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A.J. Hinch is raising the bar for the Detroit Tigers

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The Tigers skipper has managed a remarkable turnaround for the franchise in 2021, and he wants you to know this is just a beginning.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Detroit Tigers fans, heck, Detroit sports fans in general, have heard a lot of bold statements from coaches and managers over the years. Most of them, particularly coming from the unending parade of failed Lions’ coaches, have proved painful in retrospect, if not outright deranged. But we’re unused to hearing a lot of bold talk on the baseball front. So when A.J. Hinch makes a statement like the one he dropped on Saturday, it demands attention.

Prior to Saturday’s contest with the Toronto Blue Jays, Hinch was discussing the future, and the possibility of adding free agent talent to the Tigers. He didn’t mince words.

“If the Tigers organization does a really good job, we’re going to re-establish ourselves as a winning franchise, and develop a winning culture. And if you want to be a part of it you’ll come, and if you don’t? We’ll beat you.”

Bally Sports Detroit revisited those comments in the post-game, and you can see them in the clip below. As noted by The Athletic Detroit’s Cody Stavenhagen, the absolute nonchalance in tone accompanying this statement made it even a bit more cheeky.

Now, obviously Hinch led with a key qualifier there. “If the Tigers organization does a good job,” is carrying a fair amount of weight. People can read too much into that, as though Hinch is holding it over general manager Al Avila, ownership, and the front office to get their act together. But I don’t think that would be accurate, simply because it’s too obvious. If you don’t do a good job adding talent, attitude isn’t going to get it done. The Tigers need another influx of talent at a few crucial positions and without that, the rest of the quote won’t hold up real well.

No, his words fascinate because Hinch doesn’t say things idly. He generally keeps very strict rein on the messaging that comes from the clubhouse and can be pretty terse in the daily media scrums. This wasn’t just cockiness coming through. The first part of the quote is academic, if forcefully stated, but it’s the join us or get beat attitude at the end that really pops. He meant that for the fans and he meant it for the league at large.

Hinch has already shown himself to be a shrewd and persuasive recruiter. Within weeks of his hire, he’d already convinced Chris Fetter to sign on, after Fetter had reportedly passed on other major league interest. He landed a talented coach who actually interviewed with the Tigers for the manager’s spot in George Lombard. Two of his hires, hitting coach Jose Cruz Jr. and third base coach Chip Hale were plucked to take over Rice University and the University of Arizona’s baseball programs before the season was a quarter of the way through. Hinch also pushed for the signing of Robbie Grossman this offseason, a move that is working out extremely well.

A.J. Hinch knows that the Detroit Tigers aren’t a marquee destination for free agents. But the club has made some noise with a mix of young talent and some key veterans this season. They have two of the best position player prospects in baseball on 2022 timelines. The Tigers young trio of starting pitchers are developing nicely under the tutelage of Fetter and Juan Nieves. They have at least half of a good bullpen. There are very good reasons for the Tigers to give themselves a chance at a postseason appearance in 2022, but it’s going to take some serious additions. The question is who Hinch is trying to convince?

One reading is that Hinch is ramping up expectations to force Chris Ilitch’s hand this offseason. He certainly could have painted the situation in much milder terms, but chose not to. The Tigers’ manager has some leverage here after turning the club’s direction around so decisively this season. He didn’t come here to work with a small market payroll while waiting for ownership to get serious. On the other hand, ramping up expectations has been Hinch’s mantra since he arrived in Detroit anyway. He doesn’t shy away from that. A manager who is used to seeing World Series caliber baseball played from his dugout, Hinch has brought those expectations to his winnowing and tuning of the Tigers’ roster.

It’s been quite fascinating getting to know Hinch as more than a talented opposing manager this season. Many understandably had reservations about turning over the keys to him after the Houston Astros’ video sign-stealing offenses. Obviously, Tigers fans do not want to endure the highs and lows Astros fans have dealt with watching their World Series title get moved to the asterisk column. But the concern expressed toward Hinch specifically, was whether he would be able to win and maintain the respect of the clubhouse.

Considering the level of coaching talent that swarmed to him, the universal raves from his players, and the Tigers stunning reversal of fortune since early May, those concerns are all long by the wayside. Instead, Hinch and his staff have improved their players substantially, made a lot of smart tactical decisions, and brought a really exciting mix of calculation and aggressive improvisation to Comerica Park. Seemingly he’s pulling all the right levers, and a quote like this certainly has the fanbase fired up as intended.

One way or the other, the Tigers success this season is going to put pressure on the organization. What form that takes in terms of acquisitions is unknown, but it would be a real dash of cold water to the fans were the Tigers to do the bare minimum this offseason. Perhaps fans can have a little more confidence as a result of Hinch’s words that manager, ownership, and front office are aligned, and will make a serious effort to improve at key positions, either via trade or, more likely, free agency. Expectations have been raised all around, and A.J. Hinch and his players are leaning into them. The fans therefore, should feel just fine about raising their expectations in kind.