DETROIT – When A.J. Hinch took over the Houston Astros, they were one year removed from three straight 100-loss seasons and hadn’t been to the playoffs in a long, long time.
The Detroit Tigers officially hired Hinch as their new manager Friday, and while they’re sure to take some criticism for hiring a member of the cheating-era Houston Astros organization, the move makes perfect sense from a baseball standpoint.
Hinch started managing the Astros in 2015, but to tell the full story, we have to rewind a half-decade.
From 2009-2014, the Astros were one of the worst franchises in baseball. Here’s a look at their records during that timeframe:
- 2009: 74-88
- 2010: 76-86
- 2011: 56-106
- 2012: 55-107
- 2013: 51-111
- 2014: 70-92
Each season from 2011 to 2013, the Astros finished with the worst record in baseball. Only two starters on the 2013 team had OPSs above .708 -- Jason Castro (.835) and Chris Carter (.770). That year, the starting rotation featured Dallas Keuchel (5.15 ERA), Lucas Harrell (5.86 ERA), Erik Bedard (4.59 ERA), Jordan Lyles (5.59 ERA) and Bud Norris (3.93 ERA).
In short, there was almost zero talent on the MLB roster.
But between 2011 and 2015, the Astros turned those putrid records into the following draft picks:
- 2011: George Springer No. 11 overall
- 2012: Carlos Correa No. 1 overall
- 2015: Alex Bregman No. 2 overall
- 2015: Kyle Tucker No. 5 overall
In 2013, a guy named Jose Altuve came up to the MLB level and posted a .678 OPS in 152 games. The following year, he and Springer were the best two hitters in the lineup. By 2015, Correa was mashing as a 20-year-old. Bregman debuted in 2016 and put on a show.
When Hinch took over before the 2015 season, the Astros had missed he postseason for nine straight years. The 2014 team was still dreadful, but it showed marked improvement from the three straight 100-loss seasons.
Hinch led the Astros to an 86-76 record and a playoff appearance in Year 1. After a winning 2016 season that didn’t result in a postseason berth, the Astros went 101-61, 103-59 and 107-55 over the following three seasons.
Hinch won a World Series in 2017, went to the ALCS in 2018 and then returned to the World Series but fell one game short of a title in 2019.
Houston made two World Series appearances and played in the postseason four times within six years of losing 111 games.
It’s almost stunning how much the current Tigers mirror the situation Hinch inherited in Houston.
From 2017 to 2019, the Tigers went 64-98, 64-98 and 47-114. That’s not quite as terrible as the Astros from 2011-2013, but it was bad enough for the Tigers to finish with the worst record in baseball twice and the fifth-worst once.
So the Astros had two No. 1 overall picks and four top-five picks -- not counting Brady Aiken, who didn’t sign and was the reason the Astros got an additional top-five pick in 2015 -- in the four years leading up to Hinch’s hiring (2012-2015).
By comparison, the Tigers have had two No. 1 overall picks and four top-five picks in the four years leading up to Hinch’s hiring -- counting the upcoming draft (2018-2021). That’s right: Exactly the same.
- 2018: Casey Mize No. 1 overall
- 2019: Riley Greene No. 5 overall
- 2020: Spencer Torkelson No. 1 overall
- 2021: No. 3 overall pick
The only recent top draft pick for the Astros who debuted before Hinch arrived was Springer in 2014. The only one who has debuted for the Tigers is Mize.
Houston also had some budding stars in Altuve and Keuchel. Who’s to say the Tigers couldn’t find something similar in Tarik Skubal, Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron, Spencer Turnbull or even Jeimer Candelario?
Right before Hinch got to Houston, the team took a noticeable step forward by going 70-92 in 2014. The Tigers' record didn’t end up reflecting their improvement in 2020, but anyone who has watched over the last four seasons could tell the difference: The team was much more competitive.
In 2014, the Astros had the lowest payroll in baseball at $45 million. Right now, the Tigers have just Miguel Cabrera’s $30 million guaranteed for 2021, which should put them among the lowest payrolls in the league.
What this means
In a nutshell, when Hinch took over the Astros, they were longtime losers who had recently hit rock bottom but turned that into high draft picks and a ton of cap space.
The Tigers are coming off four straight losing seasons and hit rock bottom in 2018 with a 47-111 record. They’ve also turned those struggles into high draft picks and now have money to spend.
Hinch was more successful in this situation than the Astros could have ever dreamed. They called up Springer, Correa and Bregman early in Hinch’s tenure and added free agents and trade pieces such as Yuli Gurriel, Justin Verlander, Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Charlie Morton.
That nucleus brought them a World Series title and an extended stretch of dominance. Houston cashed in on early draft picks and, while those players were starring on cheap pre-free agency deals, the team went out and completed the roster with more expensive pieces it could afford thanks to the cap space.
That is exactly, to a T, the formula the Tigers are looking to follow in the coming years. Whether or not you trust Al Avila and Chris Ilitch to get the job done, the Tigers at least have a manager who has seen this plan executed and helped translate that into a championship.