The Tigers face a myriad questions regarding the future of the franchise, with calls for changes in ownership, upper management, and the roster creating a near-constant din as their on-field has product declined and bottomed out. That wish will partially come true in 2021 when Detroit’s roster will be helmed by a new manager after Ron Gardenhire’s sudden retirement due to health reasons.
The team is still in the initial stages of their search for a replacement and exactly who they’re looking at to fill the void is still somewhat unclear. Among the many who could hypothetically be in play, Hensley Meulens is one of the more qualified candidates. His name hasn’t been specifically mentioned in the list of those rumored to be considered yet, but that’s hardly an indictment this early in the process.
Meulens is far from a household name, even among dedicated fans of the sport, so let’s take a quick look at what he brings to the table as a potential manager.
A 53-year-old native of the island nation of Curaçao, Meulens entered the professional ranks as a Yankees signee and rose to the major leagues in 1989. He played sporadically in the bigs over the course of seven seasons, including 96 games in 1991. Meulens was never a key part of the teams on which he played, but he believes that his time with the Yankees helped him internalize the winning spirit. He also spent time playing professionally overseas in the NPB and KBO before transitioning to a coaching role.
Meulens spent most of his playing days with the Yankees, but he kick-started his coaching career with an old American League East foe. He was hired by the Orioles to join the coaching staff of their minor league affiliate in Bluefield in 2003. He subsequently spent time with the Pirates and Giants minor league coaching staffs and served some time in the Arizona Fall League and Hawaii Winter League as well. Finally, Muelens joined the San Francisco Giants and helped the team to three World Series wins in nine years on their staff before being hired to his current gig with the Mets.
Muelens has a number of traits that would make him a good fit for the Tigers’ managerial role. Being a primarily offensive-minded coach, he’d bring a much-needed breath of fresh air to a Tigers offense that looked better in 2020 but still needs improvement. Admittedly, Detroit’s hampered to no small degree by the talent level of the players they’re putting in the lineup. However, there’s no doubt that the team’s offensive performance under Gardenhire and McClendon leaves much to be desired.
Muelens also has a sheer passion for baseball that simply can’t be forged. Baseball has been absolutely integral to his life for decades, yet he keeps finding avenues to be even more involved in the sport. He could have retired from the sport to a private life in a new profession (remember when Twitter discovered Andy Dirks is a relator now?).
Instead, he’s taken every opportunity to stick around. His aforementioned coaching history is proof of that, as are his efforts to bring baseball to the Netherlands. He was even inducted as a member of the Order of Orange-Nassau by Queen Beatrix for his efforts leading the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, a similar honor to knighthood.
Catcher Buster Posey discussed Meulens’ demeanor with reporters upon his promotion to bench coach in 2017, and he’s apparently an unimpeachable steadying hand.
“I don’t think you’ll find anybody in this clubhouse who has something bad to say about Bam Bam,” remarked Posey. “I’ve been with him for a long time now and I always try to compliment him on how positive he is. ... I think he’s gained all of our respect because of that.”
He’s not just able to open lines of communication with his affable countenance. A discussion of Meulen’s skills would be incomplete without also mentioning his ability to speak to players in five languages — English, Spanish, Dutch, Papiamentu, and Japanese. Granted, his skills with Japanese don’t extend beyond a few phrases that have proved useful in the batting cages. Nonetheless, being able to converse in four languages is a unique and remarkable skill that could help bring cohesiveness to the dugout.
Of course, being a proficient coach and leader is more important as a manager than being well-liked by the players, but there is also a great deal of value in being well-liked by the clubhouse, as was Ron Gardehire. A popular manager can drive players to play their hardest or keep spirits high through a rough patch, which makes getting out of a long rebuild just that much easier.
Is it a match?
The Tigers aren’t likely to spring for a new-age analytics-friendly manager, no matter how much we may want them to do so. Detroit has often made progress toward modern baseball in baby steps. Instead, it seems likely their choice will be a cubhouse guy or a communicator in a similar mold to their last manager as they slowly improve the team.
If that’s the route they decide to take, Meulens might be their guy. He’s not overly driven by data, but he’s open to new technology, and he’s been groomed for this job for over a decade. He’s not likely to be the dynamic manager of the future, the range of outcomes if he’s handed the job aren’t too wide, which may appeal to the risk-averse Detroit brass.