DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have hired former Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch to replace Ron Gardenhire, who retired near the end of last season.
The two sides agreed to terms on a multi-year contract, the Tigers announced.
The Detroit Tigers today named A.J. Hinch as the 39th manager in franchise history, agreeing to terms on a multi-year contract. pic.twitter.com/AHALJU1wGw— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) October 30, 2020
“I’d like to thank Chris Ilitch and Al Avila for giving me a chance and the opportunity to get back in the dugout to lead this historic ball club,” Hinch said. “The last year was the most difficult of my life. It gave me time to reflect, which was such a big part of this process. Everything that has transpired over the past year, personally and professionally, has put so much in perspective for me, and re-enforced how important it is to do things with integrity and honesty.
“My feelings towards baseball are the same that so many Detroiters have for this team. Through thick and thin, you always care about it and rely on it to be there as a part of your life, and I’m so proud to play a role in growing that tradition here with the Tigers. Having a talented young core of players, dedicated leadership group and passionate fan base was exactly what I was looking for in a team, and it’s clear we have that here in Detroit. It’s time to start playing winning baseball, and I am confident this organization is positioned to make that happen.”
Hinch, 46, of Midwest City, Oklahoma, played 27 games as a catcher for the Tigers in 2003, the worst season in team history. His MLB playing career lasted just 350 games with the Tigers, Oakland A’s, Kansas City Royals and Philadelphia Phillies from 1998-2004.
Hinch was a three-time All-American at Stanford University and lives in The Woodlands, Texas, with his wife, Erin, and their daughters, Haley and Kaitlin.
Hinch is sure to be a controversial choice, as he comes off a one-year suspension for his role in the Astros' sign-stealing scandal. MLB’s investigation revealed Hinch didn’t approve of what his players were doing, but he didn’t stop them, either.
As a result, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Hinch for the 2020 season, and he was fired by the Astros.
Here’s an excerpt about Hinch from ClickOnDetroit’s coverage of the sign-stealing scandal in January:
"Investigators said Hinch wasn’t involved in starting or operating the banging scheme. He told investigators he didn’t support the scheme, calling it ‘wrong and distracting.’
"Hinch said he tried to show his disapproval by physically damaging the (sign-stealing) monitor on two occasions, requiring it to be replaced. He didn’t specifically stop the scheme or tell players that he disapproved of it, however, according to the findings.
“‘As the person with the responsibility for managing his players and coaches, there simply is no justification for Hinch’s failure to act,’ Manfred said in the findings.”
Similar managerial situation
Over five seasons in Houston, Hinch went 481-329 with three AL West Division titles, four playoff appearances and a World Series title in 2017.
When Hinch took over in Houston, the Astros were in a very similar situation to the current Tigers.
Houston was on a streak of six straight losing seasons, including three straight years of at least 106 losses from 2011 to 2013. The year before Hinch arrived, the Astros showed their first signs of life, winning 70 games in 2014.
The Tigers have missed the playoffs for six straight years and finished with five losing records in that span. They lost 98, 98 and 114 games from 2017-2019 and finished the 2020 season on a similar path -- a .397 winning percentage would translate roughly to 64-98 in a full 162-game season.
But even though the Tigers limped to the finish line in 2020, they, like the 2014 Astros, played their first semi-competitive baseball in four years. The team was in the playoff hunt for long enough that top prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Isaac Paredes were called up. Even Daz Cameron made his debut.
Hinch’s only managerial experience outside Houston came as an interim manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009. He was fired in 2010 after going 89-123 across two partial seasons.
“Coming into this managerial search we already knew that A.J.'s diverse baseball acumen, knowledge of analytics and passion for the game were second to none,” general manager Al Avila said. “However, we also knew there were some important conversations to have about A.J.'s time in Houston. Throughout that dialogue he was clearly remorseful and used that time to reflect on the situation, and we believe he will emerge as a better leader because of it. This ball club is entering an extremely exciting period, with young players primed and ready to make an impact at the Major League level. I’m confident A.J. is the best man for this job as we strive to bring a World Series Championship back to the city of Detroit.”
Rebuild nearing end?
With Jordan Zimmermann’s contract off the books, plenty of young pitchers ready to contribute and some exciting offensive prospects, the Tigers are in position to get back to the postseason soon, especially if eight American League teams qualify.
Avila was likely drawn to Hinch because of his familiarity with taking a team from the latter stages of a rebuild into contention. The Astros had several former top five draft picks star on their World Series team, and added some critical free agents, such as Justin Verlander, to tie it all together.
It’s unclear whether Chris Ilitch is willing to open up the pocket book as the team’s owner, especially after a COVID-19 ravaged season. But if he is, there are plenty of appealing targets in the next two free agent classes, and the Tigers have financial flexibility beyond Miguel Cabrera’s $30-$32 million per year deal.
“On behalf of all of us with the Tigers, I’d like to welcome A.J. and his family back to the Detroit community,” Ilitch said. “Throughout the interview process it was clear that A.J. had learned from his situation in recent months, and it has changed him in profound ways. Quite frankly, it’s exactly what we wanted and needed to hear. A.J. provides a wealth of knowledge and experience, and we’re proud to have him lead our team. Additionally, I’d like to commend Al Avila and his staff on conducting a thorough and professional search process and know that they landed on the right person to be our manager. Tigers fans have high expectations for their baseball team, and all of us in the organization are confident that today’s announcement is a big step towards returning to the on-field success they deserve.”
Some might take this hire as a sign that the Tigers are planning to push more aggressively toward winning soon. If they weren’t willing to do what it takes to compete for a World Series, there would be no reason to take on the risk of hiring a manager who’s sure to spark some outcry from the fan base and league as a whole.
Hinch was the hottest name on the managerial market this offseason, so the Tigers likely had to fight to land him. That should be taken as an encouraging sign for fans who want to see playoff baseball return to Detroit in the next couple of years.
Baseball is in a bit of a strange spot as 2020 winds down. The league managed to complete its shortened season against all odds, crowning a World Series champion earlier this week.
But what’s next? A bitter feud between players and owners led to the 60-game regular season, and now, with CBA negotiations looming after 2021, the future of the league is shrouded in uncertainty.
Will the COVID-19 pandemic affect next season, too? Some players will report to spring training in about four months, and the virus is spreading rapidly in many corners of the country, including Michigan.
On top of the more pressing COVID-19 health concerns, these interruptions couldn’t come at a worse time for the Tigers. More than anything, the organization needs its young players to get back on the field and develop, especially now that the clock has started on Mize, Skubal and others.
There’s no way to know what’s next for MLB. Either way, Hinch will be expected to lead the Tigers back to the postseason in the coming years. Until then, Avila will have to cross his fingers and hope fans get over this new link between the Tigers and the cheating scandal.