Brad Ausmus. Fredi Gonzalez. Ron Gardenhire. You can go on and on. Each managed a baseball team that no longer needed him after the wins and losses didn’t work out, yet each is arguably of great interest to fans or front office staff of major league teams today.
It’s unclear what makes a manager desirable. There seems to be no consistency.
At first winning appears to be the important deciding factor for the guy managing your organization. The team didn’t win as many games as you thought it should? Fire the bum!
But it doesn’t matter as much for the next one you hire. Because there were extenuating circumstances, naturally. There were bad contracts. The bullpen wasn’t that great. No one could win with that roster.
What an organization should look for is a leader who knows how to put together a good nucleus around him, and who fits an organization’s direction.
For the Tigers, the best man for the job right now is Gabe Kapler, who played for the team in 1998-99.
Let’s get it out of the way up front: Kapler doesn’t have a lot of managing experience. For a lot of people already yelling “AUSMUS! NO!” as they read this, that’s a disqualifier. Though unlike Ausmus, Kapler has managed a season in the minor leagues.
Let’s also concede that there have been no reports of Kapler interviewing for the job in Detroit.
What makes Kapler perfect for the job is that his strengths align with the direction that the Tigers organization is going.
Kapler has served as director of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers since 2014. This comes after a stint explaining sabermetrics on Fox Sports, and before that writing a column for sabermetric-oriented site Baseball Prospectus.
The Dodgers are an organization that has won 90 or more games for five straight years, including 104 this season, while not suffering the balance of having a weak farm system.
Recent developments include Joc Pederson, reigning rookie of the year Corey Seager and likely rookie of the year Cody Bellinger.
The Dodgers’ farm system was ranked second in 2016 and fifth entering 2017 by ESPN’s Keith Law. “For a team this good to have this kind of star potential in full-season ball is remarkable,” he wrote in January.
While you cannot give all the credit to Kapler, you must acknowledge the role he played in fostering the growth of the prospects entrusted to him. Bellinger went from a ranking of 54th among Baseball America’s Top 100 rankings entering 2016 to seventh entering 2017. Seager climbed from 37th entering 2014 to first entering 2016. And that’s just the stars.
A hot managing prospect, Kapler was thought to be natural successor for Don Mattingly in Los Angeles, but he lost out to Dave Roberts during the 2015-16 offseason. Kapler turned down a chance to serve on Roberts’ staff, telling Ken Rosenthal at the time:
“I spent a great deal of time examining this and having a number of discussions,” Kapler said. “I absolutely love working with our players and staff. We have a number of exciting initiatives that are in their early stages.
“Ultimately, I couldn’t walk away from what we have just started to build in player development. This is the right role for me to make the most powerful impact.”
Kapler would join a Tigers organization that got young fast after so many trades during 2017. Led by a young star pitcher in Michael Fulmer, along with a 25-year-old slugger Nicholas Castellanos and exciting young third baseman Jeimer Candelario, the Tigers have a handful of good pitching prospects expected to give the staff some help over the next several years, as well as money to spend to fill in some gaps.
Tigers GM Al Avila also has made clear the importance of analytics, pouring money into an area overlooked by his former boss and repeatedly signaling to fans his moves are made with an eye toward organization building.
That’s why you don’t want to see Avila bring in some old-school manager incongruent to the current push. You need a smart, successful manager who understands today’s game.
Kapler would be the perfect fit to get the most out of the young organization Avila is building. He should be the next manager of the Tigers.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.