October 26th, 2017
Gardenhire is the right Tigers manager, but
only if Avila can deliver the right players
By KEITH GAVE
Two years too late, the Detroit Tigers finally got their man. Finally hired the manager Mike Ilitch wanted in 2015 when he refused to cave into the realities Dave Dombroski foresaw when he had the big fire sale at the trade deadline.
Dombrowski traded away soon-to-be free agents like pitcher David Price, outfielder Yeonis Cespedes, and reliever Joakim Soria, in return getting prospects like pitchers Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris, and centerfielder Jacoby Jones. Ilitch didn’t like any of it. He refused to throw in the towel, fully prepared instead to throw good money after bad and restock his team with pricey free agents like left fielder Justin Upton, starting pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey and reliever Mark Lowe. All but Upton colossal busts.
Ilitch also determined, rightly so, that his team needed a new manager – and Ilitch knew just the guy. Brad Ausmus had his chance with a team that commanded one of the highest payrolls in baseball. But when his team went from first to worst in two seasons under Ausmus, Ilitch decided it was time to make the change back to an old-school guy who could reach the high-paid veterans and hold them accountable, rather than letting the inmates run the asylum as they’d done in Ausmus’ second year.
The Tigers needed an old-school guy like Ron Gardenhire, Ilitch figured. And boy, was he right.
So what happened? Al Avila, the man Ilitch promoted after angrily firing Dombrowski, lobbied hard against firing Ausmus. He’s still learning the job. His upside is enormous. He just needs time to become one of the game’s really fine managers, Avila told his boss. And Ilitch had just given Avila a new five-year contract. The ink on it was barely dry.
Ilitch acquiesced, no doubt in an effort to forge a good and trustful relationship with the new GM. He also signed off on all those over-priced free-agents Avila recruited.
The roller coaster continued. After the Tigers fought for a wildcard playoff berth to the final weekend of the 2016 season, the wheels fell off in another last-place finish during which Avila had his own fire sale at the trade deadlines that cost the franchise its cornerstone ace, Justin Verlander, as well as J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Justin Wilson and even the GM’s son, catcher Alex Avila.
For a bunch of lottery tickets – mostly prospects who may or may not ever see the inside of a major league stadium.
To suggest Gardenhire will have his work cut out for him with a roster that will look more like the Toledo Mud Hens rather than the Detroit Tigers is a massive understatement. But his old-school managing techniques – combined with the club’s newfound commitment to analytics – could not only prevent it from hitting 100 losses but hasten a turnaround.
Much has been made of Gardenhire’s disdain for baseball’s love affair with numbers, and he said all the right things in his introductory news conference about his willingness to learn and adapt to change.
In reality, managers tend to get more credit than they deserve when their teams win and too much blame when they lose. They are, in essence, middle managers in the baseball shop, effectively line foremen in the factory, assigned to get the best, most efficient and quality production out of their workers.
Other than fill out the lineup card and delegate the details to their pitching and hitting coaches, the manager’s job is to hold his players accountable.
Gardenhire is a good manager. Not great, but good. He has won with veteran clubs as well as with young players just coming into their own. His experience alone will speak volumes to veterans like Miguel Cabrera, who has drifted since Jim Leland retired.
It’s on Avila now, and his staff replenished by all those numbers gurus, to get Gardenhire the players he can win with.
Michigan fans don’t quite seem to know how to react to a certain comparison of records of their last two football coaches after 33 games: Brady Hoke, 25-8; Jim Harbaugh, 25-8. Oh, my.
Valid comparison? Absolutely, unless you compare the what the university was paying Hoke, a mere fraction of the $9 million Harbaugh is collecting (we won’t say earning). Or the quality of athletes Harbaugh is recruiting to those classes Hoke brought in.
It’s no comparison at all. Hoke was a far better deal for the university, at least to this point in their tenures.
The Red Wings finally came to terms with speedy forward Andrea Athanisiou after protracted contract talks that included issues like role and ice time every bit as much as economics.
To make room under the salary cap, they traded away center Riley Sheahan to Pittsburgh for winger Scott Wilson. After a couple of productive seasons, Sheahan managed to score just two goals last season – in the final game of the year. And he showed no inclination to produce offensively this year; he was pointless in eight games.
Wilson makes close to the league minimum and is the likely candidate to be assigned to Grand Rapids when Athanisiou returns to the lineup within a week or so. But fans shouldn’t get carried away. One guy – even with the size and speed and ability to play in all situations like Athanasiou can – isn’t going to fix all the problems the Wings showed in their pathetic 4-1 loss Sunday to Vancouver.