With the 2020 season now in the books, two new managerial candidates are now available for team interviews. With their suspensions served, former Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch, and former Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora are free to return to the dugout, and there are several teams who will be interested.
We’ll leave Cora aside for the moment, because it’s been pretty clear all along that, with his Detroit Tigers ties and experience both in player development and a manager, Hinch is the one the club is most interested in. The real question is whether Hinch would be interested in coming to Detroit. Initially, there seemed to be a pretty good chance, until those pesky Chicago White Sox entered the fray by firing Rick Renteria at season’s end.
Obviously the White Sox rebuild is years ahead of our hopes for the Tigers. The job is much more attractive on the south side with a team that is already primed to compete for a World Series in the coming years. If they want Hinch, they seem likely to land him, and they are expected to interview him. However, the White Sox also asked permission from the Los Angeles Angels to interview Tony La Russa recently, and that changed the equation.
La Russa doesn’t need much of an introduction. There are few more known quantities in the game than the third winningest manager in major league history. Even to ask permission and make that interest public seems to speak to serious interest. This wouldn’t be the first time that the Sox’s owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, has intervened to promote one of his favorites, and their relationship goes back to La Russa’s original 1979-1986 tenure as the White Sox manager. Of course, it was also Reinsdorf himself who fired him, setting the stage for his storied years managing the Oakland A’s.
Now 76 years of age and out of the manager’s seat since 2011, La Russa is frankly a baffling choice despite his highly decorated resumé. The game has changed enormously since his last run as a major league manager ended with his retirement following his St. Louis Cardinals second World Series title in 2011. No doubt his work in front offices over the past decade has kept him well up to speed, but the manager’s role has also changed with the game. Somehow, the surprise factor here only lends veracity to the growing rumors that he will shortly be hired by the White Sox.
Works for us, but we wouldn’t count on it just yet either.
Still, the result of such a move would be a clear path to Detroit for Hinch. There may well be other suitors, but there are some good reasons why the deposed Astros manager may actually prefer the Detroit Tigers as the place to try and rebuild a seriously damaged legacy at the head of a once proud franchise.
Much has been written about the Astros cheating scandal in the year since MLB’s investigation concluded and punishments were handed down. But if there’s one detail that I cannot get over, it’s the image of Hinch twice taking a baseball bat to the sign-signaling monitor. The fact that such drastic actions weren’t enough to stop the team from cheating, really makes you question his ability to monitor and control his team.
Imagine a scenario in which Jim Leyland or Ron Gardenhire couldn’t stop their bench coaches, veteran players, and front office staff from creating a scheme to use video to steal and signs and signal pitches. It speaks poorly of Hinch’s leadership and respect within the clubhouse that he didn’t have the clout to stop it after making his feelings known. Add to that his smug dismissal of the New York Yankees’ concerns about potential sign-stealing in the 2019 ALCS, before the league’s investigations commenced, and it’s a bad look for Hinch overall.
He’s addressed the incidents more directly than most team employees and taken responsibility for his failure to shut the scheme down, but there are still hard questions that must be answered with candor and depth in the interview process. He’d best have some well considered thoughts as to how he intends to win his next team’s respect and trust, and how he’ll handle the ongoing boos and disdain from fanbases and players affected by the sign stealing.
On the other hand, the episode made perfectly clear that the entire organization was drunk on its own hubris and spiralling out of control. From the Brandon Taubman incident, to barring Anthony Fenech of The Detroit Free Press at the behest of Justin Verlander, in violation of the CBA, to the sign stealing scandal, this was clearly an organization that felt itself above the law, filled with talented, arrogant people who felt no need to respect the decision making hierarchy.
To hear former GM Jeff Luhnow tell it, he had no control or knowledge of the shenanigans going on at various levels of the organization. While you digest that possibility, allow me to interest you in some oceanfront property in Duluth, Minnesota. Still, it’s clear that in the modern, corporate-style structure the Astros helped pioneer, the manager’s role and control over the team was substantially diminished. While that trend is spreading rapidly throughout the game, it would certainly be less a factor with the traditionalists in Detroit.
For Hinch, who played his major league ball in the first decade of the century, a return to Detroit would be a return to a level of authority and decision-making influence more like that he was familiar with during his playing days. That alone has to be somewhat attractive after watching his charges run roughshod over him with the help of the Astros front office. Whatever the outcome, his fingerprints would be all over the Tigers as they attempt to dig their way out of bottom dweller status. He’s also familiar with the city and the front office leadership, having played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Tigers both under Dave Dombrowski front offices in which Al Avila was a key executive.
The other reason the fit may be attractive, is that signing on with the Tigers allows him to return to the dugout with less pressure and scrutiny than he’d face in taking over a high-powered team in a major media market like Chicago. Hinch is still only 46 years old. He’s not exactly running out of time to try and win a second World Series title. A comfortable media market, low expectations for 2021, and a farm system rapidly filling with talent, all make this an attractive landing spot. He’d be an integral part of the puzzle in Detroit, as opposed to sliding into a prime spot and postseason expectations in Chicago, as though his year-long exile from the game never occurred.
That opportunity for influence, after being a small cog in the rapacious Astros machine, is likely another attractive feature of the Tigers job. He’d have time to mold the team in his image, with only modest improvement expected this year as the team graduates its current top prospects and hopefully begins spending in earnest to make up for the rebuild’s general weakness. Assurances that such spending is forthcoming would be required to convince Hinch to choose Detroit in the first place. If he believes the Tigers are on the right track, this is the place to really rebuild his legacy, both as a successful manager, but also as a leader with integrity.
The truth is that Al Avila needs A.J. Hinch a lot more than Hinch needs the Tigers. Patience runs thin with the front office among the fanbase, and this is the last chance Avila will have to hire a manager if things don’t work out.
On the contrary, Hinch has plenty of options, and plenty of time. With his punishment served, there will be opportunities in the future should he decide to pass on the White Sox job. He could wait out the storm for another year or two, possibly in a special assistant’s role somewhere, until he found a perfect fit with which to re-enter the managerial ranks. But taking over the manager’s spot with the Tigers fits a lot of his likely criteria, in a city he knows well, working for a front office with whom he seems to have ties and long-standing good relationships with.
Lynn Henning made a similar case in The Detroit News on Tuesday. According to his sources, “those in position to know understand Hinch is deeply intrigued by the Tigers.” Intrigued is not a signature on a contract, but it does indicate Hinch isn’t as dismissive of such a project as one might assume.
One can certainly argue, as our friend Chris Brown over at Motor City Bengals considered yesterday, that who you hire as manager is generally an overrated part of team building. Talent on the field is everything, and front office directives nowadays take some of the decision-making clout out of the manager’s hands. Even with a more traditional organization like the Tigers that remains the case.
However, since Avila took over more than five years ago, we’ve begged the Tigers to poach top talent in terms of coaches and other player development personnel from teams far ahead of them in the big data era of the game. Not only would Hinch bring a lot of experience at the frontlines of the data and player development revolutions, he’s also very well positioned to put together an excellent coaching staff.
After four years of stagnant development and multiple failures at both the major league and minor league level, the club finally broke out of its comfort zone to bring in outsiders like new Director of Player Development, Kenny Graham, and Director of Pitching Development, Dan Hubbs. Adding Hinch to the mix could only help improve the Tigers’ processes, whether his in-game decision making proves a difference maker or not.
Perhaps the lure of the Chicago White Sox talent pool will be too much to overcome. But if they don’t hire Hinch, the Tigers will be handed an unearned opportunity and they would be wise to take advantage.