John Niyo: A.J. Hinch is taking a chance on Tigers, as well

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DETROIT — Maybe they’re taking a chance. But so is he. And, yes, you can argue the Tigers are risking their reputation with this move. But have you looked at American League standings the last few years? A.J. Hinch is, too.

Say what you want about the Tigers’ hiring of Hinch as their next manager, fresh off a yearlong suspension for his role in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. But now that the team has made it official, quickly announcing the deal Friday afternoon, understand this: The risk here is a shared one, between a down-on-its-luck franchise and a man in search of a second chance.

That hardly makes this a perfect fit, though it may well be when all is said and done, just as it was for the Astros not that long ago. But it does make it an opportunistic one, and that’s OK. Especially in the game of baseball, where cheating is as old as the sport itself.

The fact that both parties are bringing some baggage with them to this marriage probably gives it a better chance of succeeding, honestly. And what the hiring itself says about the Tigers’ trajectory should be encouraging to fans, even those put off by the optics here.

Hinch’s arrival adds a measure of credibility to the Tigers’ rebuild, whether you want to admit it or not. Because he’s been here, and done that, and no amount of trash-can banging or handwringing about it can erase the experience he gained in shepherding the Astros out of the darkness they endured at the start of the last decade.

A team that lost more than 100 games each season from 2011-13 went on to post five consecutive winning seasons under Hinch in Houston, the last three of which saw the Astros pile up 100-plus wins annually while claiming three division titles, two AL pennants and a World Series title.

Al Avila’s long-shot bid to build a championship roster from scratch here in Detroit isn’t quite that far along, obviously. And that’s where Hinch, who was managing in Game 7 of the World Series exactly one year ago Friday, is taking a leap of faith, that the pipeline in Detroit is full of the same type of premium-grade crude that turned the Astros into a gusher.

Or at least that it will be soon enough, with the likes of Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal having made their major league debuts this summer and some booming bats on the way — we think — in Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson, along with the draft capital that comes with the No. 3 overall pick in 2021.

“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,” Hinch said in the Tigers’ release Friday. “It’s time to start playing winning baseball, and I am confident this organization is positioned to make that happen.”

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It surely helps that Hinch is close friends with Scott Bream, the Tigers’ vice president of player personnel. In between stints with the Tigers, Bream was a scout in the Padres’ organization working under Hinch, who spent four years as San Diego’s pro scouting director after getting fired from his first managerial job in Arizona in 2010. So he’s certainly not walking blindly into this job.

Still, the Tigers did catch a break here, finding a manager who is young enough to be fluent in analytics but old enough to know better when it comes to understanding the value of all those numbers. Hinch is only 46, but he boasts a well-rounded background, both as a manager and an executive, in scouting and in player development. He has won plenty, but he also knows losing, thanks to his first managerial stint in Arizona and a playing career that included time spent with the lowly 2003 Tigers.

The pandemic might’ve robbed the Tigers’ prized prospects of a full season of minor league ball and the development that comes with that. But it undoubtedly helped them find a successor for Ron Gardenhire, whose retirement was a surprise only in that it came a week before the end of the regular season.

After an abbreviated 60-game season and untold millions in lost revenue across the league, most teams weren’t inclined to make dramatic changes at the top of their organizational structures this offseason. A year ago, there were eight managerial vacancies — 10 after the Astros’ scandal was investigated. Two years ago, there were a half-dozen open jobs. Even in 2017, there were a handful, including the one in Detroit.

But this fall, there were only three. And when the White Sox decided to hitch their wagonload of young talent to a Hall of Famer manager in 76-year-old Tony La Russa, who is nearly a decade removed from his last stint in the dugout, the Tigers suddenly found themselves in a hitter’s count with their help-wanted ad.

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Hinch seemed like the perfect fit for the White Sox, a ready-made title contender fresh off its first playoff appearance in 12 years. But owner Jerry Reinsdorf apparently had other ideas on Chicago’s South Side, and credit Tigers owner Chris Ilitch for taking a big swing and accepting this gift, no questions asked.

OK, that’s not quite right. There were plenty of questions asked, presumably, about both Hinch’s culpability and his contrition in the wake of the Astros fiasco. About what lessons a manager might’ve learned about leadership, as Houston’s clubhouse went rogue on his watch. And about why any conflict he felt about his players’ actions wasn’t enough for him to put a stop to it. (MLB’s investigation detailed a pair of instances when Hinch actually smashed live-feed monitors in the Houston clubhouse to send a message, yet he knew the sign-stealing continued.)

“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,” Avila said in Friday’s statement announcing the hire. “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.”

Hinch will have to provide more mea culpas in the weeks and months ahead, and likely well into next spring. But he certainly seems to understand all that.

“The last year was the most difficult of my life,” Hinch said in the release. “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.”

That won’t be enough for some fans, I’m sure. Or for some of his peers in the game, for that matter. And that’s more than fair.

Maybe you’d prefer it if the Tigers went out and found the next A.J. Hinch, rather than jumping at the chance to hire this one. More than likely, they interviewed someone like that as Avila and his staff did their due diligence over the last month, speaking to at least a dozen candidates. Pedro Grifol, the Kansas City Royals’ bench coach, seemed like a strong choice, among others.

But from the Tigers’ perspective, this wasn’t simply a risk worth taking. This felt like one they simply couldn’t pass up.

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