Tigers manager AJ Hinch wastes no time putting his program in motion
Detroit — His coaching staff is all but set, minus an assistant hitting coach. He’s reached out to most of the veteran players, starting, of course, with Miguel Cabrera and Matthew Boyd. Since last September, when he knew he’d be interviewing for the job in Detroit, he’s been breaking down film and inspecting and dissecting the 40-man roster and farm system.
In rapid time, Tigers manager AJ Hinch has put his proverbial ducks in a row.
“Yeah, in building my knowledge for the interview alone, I really had to dig in on what went right and what maybe needs to be addressed,” Hinch said Thursday. “I watched a lot of the games from the end of the season and this week I’ve been contacting players and establishing a baseline for building a relationship.
“It’s one thing for me to look at it, but I want to hear it in their words, from their eyes, on what each individual needs to do.”
He loves the collection of young talent, especially on the pitching side. In watching games last September, he was intrigued by the potential of players like Willi Castro and Daz Cameron, by the athleticism and versatility of Niko Goodrum. He was fascinated by the turnaround Jeimer Candelario made and he’s anxious to figure out how and why that happened and work to build on that.
The strikeouts and chase rates on offense were alarming, naturally.
"It's not like you can just say, 'Don't swing and miss,'" he said. "That's pretty obvious. But building a team offense and a team identity. There's a time to swing for the extra-base hit and there's also a time to have a team offense that just produces a run in other ways."
He also saw the holes. The absence of a proven catcher, maybe another arm or two in the bullpen, another veteran for the starting rotation, another corner infielder and outfielder with some pop in their bats.
“I joked with Al (Avila, general manager) that I’m holed up in Houston building a coaching staff and he’s up in Detroit building a roster,” Hinch said. “Al has been very forward with me that we’re not going into camp with the same team we have today.
“As far as the big names, big-money guys, I don’t know if that’s going to be the case. But that’s not even that important to me as much as the big vision and the consistency in the thought process on what we’re trying to build here.
“Being opportunistic is the key.”
Rotation and workload
The million-dollar question across baseball is how teams are going to handle the inevitable jump in innings pitched, going from a 60-game season to, hopefully, a 162-game season.
“I think industry-wide, there is a lot of unknowns there,” Hinch said. “We have to be careful on a number of fronts. No. 1, we have young pitchers who have never been tested north of, say, 125 innings.”
The Tigers’ top pitching prospects, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, jumping from Double-A to the big leagues, threw 28 and 32 innings, respectively. Two others, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo, who may factor into the rotation plans in 2021, didn’t pitch competitively at all.
But it goes beyond the young pitchers. Boyd was limited to 60 innings after throwing close to 190 in 2019. Spencer Turnbull threw 56 and Michael Fulmer, coming off Tommy John surgery, pitched 27.
The general rule of thumb has been to limit an innings increase to 30 percent or less from one year to the next. That might not be feasible unless teams use 10 or more starters.
“To me, it’s a very individualized,” Hinch said. “I don’t think you can have one specific criteria. Twenty percent might work for some, 30 percent might work for another and 10 percent might work for a third guy. We need to dig in on all of our guys and see.
“We need to condition our guys to pitch a full season, but we’ll be very cautious with what kind of jump these guys make.”
Hinch coached former Tigers closer Joe Jimenez in the 2018 All-Star Game. He has already tasked pitching coaches Chris Fetter and Juan Nieves with building a plan to get him back to that level.
“In a world of setting the bar high, how much higher can you get than being named an All-Star?” Hinch said. “Fet and Juan are going to have to attack the difference between Joe in 2018, 2019 and 2020.”
Hinch isn’t big on one-inning relievers. He wants his bullpen arms to be ready to go multiple innings. He’s also not a proponent of hard-and-fast roles.
“I like soft roles more than I like defined innings,” he said. “Don’t get too rigid in the use of your bullpen. Whoever you name closer, you might need him in the seventh or eighth inning. I’ve shown myself to do that in the past.”
Hinch jokes that he was the true winner of the Justin Verlander trade in 2017.
“I got the best of Verlander at Houston and now I get the trade pieces that came back to Detroit,” he said.
That punchline will play better if Jake Rogers does. Rogers was catching in A-ball in 2017, so Hinch didn’t know much about him. But he’s well-versed now on both his potential and his recent struggles at the plate.
“Jake is going to have an opportunity to make an impression,” Hinch said. “His tools are really good. I think he can shut down a running game and he can do some things athletically behind the plate that you can’t teach.
“But we need to bring his whole game together.”
Rogers, who spent all of 2020 at the alternate site in Toledo, is one of three catchers presently on the roster, joining Grayson Greiner and Eric Haase. That trio has a combined 177 games of big-league experience and collective batting average well under .200.
“It will be interesting to see if we consider adding to that mix,” Hinch said. “It’s something Al and I have talked about. It’s something that can help the pitching staff and the catcher position, but the right guy has to be there for that.
“If not, we have three capable guys that can play at the major league level right now, and I’m sure there will be somebody out there that piques our interest.”
At the top of the free agent pool at catcher is J.T. Realmuto, who is probably out of the Tigers’ price range at this time. Behind him is former Tiger James McCann, who would also be expensive but a massive upgrade.
The Tigers could also re-sign their veteran catcher from last season, Austin Romine. Others on the market include Wilson Ramos (33), Jason Castro (33), Alex Avila (34), Tyler Flowers (35) and Mike Zunino (30).