Wojo: In Ron Gardenhire, Tigers got right man for dirty job

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — You’ll like the Tigers’ new manager. You’ll enjoy Ron Gardenhire’s blunt humor and friendly manner. You’ll appreciate his traditional baseball sensibilities.

Heck, you might even like some of his strategic moves, not that it matters. That’s not the point of the hire, or the strength of Gardenhire. The point is, the Tigers aren’t going to be any good for a while, and although fans generally accept a rebuild, they won’t accept a sloppy, strife-ridden rebuild.

Gardenhire is here to help make it palatable. He brings respectability to a clubhouse that might not have a bunch, at least from a competitive standpoint. He’s not here to deliver victories but to deliver a message, something he does very well. There are questions because Gardenhire, 59, isn’t a numbers-crunching whiz, and you can reasonably wonder why the Tigers brought in a veteran for such a young team.

Fair enough. But at the start of what could be a long, ugly run on the field, it isn’t all about analytics, at least not yet. It’s about optics. Fan can endure losing with a purpose. They can’t abide losing with disinterest or disdain. With so many new faces next season, the manager automatically becomes one of the franchise’s most-identifiable faces, charged with maintaining modest interest through the malaise.

Tigers president and CEO Christopher Ilitch and general manager Al Avila talked enthusiastically Friday about the new guy, knowing there won’t be many upbeat news conferences for a while. The franchise no longer is in the business of buying players, and until it gets to that point, it’s trying to buy some goodwill.

As bad as the Tigers were last season, that’s not completely what turned people off. It also was sloppy base-running, erratic defense and ridiculous concentration lapses. It was Brad Ausmus’ tepid sense of accountability, leaving struggling players in established roles way too long, allowing Victor Martinez to bat cleanup way past an appropriate time.

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Avila admitted it, without actually admitting it.

“You want a guy that can motivate players, a guy that can lead, a guy that can teach, and also a guy that can discipline,” Avila said. “(Tigers adviser) Willie Horton said to me, ‘You know what, let’s go get a field manager.’ That’s Gardenhire. He’s the right fit.”

In the space of 20 minutes, Avila must’ve uttered the word “discipline” a dozen times. He said it wasn’t a knock on Ausmus, but a nod to what made Gardenhire successful. In 13 seasons with the Twins from 2002-14, he won six American League Central Division titles, and did it with a young team that became an older team, and generally was a fundamentally sound, low-payroll team.

Delivering discipline

It’s no coincidence Gardenhire is one of Jim Leyland’s long-time friends. Leyland took over a fractured clubhouse and direction-less team in 2006, and Gardenhire is doing the same (albeit with considerably less talent). With Justin Verlander, Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez gone, and Ian Kinsler likely to be dealt, there’s an enormous leadership vacuum.

Does talent matter more than leadership? Of course.

But as the Tigers restock, they’d better make sure they’re putting young players in the right environment.

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“Discipline comes in a lot of shapes and forms,” Gardenhire said. “You may have some tough love, and you may have to pat them on the back. But guys will be expected to pay attention to all the details.”

It was apparent with the Twins, who often tormented the Tigers. Gardenhire’s 6-21 playoff record suggests the Twins weren’t exactly loaded, but extracted as much as they could.

“This is a man who’s been through it all, good teams, bad teams, the whole gamut,” Avila said. “And he’ll continue to learn.”

Avila was referencing the analytics side, something Gardenhire admits he didn’t exactly embrace before getting fired by the Twins. One of his first stops here was the Tigers’ analytics department, which used to be non-existent. It’s still far from baseball’s best, and Avila said, “We went from zero to where we are today, getting closer to the middle of the pack.”

The Tigers still are desperately trying to catch up. And Avila and his front office must catch up before the manager can, using the numbers in roster and farm-system composition, targeting players who get on base, run well and make a difference defensively.

Before the Tigers can employ more metrics in games, they also have to shore up their messy on-field fundamentals. And make no mistake, it might get uglier before it gets better, with tough decisions ahead.

Never stop learning

Martinez is hoping to keep playing, and with his statistical free-fall, that could be a problem. Miguel Cabrera posted the worst season of his career, and dealt with personal issues off the field too. Avila is convinced Cabrera’s production plummet was mostly because of a back injury that can heal, but there’s no guarantee he can remain an everyday first baseman.

Gardenhire spent part of last season as Arizona’s bench coach after recovering from prostate cancer. His affable personality should play better during a long season of tedious post-game interviews, but does he have the energy to take on all the potential issues?

“I’m only 59, dude,” he said, eliciting laughs, insisting his passion remains lit. “I don’t mind being called old school because we all learned to play baseball old school. But we also know a lot of new ways out there. If you stop learning, you’re probably screwed, and I don’t want to be screwed.”

Gardenhire wouldn’t fit in a lot of places, which partly explains why he went three years without another manager’s job. Old-school ways aren’t as readily embraced in a new-age world, a world the Tigers are just now discovering.

In that way, this strategy makes sense. Before they can fully benefit from advanced metrics, they Tigers are heading back to school with a guy who’s still learning, but certainly knows how to teach.