At some point in coming days, another Tigers managerial matter will be settled.
Triple-A Toledo will get a new skipper.
The Tigers are staying super-secretive about choices to replace the fired Mike Rojas as Mud Hens manager. They are keeping an unusually tight lid on names for a job that, typical of Triple A’s specific responsibilities, is not always easy to fill. Not ideally.
It is widely believed Lance Parrish would accept a promotion from Double-A Erie after four seasons with the SeaWolves. Parrish, of course, is a celebrity catcher from the Tigers’ 1980s heyday and has since coached with the Tigers and managed in the minors.
He has local box-office appeal and credibility that extends beyond the Mud Hens’ home ballpark, Fifth Third Field.
But the Tigers have been taking their time filling the Toledo slot. And that, perhaps, speaks to the nature of a job unlike any manager position anywhere in baseball.
As an evaluator, the Triple-A manager must have something close to X-ray scouting eyes — with gut instincts to match. He will be asked by his front-office bosses to say not only who is playing or pitching well enough to earn a call-up, but who has the head and nerves to help a big-league team in a pinch.
He must deal with constant player-shuffles. He must accept the fact the guy or guys most responsible for a badly needed winning streak are now likely headed for Detroit, or some other big-league ballpark.
He is asked also to play the role of psychologist and high-school principal. A player just sent down who believes he should yet be dressing in that big-league clubhouse might be less than passionate about his new Triple-A duties.
It’s the skipper’s job to help set minds straight. To channel self-pity and resentment and help a player find his baseball bearings.
“It’s extremely important,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of player development who, in concert with general manager Al Avila and his immediate allies, will decide who wins the Mud Hens job. “You’re an overseer for Triple-A players who need to be finished off and led in the right direction.
“Some are missing that little something, or some insight, where the manager’s experience can help get them over the hump. That guy at Triple A has impact and the potential to help guide your players.”
The Mud Hens job has not exactly been Cape Canaveral in terms of launching managers to lofty heights and gratification. Toledo has not had a winning season since 2009 and hasn’t made the International League playoffs since 2007.
Managers often have paid the price.
Phil Nevin ran afoul of then-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski in 2013 and was replaced by Larry Parrish, a widely recognized guru whose Triple-A style — and ability to analyze talent — was considered something of a model for the Toledo job.
Parrish retired after the 2015 season and was followed by Lloyd McClendon, a longtime Tigers coach, as well as a manager with the Pirates and Mariners, who came aboard in 2016 until he rejoined the Tigers staff as hitting coach in 2017.
McClendon was followed by Rojas, who happened to have been Mud Hens manager during their last playoff season, 2007.
It seemed to be a happy reunion: Rojas returning home after having worked as a Tigers coach and longtime minor-league coach and coordinator. Rojas offering the professor’s touch and sharp appraisals the Tigers demand from their Toledo steward.
Rojas then was dismissed in September after the Mud Hens, as has been their habit, once again finished beneath sea level and out of the playoffs. Losing was a reality that even the Tigers front office has acknowledged is a product of players and not managers. But for whatever reasons that neither party is revealing, Toledo again is looking for a new skipper.
Littlefield isn’t breathing a word or dropping the most distant of hints about the man or men Avila and he are discussing.
He agrees, only, that an ideal Triple-A manager must see deeply into a player’s physical and psychological strata.
“What gets lost in the shuffle,” Littlefield said, “is that this is a challenging group to manage at Triple A. You’ve got a prospect moving up and he’s getting so many times to play, and then a lot of guys are moving back and forth and maybe someone thinks he’s getting the short end of the stick. Some aren’t going to feel they’re being treated fairly, and those guys sometimes need guidance and direction.”
They also are far from finished with their personal baseball studies.
“Maybe a guy needs to learn how to finish off a pitch,” Littlefield said. “Or it’s a hitter who needs to make more contact with the ball.
“Or, they might need an attitude shift.”
This happens regularly. A player whose skills and track record say he should probably be on the big stage is instead sent to Triple A for maintenance.
It doesn’t always settle well. Not everyone approaches a trip to Toledo with the appetite Anibal Sanchez displayed last spring when he joined the Mud Hens for an overhaul that helped salvage his season.
“It’s human nature to a certain degree,” Littlefield said of the pouting and simmering anger that often accompanies a player on his drive to Toledo. “They’re great guys, these players, but they’re, in some cases, driven alpha males. They’re aggressive and often they’re unhappy when success doesn’t happen.
“They need a few days to regroup. That Triple-A manager can have some impact in helping those guys see the light and get to the place they want to be. And he can help finish off some of those pitchers and hitters from whom you’re hoping to get more.”
More important is the steady communication between Toledo’s manager and the Tigers brass, with heavy emphasis on Avila, assistant GM David Chadd, and Littlefield.
What starter is most ready to help in Detroit now that a rotation regular is on the disabled list? What bullpen arm can offer a worn-out staff the best bet for multiple innings? How is a young hitter such as JaCoby Jones handling the breaking ball? What do they see from new third baseman Jeimer Candelario and the way in which a switch-hitter is swinging from the right side?
The dialogue is endless, all because personnel needs in Detroit tend to be ongoing.
It should help all parties that Toledo’s lean, playoff-starved recent seasons could soon change. Better times for fans, and a Tigers staff, should be in the picture just as fortunes probably turn tougher in Detroit as a concentrated roster remodeling begins.
Mike Gerber and Christin Stewart, a pair of left-handed hitting outfielders, are good bets to spend most, if not all, of their 2018 seasons at Toledo. Sharp young starters Beau Burrows and Franklin Perez, and maybe Gregory Soto and Sandy Baez, could find their way at some point in 2018 into the Mud Hens rotation.
It should make life more comfortable for a new Mud Hens skipper, whomever it is.
The Tigers will introduce their new man soon. Ron Gardenhire, now wearing a Detroit uniform, won’t be the only newly stationed skipper in the Tigers galaxy.