Having lost confidence that former general manager Al Avila would build a winner way back in 2017, there was no pleasure in finally seeing Chris Ilitch fire him after a half decade that was largely wasted, only frustration that it took so long. From August 2015 when he took over, right up until AJ Hinch was hired as manager in November of 2020, the Tigers remained well behind the curve in attempting to stockpile young talent and build another winning team. The past two years finally saw some of the organizational flaws get addressed, but in the end it was all too little, too late to save Avila’s job.
Now, Ilitch faces the most crucial of decisions as he, Hinch, and Vice-President of Player Development, Ryan Garko, search for a general manager who can turn around a club that started to make progress in 2021 and then completely blew a tire trying to take the Tigers to the next level this season. Whether it is actually Ilitch leading the search is highly debated.
Reports have emerged since Avila’s ouster indicating that he was on thin ice this season all along, and fans are right to be somewhat horrified that Ilitch allowed a GM whose decision-making was so suspect that the team’s manager and Vice-President of Baseball Operations had to be involved in some kind of triumvirate to sign off on any major decisions, to stay in charge of the organization. A trade deadline with a lame duck GM went about as well as one would expect under those conditions, as the Tigers flipped a pair of players heading for free agency for very little in return and called it good.
These are pretty extraordinary circumstances under which to be hiring a new general manager. The team manager and player development chief are going nowhere, and in fact will be the two key advisors to Ilitch in interviewing and selecting a new GM. That is pretty unique for a GM search to begin with, let alone the knowledge that their positions in the organization appear secure regardless of what the next Tigers’ general manager would prefer. Apart from circumstances in which a team promotes a high-ranking front office department head to general manager, typically a new GM is not required to keep the team’s manager and player development staff intact. Hiring and evaluating those personnel is a big part of the general manager’s role.
Here, things are reversed. In general, most would have to agree that Hinch and Garko are probably better qualified than Ilitch to be making these decisions, so I won’t argue that they shouldn’t be involved. Still, Garko has done very little in his career to qualify him to select a GM, and Hinch had the benefit of one of the elite organizations in the game in Houston, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he knows how to build a great front office either. At very least it has to be emphasized how peculiar this arrangement is compared with most organizations in the league. Two of the top people in the organization choosing their own boss is a situation full of potential for failure.
We’ve argued since Hinch was hired that he would have a lot more influence throughout the organization than is typical for a manager, and that has certainly played out over the past year. The reshaping of the front office in September 2021 had Hinch’s hands all over it, and so far the returns from those decisions, particularly hiring Garko to replace Dave Littlefield as the VP of Player Development over the farm system, appear to be going well. Any lingering doubts from some about Hinch’s influence within the organization and with Chris Ilitch were finally swept aside when he and Chris Ilitch appeared together to speak on behalf of the organization when Avila was fired.
Whether any of that has a real impact on the interest level from top executives around the league remains to be seen. As had been said before, there are only 30 general manager positions in the game. Passing on the opportunity once may well be giving up on the possibility entirely, no matter a prospective candidate’s abilities and reputation.
However, it’s hard not to think that executives with ties to Hinch, or at least to the Los Angeles Dodgers coaching lineage, may be favored considering Hinch and Garko’s apparent role in making the decision. That may sound good on the surface, but Ilitch’s comments that the Tigers would “cast a wide net” may seem like a steaming load of malarkey if they hire Josh Byrnes to get the band back together, for example. It doesn’t mean that wouldn’t be a good idea. Just that it doesn’t fit the lofty promises Ilitch made about an exhaustive search for innovative leadership.
Identifying the optimum candidate as next Tigers’ GM is extremely difficult from outside the game. Easy enough to point to any Vice-President or department head with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays or a few other top organizations and figure, hey they can’t do any worse than the Tigers have over the past seven seasons, but it isn’t that simple.
Some executives who are great on the baseball side, may not have the personality to lead the whole organization, to make deals, to hire, delegate, and, when necessary, fire people who aren’t effective in their roles. The general manager’s role demands both all the baseball knowledge required, and hopefully a specialty in scouting or player development, along with all the executive, administrative, and public relations skills needed to run a modern baseball club, which is a far bigger, more complex job than it was even 10 years ago. There are a lot of resumes that scream future GM out there, but the interpersonal, leadership, and administrative skills required are impossible to infer in most baseball executives, as they’re rarely in the public eye.
The simplest solution is to try and poach someone who has already operated well in the role. Hence the popularity of ideas like trying to lure Theo Epstein back into the GM role, or to hire away Erik Neander from the Tampa Bay Rays, or Brandon Gomes from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Neither of those seem like particularly likely possibilities, but we certainly wouldn’t quibble with either.
All of which is another way of saying that it’s beyond us to know exactly who the Tigers should select. We’ll touch on a few of our wish list candidates, but also review some of the possibilities that seem to have the most traction.
The resume here is impeccable in terms of experience and innovation, but this one may be a little too radical for the Tigers. If you’re concern is with creating a cutting edge organization rather than always trying to play catch up, Fast is likely the the man for the job. He’s probably my personal favorite candidate, but perhaps doesn’t have as broad a range of experiences as some of the other names we’ll touch on.
He began his career in product engineering for top microchip makers NVIDIA and AMD before moving into baseball as an analyst for the Houston Astros from 2012-2015. Distinguishing himself as a strong baseball mind, Fast became the Astros’ Director of Research and Development in perhaps the most innovative organization in baseball. In that role he was responsible for the analytics group and in translating their work into actionable baseball knowledge. He was hired by the Atlanta Braves as a Special Assistant to GM Alex Anthropoulos after the 2018 season. He held that role he was named the Braves’ Vice-President of Player Development in March 2021
I don’t think there’s any question that Mike Fast would be a huge asset to the Detroit Tigers in any position. As GM, the ability to evaluate and improve players with all the analytic and tech tools available, while also working at the cutting edge to develop new ones and stay ahead of the curve, would be a huge asset in every part of the role, from drafting, development, free agent signings, and trades. After watching the Tigers fall further behind the elite organizations in several areas even as they seemed to be making improvements of their own, the idea of hiring Mike Fast seems like a great way to rapidly close the knowledge gap and potentially forge ahead of most teams.
Like all these candidates, there are elements of this that we can’t really evaluate at all from afar. Fast doesn’t have a lengthy background in scouting like some other potential candidates. Is that a weakness? Is he a good communicator? A good leader? A good deal-maker? There are just so many elements to running a modern team that have to be explored by Ilitch and his advisory committee with all potential candidates. That said, it would be very nice if the Tigers knew what Mike Fast knows.
At very least, Fast is someone who needs to be interviewed, and his ties to A.J. Hinch via the Houston Astros makes for a connection that could earn him the inside track here.
Another popular theory has been the idea that Hinch would go back to the well and re-ignite his original manager-GM partnership by advising the hire of Senior Vice-President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, Josh Byrnes. Byrnes was the GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2006-2010, hiring Hinch midway through the 2009 season as manager despite his player development and front office background. Of course, Hinch was also a former major league catcher, a pedigree that often leads to a manager’s seat, but even so, it was a bit controversial at the time.
Byrnes was replaced by a perhaps impatient ownership after the 2010 season, but the Diamondbacks did go on to win the NL West the next year with most of the same players. In his time there he drafted Max Scherzer, Paul Goldschmidt, and AJ Pollock, among others. He took over another low payroll club in the San Diego Padres in 2011 and again drafted some great players, including Trea Turner and Max Fried. His record as GM is of course tainted by the fact that he dealt both Scherzer and Turner before they became Scherzer and Turner, and his tenure with the Padres ended after the 2014 season. He was hired by Andrew Friedman as Friedman left Tampa to take over the Dodgers, and has been a fixture as one of his lieutenants ever since.
It would be difficult to argue against Byrnes’ resume, but it is a little concerning that he hasn’t been a GM for nearly a decade. Still, the ties to Hinch certainly argue in his favor as a likely candidate, and getting a top executive who has played a major role in the Dodgers drafting and player development over the last eight years sounds pretty good to us.
It would be best if they landed someone who can be completely objective about Hinch and Garko’s performance in the years to come. That may come less easily for Byrnes than for others on the list. He was among the first names we mentioned as a replacement in the days after Avila was fired, but the fact that he was an obvious fit doesn’t make him an ideal one. Still there’s no doubt he has the experience, and whatever his flaws as a GM previously, he’s spent eight seasons under Andrew Friedman as they built an absolute juggernaut of scouting and player development in Los Angeles.
Another very popular candidate here at BYB is the other Vice-President for the Atlanta Braves, Dana Brown. As you can see, Alex Anthropolous makes a point of hiring top people as his key lieutenants. Brown is currently the VP of Scouting, a position he has held since 2019, and his track record speaks for itself as the Braves have continued to stockpile talent despite picking way down in the draft for years, and have made quite a few well regarded trades in this timeframe as well.
Brown was drafted out of Seton Hall by the Philadelphia Phillies but during his minor league career was asked to switch from playing to coaching hitters at age 25, making him one of the youngest minor league coaches in the game. He moved into scouting with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1994, and made a big name for himself in the scouting world, eventually getting hired as Director of Scouting for the Montreal Expos through their transition to the Washington Nationals, during which time he was responsible for drafting players like Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmerman, among others.
In 2009, current Braves’ GM, Alex Anthropoulos, was hired as GM of the Toronto Blue Jays, and one of his first moves was to hire Brown away from Washington as his own scouting director. In that role, Brown rebuilt the Blue Jays scouting department during the years in which they drafted guys like Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. He then moved into a Special Assistant role Anthropolous created for him where he was involved in player evaluation at all levels, including advising the GM on trades.
That relationship has stayed a close one, and was rekindled in Atlanta when Anthopolous took over after former GM John Coppolella’s lifetime ban from the sport for systemic amateur signings rules violations. After sorting out the Braves scouting department in the wake of that mess, Anthopoulous hired Brown to be his VP of Scouting.
Quite obviously Brown is a keen judge of talent, and has a lot of experience in player evaluation and in deal-making as Anthopolous’ right-hand man over the years. How well versed he is in player development or in terms of innovating with data and technology is a lot harder to parse, as are his executive skills we’ve already touched on elsewhere in terms of running a decently sized organization in a high pressure industry.
Presumably Brown wouldn’t be where he is without knowledge and skills in all those fields, and he’s been regarded as a potential GM candidate for a few years now. The Tigers already have their VP of Player Development in place, and with a five-year deal and a seat at the table picking the new Tigers GM, Garko probably isn’t going anywhere. So perhaps some of those questions don’t matter so much in this case.
Hiring a general manager who is an excellent talent evaluator at both the amateur and pro levels, with now decades of experience working in the front office for several good organizations, seems like a pretty good idea to us. Drafting more effectively and doing a better job evaluating pro players to make good trades are the two ingredients sorely needed, assuming Hinch and Garko do their jobs well. From that perspective Dana Brown may fit the bill perfectly.
There doesn’t appear to be any Hinch or Garko connections here, but that hopefully doesn’t matter that much. They should be casting a wide net for the best possible candidate, and Brown is well known as a popular candidate for a future GM position for a while now.
The current St. Louis Cardinals Director of Scouting may fit the bill for the Tigers’ general manager opening. In that role he’s been adept at blending traditional scouting with data and video analysis to try and utilize the best of both worlds.
Flores, 45 years old, is a former reliever and part of the 2006 World Series champion Cardinals squad. When his eight-year playing career ended, he founded his own video scouting service, which developed a good reputation and helped lead him to the Cardinals front office. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak hired him into his current role back in 2015. In 2018, he was promoted to Assistant General Manager, continuing to oversee the pro and amateur scouting for the organization. Flores was apparently under serious consideration for GM of the New York Mets during their last hiring search, before former Angels GM, Billy Eppler, got the position.
The Tigers appear to have player development locked down under Garko. Finding a GM with the specific expertise to improve the scouting department would be a strong compliment. Indeed the Tigers have specifically cited improving their scouting, particularly in the international market, as a key skillset they’d like to add on top of all the general requirements of the general manager’s role. On top of his experience, Flores has a Masters degree in Postsecondary Administration from USC, making it likely he’s well prepared to handle running an organization of his own.
Slater was a good ways down my list, but as Lynn Henning mentioned him as a top possibility in his recent column, we’ll give him a mention along with Flores. His qualifications are strong as well, so perhaps if the Tigers go the Cardinals route, Slater is even more likely than Flores. Slater is currently Special Assistant to the GM, Player Procurement for the St. Louis Cardinals, and was previously Director of Player Personnel.
Slater started in the Brewers organization while still attending Marquette, and eventually moved to the Orioles, and then the Dodgers where he rose up the ranks to scouting director prior to joining the Cardinals way back in 2007.
Here’s a bit from his page on the Cardinals’ front office directory on their team page with MLB.com.
“In his current role as senior talent evaluator, Slater works hand in hand with the General Manager in all player acquisitions including Major League, minor league, amateur draft and international talent. Furthermore, he aids in contract negotiations and roster composition. For the past 10 years, Matt has served as a consultant to the Orix Buffaloes Baseball Club of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. In addition, Slater continues to push the Cardinal organization forward in the emerging player procurement markets of Asia and Cuba.”
It’s difficult to argue with Slater’s resume. It’s also not a secret that the Tigers have longed liked the idea of modelling themselves on the Cardinals as a consistently strong mid-market organization. Slater and Flores are key architects of their sustainable success over the past decade. Long-time Cardinals GM John Mozeliak hired Slater as soon as he was installed as general manager back in 2007 following the firing of Mozeliak’s mentor and previous long-time Cardinals GM, Walt Jocketty. He’s been at the center of everything for even longer than Flores, and advises Mozeliak directly on every sort of player acquisition.
The Cardinals consistently put solid teams on the field, though their recent work is more good than great. They’re still a very good organization, but perhaps not quite an elite one. Some might also question how long Slater has been at the top of the organization without getting hired into a general manager position somewhere. Those are just quibbles, and Slater does fit the bill as someone who would bring a strong outside perspective without being beholden to his manager and player development chief. He also has substantial experience in the international market, both in Latin America and in East Asia, something the Tigers appear to desire, and certainly need.
If you like that Houston Astros pedigree and want someone with fresh ideas, then Pete Putila may be your candidate. The West Virginia grad studied business administration and sports management in college. He landed a spot as a Baseball Operations intern with the Astros in 2011, and has advanced through baseball operations and multiple other roles until taking over the player development department, and ultimately being named Assistant General Manager. That rapid rise obviously coincides with the organization’s decade long run as one of the most advanced organizations in the game, so presumably he did a lot of things right along the way.
Despite his relative youth, Putila has a pretty diverse resume, working in scouting, baseball operations, and eventually player development. He’s certainly in the mode of a very talented young up-and-comer who presumably knows Hinch very well and might be the ideal person to slot into the GM’s chair between Hinch and Garko and get the Tigers back on track.
The Tigers current interim general manager, Menzin has taken a path similar to Putila to reach his position in the game. Menzin interned with the Tigers out of college, was hired on full-time, and has rapidly risen through the ranks. He was the Tigers’ Director of Baseball Operations before he and Jay Sartori were promoted to Vice-President and Assistant General Manager roles around this time last year.
By and large, Menzin appears to have a pretty good reputation despite the results the organization produced under Avila. Along with Sartori, Menzin gets credit for trying to push the Tigers to follow the paths laid by modern organizations, using data, video, and technology integrated into scouting and player development. It’s hard in one sense to evaluate how well they did, as we don’t know the amount of pushback from above. Still, the results haven’t been good on the field.
With no offense to Menzin or Sartori, the Tigers already know what they know, and it hasn’t been enough to get the organization turned around. They need to bring in someone from outside with the knowledge found in the top organizations they aspire to emulate. We said the same thing here when they decided to teardown in 2017, and they waited four long years to start bringing in that outside help in the player development department, to disastrous effect. Hiring internally right now just feels conservative and wrong-headed as we watch the ghastly product on the field at the major league level most nights.
Hinch and Garko are staying put, and so can Menzin if they believe he’s an asset to the Tigers in his current role, but the organization needs to step out of its comfort zone here and hire the best candidate possible. Pretty difficult to believe they already have said candidate in-house.