Niyo: Tigers have double vision in tabbing Ron Gardenhire

John Niyo
The Detroit News



Ron Gardenhire knows the AL Central well, and he knows the game even better, having spent the last 30 years as a coach and manager — most of it with the Twins organization.

They can’t be serious.

Not if they’re telling fans one thing and then doing another. Not if they’re selling one idea and asking you to buy something else.

Wednesday’s news that the Tigers have settled on former Twins boss Ron Gardenhire to be their next manager isn’t exactly a shocker. Not when Gardenhire was long viewed as a possibility here, reportedly admired by the late Mike Ilitch and enamored with the job in Detroit for years.

In some corners, this will be viewed as the safe choice, and maybe that’s true in the corner office where controlling owner Chris Ilitch sits. Clearly, Gardenhire is the kind of steward the front office was courting: an experienced skipper who has weathered rough seas before at the major-league level.

Yet it’s hard not to view it as another contradiction from a baseball franchise that still seems caught in a rundown.

Less than a month after announcing another round of fresh hires for their fledgling analytics department, and less than a year after hailing the arrival of “Caesar” — the Tigers’ new central data system designed to bring them up to speed with the rest of Major League Baseball — general manager Al Avila went out and hired a manager with a decidedly old-school reputation, someone who was late to embrace data-driven decision making, if he even has at all.

Maybe that’s a rap Gardenhire’s ready to beat, employing defensive shifts and optimized lineups while eschewing bullpen slotting. More than likely, he won’t, though. And maybe it won’t really matter, given some of the beatings the Tigers are likely to endure in what is shaping up to be a long, painful rebuilding effort at Comerica Park.

Doesn’t smell fresh to me

But again, it’s hard to reconcile the double vision here. According to Avila, in comments he made last month announcing Brad Ausmus wouldn’t return as manager, the Tigers were ready to “take a brand-new road and open up to new things.” And yet here they are, getting ready to introduce a manager about to turn 60 whose last four teams in Minnesota finished a combined 118 games under .500. That hardly feels like the “new beginning and fresh start” with “fresh leadership” that Avila promised.

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That’s not to say the hire is a complete whiff. Nor is to ignore the fact that analytics will matter far more in the front office than in the dugout for the time being. Or that some of the coaching hires to come — pitching coach, in particular — are just as weighty as the managerial choice.

Gardenhire knows the division well, and he knows the game even better, having spent the last 30 years as a coach and manager — most of it with the Twins organization. More important, he knows what’s required of a manager who is asked to do more with less, both in terms of experience and, in some cases, talent. For much of his 13-year tenure as the Twins manager (2002-14) he presided over one of the league’s lowest payrolls.

That appears to be the direction the Tigers are headed as well, having slashed nearly $100 million from what was the American League’s biggest budget to start this season. More of that likely is in store over the next couple years, assuming the team stays under current ownership, as Ilitch insisted it will last month.

The best they could get?

Gardenhire’s an affable man with a solid track record as a teacher, a baseball man whose teams always seemed to drill the details even when they weren’t drilling fastballs. That’s one of the reasons his Twins teams often tormented the ones who played in Detroit. It’s also why he was named MLB’s manager of the year in 2010, and finshed as runner-up for the award another handful of times.


Ron Gardenhire

Gardenhire also helped raise a generation of young stars in the Twin Cities — players like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and Carlos Gomez and Francisco Liriano. That surely played a role in this hire, since the Tigers’ future clearly is still mostly in West Michigan and Erie and Toledo. And he eventually did his share of winning with some of those players, too, leading Minnesota to a half-dozen division titles.

But these Tigers aren’t ready to contend, or even come close to it, anytime soon. Which might be another reason Gardenhire’s the choice here, and now.

Someone has to oversee the lean years, right? And it may be that the some of the other more intriguing candidates interviewed for this job simply weren’t intrigued with the idea of coming to Detroit, where the lineup card is going to look pretty sketchy for next couple years, at least. Ditto your managerial record when it comes time for that next contract, if you last that long.

Alex Cora was at the top of many fans’ list, but he’s heading to Boston where he’ll meld some of the new-age ideas he picked up in Houston with a roster that’s ready to win now and a GM in Dave Dombrowski, ironically, who never seemed to have much use for that kind of thinking in Detroit. There are others who might’ve offered similar upside — Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez, for one — and a chance to grow along with the team.

But the Tigers are going a different route. So if you were expecting the change-up, or something out of the box, you might as well take a seat. Seriously. Go ahead. This is going to take awhile.