lot of talent coming up through the system. I think AJ is exceptionally well-positioned … to help us grow and become highly competitive.”
Imagine a 46-year-old man, unaffiliated with an MLB team and not rooting for the Los Angeles Dodgers, , counting down the outs to the end of Game 6 of the 2020 World Series from his own home. Most non-Dodgers fans watching Tuesday’s game were rooting for a Game 7.
“I was ready for the World Series to be over as soon as possible,” said Hinch, who was suspended from MLB until the World Series concluded. “I wasn’t allowed to have an interview process or anything, other than people could express interest that they wanted to talk to me. When Gardy (Ron Gardenhire) retired, there was an indication they had an interest.”
Thirty minutes after the final pitch, his phone rang.
It was Avila.
Avila:“AJ, this is Al. I’d like you to get on a plane tomorrow.”
Hinch: “Absolutely, book it.”
On Wednesday morning, Hinch was on a plane to Detroit. By the early afternoon, he arrived for his meeting and interview with Avila. They had a late dinner and reconvened Thursday morning for another round of interviews.
“I had a flight to return home, like you normally would, and at the end of the interview, Al and I walked into the office,” Hinch said. “Al said, ‘I canceled your flight, and we’re going to talk a little bit more.’ That evening resulted in an incredible partnership.”
His wife, Erin, took a plane to Detroit on Friday morning to meet him. He signed his multi-year contract shortly after 1 p.m. and fielded questions at his introductory news conference at 2 p.m.
In less than three days, Hinch had gone from baseball outcast to Tigers manager.
‘We’re in the building stage’
Hinch made it to the postseason four times in his five years with the Astros, including five winning seasons. But he was given plenty to work from the start in 2015, namely second baseman Jose Altuve, outfielder George Springer and left-handed ace Dallas Keuchel. With those building blocks in place, Hinch immediately made the postseason despite inheriting a team that had lost 92 games in 2014.
It’s unlikely the Tigers — who haven’t made the playoffs since 2014 and haven’t won the World Series since 1984 — will make a similarly instant leap.
Yet Hinch is energized by the future of the organization with cornerstone prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene on the rise. If all goes as planned, they’ll be in the majors together by 2022.
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“One of the things that stood out for me in the interview process is how Al continued to talk about how we’re past the rebuild stage, we’re getting into the building stage, and we’re going to get into the fun pretty soon,” Hinch said. “I’m aware of where the farm system is. I’m aware of recent drafts. I’m aware of some of the development of the young pitching. You look at some of the development that’s already happened and some of the development that I think I can fast forward with the help of the coaching staff, it’s an exciting opportunity of where this place is going.”
Hinch isn’t wrong. The prospect potential is there. The financial situation, with only designated hitter Miguel Cabrera’s $30 million locked in for 2021, suggests the Tigers will be ready to attack when they want to carve up the free-agent market.
But Hinch is only one piece to building the Tigers.
Ilitch needs to spend.
Likewise, Avila must make smart decisions with how that money is used, either on the market or by manufacturing trades to bring in some offensive talent.
And then, possessing a strengthened roster mixed with veterans and prospects, the Tigers will have a chance to revive themselves with Hinch as the face of the on-field product.
“I was looking for a difference-maker,” Avila said. “I was looking for a guy that I could partner with in leading this organization to a world championship.”