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Chris Ilitch stuck to his word by hiring Scott Harris

The new president of baseball operations breaks the mold of several decades of Tigers’ decision-making.

San Francisco Giants’ new general manager Scott Harris (l to r) speaks during a news conference with president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi in the Nick Peters Media Interview Room at Oracle Park on Monday, November 11, 2019 in San Francisco, Calif. Photo By Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Years will have to pass until we really know whether the Detroit Tigers got the right person to run the team. Yet in hiring San Francisco Giants GM Scott Harris, Tigers president Chris Ilitch continued the recent trend of breaking molds established over the last decade of decision making within the organization. While the fanbase and those who cover the team try to parse through the tea leaves to get a feel for what Harris will bring to the organization, it’s the things he is not that stand out first.

Certainly Harris appears very well qualified. He has the academic background and experience to run a modern major league baseball club. The lineage behind that experience is quite appealing as well. He’s a Theo Epstein protegé who was then hired to the general manager’s role by another highly respected president of baseball ops in Farhan Zaidi, who was Los Angeles Dodgers’ president Andrew Friedman’s right-hand man for years. Harris is still in his mid-30’s and younger than average for the role—though Theo Epstein and Dave Dombrowski, among other top general managers, started in their 30’s as well—but Harris has already spent a decade in top positions in good organizations.

That youth is perhaps one of those elements we would not have predicted in an Ilitch hire. The Tigers have been a fairly careful, traditional organization since Mike Ilitch bought the club in the early 90’s. Hiring a president of baseball operations so young and without prior experience running a team does not feel like, to cop a phrase, the same old Tigers. Certainly youth alone is no advantage, and there are plenty of innovative thinkers and leaders of all ages in baseball, but this still feels fairly out of the box for an Ilitch decision.

Another interesting element is the lack of close ties to AJ Hinch. Certainly there are connections. Farhan Zaidi and Giants manager Gabe Kapler both cut their teeth as innovators with the Los Angeles Dodgers. So there are ties to the same tree of coaching and front office lineage that produced Hinch, pitching coach Chris Fetter, bench coach George Lombard, and VP of Player Development Ryan Garko, but there are no direct connections apparent.

This is a positive in our book. Apart from the actual decisions on players Harris will be ultimately be responsible for, the biggest part of the job is attracting and evaluating talent throughout the organization’s leadership positions, from minor league team coaches all the way to the manager and the front office department heads. Having a fresh voice who can evaluate all these people objectively is a crucial part of the job. It’s not that Josh Byrnes, for example, would’ve been Hinch’s puppet. Hopefully that much is obvious. But he certainly would’ve been seen as owing his hiring to the Tigers’ manager through their close, long-standing connection. There wouldn’t be any real scrutiny of Hinch’s hold on the manager’s seat until a few more years had passed. More to the point, a tandem like Hinch and Byrnes may just see things too similarly while Harris will bring a whole different dimension to the organization.

That’s not to say they won’t be on the same page. Much to the contrary, Hinch was positively beaming once able to talk about Harris and what he’d bring to Detroit at the head of baseball operations. As key advisor to Ilitch in the hiring process, the Tigers’ skipper was deeply involved in the hire and clearly is a big fan of Harris and what he can add leading the club. And he was effusive in his praise.

“Chris (Ilitch) did a incredibly thorough search,” Hinch said. “He was tireless in trying to find our next leader and he landed an exceptional person, a deep thinker and an accomplished guy.

“Man, it’s inspirational to see the direction of the franchise and what Scott can bring to the organization,” Hinch said. “The way his mind thinks. The vision he has for this organization. He’s been around so many successful teams and successful people. I think he’s going to do it his way and he’s going to have a lot of information for us moving forward on what we need to do to get this back to being a winning organization.

Finally, Harris wasn’t really on any notable national writers’ lists for candidates to take over from Avila. Those are the journalists most in touch with a wide range of front offices, with a better sense of who the up and coming talents are than local media could muster. The fact that Harris reportedly declined the New York Mets’ pursuit for their top job last year says that he was on the leaguewide radar as a top future candidate to lead a team. And yet there was no obvious fit with the Tigers, and many were very surprised that he accepted the position when the hiring was announced on Monday afternoon. This suggests that Ilitch was ultimately true to his word, that he would cast a wide net and lean on he and his advisors’ contacts around the game to identify the best possible range of candidates to interview, rather than picking someone comfortable and familiar.

Was Scott Harris the best possible hire for the position? It will take years to really be able to answer that question effectively. But Ilitch and his advisory group appear to have done their due diligence and landed a top candidate who can bring a completely fresh perspective to his assessment of the Detroit Tigers as an organization from top to bottom. They didn’t push the easy button. They didn’t lean on the old boys network. They didn’t just promote internally, which was the prediction of several writers I spoke with during the search, but wouldn’t have brought much new to the table. They searched out a good candidate with excellent credentials and experience with a vision for building a better organization at all levels and aspects of the game; getting out of the familiar comfort zone they too often refused to work beyond during Avila’s tenure.

Overall, it’s hard to evaluate anything more right now than the process behind the hire, and the basics of Harris’ resume. Everything seems quite positive on those fronts. Now, we’ll have give it time to see the results.