Henning: Tigers' Gardenhire has accomplished much, but 2019 will be greater test

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Ron Gardenhire

Detroit – With five weeks to go in a Tigers season that with each passing game looks more like a black-and-blue mark, it’s time to talk manager.

Ron Gardenhire.

What difference has one man made in the Tigers in 2018? What could another person have done with this same unit? What might Gardenhire have accomplished with Tigers teams that during four earlier seasons played for Brad Ausmus?

Good questions, all of them.

It’s impossible to quantify, but Gardenhire has probably taken this club as far as any manager could. The Tigers have too many sub-par pieces during their reconstruction to be much more than they are at 52-74.

They have been better than was expected not because of Gardenhire but because their starting pitching on balance has been dramatically better than expected.

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Gardenhire, though, has had his influence, with the team’s pedal-to-the-metal baserunning his most distinct imprint. It’s the starkest difference, perhaps, in his and Ausmus’ approach. Ausmus’ teams had less speed than the Tigers now carry, but managerial emphasis also matters and Gardenhire has been putting a riding-crop to his guys since the first day of spring camp.

That, of course, will deliver a wonderful club 22 games beneath .500, which tells you players, and not managers, most matter when it comes to winning baseball games.

Now the ominous news for Tigers fans, if not for Gardenhire, who knows what’s coming:

This year might well be better than 2019 can ever be. The Tigers’ new blood, now beginning to bubble in the minors, won’t be showing up until 2020. After that, there will be a couple of training-wheels years as kids learn to pitch and play and as free-agent help is steadily added to patch holes and assemble something approximating a legitimate October playoff team.

No manager, or general manager, is beating the above timeline. It’s the nature of baseball rebuilding cycles. After a long playoff run from 2006-14, the reverse process is now in place and not subject to heavy revision.

Tigers need time

What this means for Gardenhire is problematic. Then again, he knew what was coming when he agreed last October to take this job.

The romance he now largely enjoys with Tigers fans will begin to show its inevitable cracks sometime next season. He, and especially general manager Al Avila, will be hammered by impatient fans who will have had their fill of five seasons minus any of that old, luscious playoff drama in which the Tigers specialized during their long, near-miss run to a championship.

The Tigers don't have a lot of experience on the field, but they do in the manager's office.

But know this: No other GM, no other owner or no other owner’s dollars, nor any other manager, is going to reconstruct this Tigers team more rapidly.

Gardenhire is a nearly ideal skipper to have in charge during a long reassembly.

It’s all about removing manager as a potential liability. Gardenhire has a gift for his job as well as experience from his years in Minnesota in running teams with all degrees of makeup and proficiency.

That means the front office can work on personnel and not worry about what’s happening on the field or in the clubhouse. Gardenhire and his staff have it covered.

They can also rest easy when he functions as the face of this Tigers team. Notice his deft work during post-game interviews, an area fans often found bothersome when Ausmus’ low-key summaries left them feeling as if the team played with similar energy.

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Gardenhire is crisp and concise. There is voltage to his words. He knows how to kiddingly work in a jab or a zinger, which Ausmus could also do in ways that tended to be droll.

What flows from Gardenhire is a sense of vitality that has been important to fans, as well as to his players. Has it made a discernible difference in the win-loss column? Probably not. But perceptions are everything here, and Gardenhire’s presence has been important during the first full phase of Tigers renovation.

"He makes players accountable," Avila said Wednesday. "At the same time, he's not there yelling at everyone -- he makes it fun for everybody.

"The next important thing, as important as any, is I believe he’s managed the bullpen to perfection. Look at the way our pitching has been: We’ve had very few blowouts for a rebuilding team. I know there are people out there who will focus on a particular game, but there are contenders out there who have been blown out more than we have. He's managed the bullpen very, very well, and I praise him for that all the time."

This oversight a manager brings to big-league clubs isn’t always dramatic. Not during a six-month season of 162 games. Routines are more the norm and how those routines are executed was detectable, in a kind of soft stage light, Tuesday night at Comerica Park a few hours before the Tigers and Cubs dueled.

Gardenhire’s team was taking batting practice and the skipper was doing what most managers do during BP. He would, every minute or so, shout something playful at one of his guys, greeting them with all the nicknames a 25-man roster offers.

He picked up a bat and flailed it with one arm, loosening up as a man 60 years old must do. He later grabbed a catcher’s mitt and was snagging infield relays while first-base coach Ramon Santiago stood next to him swatting fungoes.

Everything was orderly. Everything was designed to strike a balance between business and efficiency. The Tigers went on to beat the Cubs, 2-1, in a game that told you how much the Cubs these days have been fighting themselves and how narrow any Tigers victory in 2018 tends to be.

“Our fans were just wearing 'em out,” Gardenhire said, and here was a manager’s clever bow to Comerica Park’s customers on a night when there seemed to be in the seats as many Cubs rooters as Tigers faithful.

This gets to the heart of Gardenhire’s work in Detroit and why it was a shrewd move beyond his experience and acknowledged character to have hired him.

The passion burns at a high wattage. When you have the skills Gardenhire brings to a job that spans so many professional and personal facets, you don’t view time away from one’s profession as something you miss.

It is viewed instead as loss.

Gardenhire had been away from managing for three years. He was unhappy and unfulfilled. He made the most of it, as a special assistant to the Twins, and then as a bench coach with the Diamondbacks.

But he had been deprived of that amazing alignment too few people are able to realize in their lives: vocation.

“There aren’t many people who get this opportunity,” he said last week, talking about job satisfaction he again found in Detroit.

He talked of what also comes to a manager’s office: pressure. But it’s a different kind of obligation, he explained.

“There’s always pressure to playing and respecting the game,” Gardenhire said. “And having them (players) enjoy coming to the ballpark.

“I’ve had a ball. Yes, there are wins and losses and it kills you every night when you’re losing.”

But, he said, the greater failing would be if his team wasn’t “playing hard and trying to learn,” at which time he made a deliberate point to salute his coaches for the time they’ve spent trying to make a roster as good as it can be.

Maximizing what he has

Gardenhire has had a particularly complicated challenge in 2018 beyond the fact this team was always headed for 100 or so losses.

Victor Reyes.

The Tigers need personnel -- all the young personnel they can find and stash. They took Reyes last December in the Rule 5 draft, which meant a player who had worked no higher than Single A had to be carried on the 25-man active roster for all of 2018. He either sticks for the entire season with the big club or he must be returned to his old team, which in Reyes’ case was Arizona.

“There aren’t many people who get this opportunity,” Ron Gardenhire says about managing in the big leagues.

It’s nice for a front office to essentially steal a 23-year-old outfielder with Reyes’ potential to be of future value. But it’s one thorny task for a manager to take a player who should still be developing in the minors and find a way to treat him as more than clubhouse furniture.

Gardenhire beats himself up for not using Reyes early in the season, but, the truth is, he had little choice then. As the outfield crowd thinned by way of trades and injuries, Reyes has gotten more at-bats, and he has been showing here and there why the Tigers liked his upside and why they chose to endure 2018 before Reyes heads to Triple A next season for some everyday buffing and polishing.

Ah, next season. To repeat, it won’t be easy.

The Tigers got a break this year with some surprise starting pitching. Mike Fiers paid off, and then was parlayed by way of trade into a couple of prospect players from the A’s, with one yet to be named. Blaine Hardy was improbably made a starter and thrived. Francisco Liriano proved to be a relative bonus.

But with the team remaining in a trade mode as it tries to deal current capital for multiple blue-chip prospects that can be part of that eventual rebuild, 2019 is shaping up potentially as the 100-loss mess some of us expected in 2018.

Lots of things can, and will, happen during the offseason, so assumptions are to be avoided. But what’s interesting in terms of Gardenhire’s impact pertains to next year’s spring camp in Lakeland, Fla.

It’s going to be stronger. Some of us thought his first Tigers camp was the definition of crisp, but Gardenhire has plans in place for a much better routine next February.

He deferred a bit to a new pitching coach, Chris Bosio, during this year’s camp and to Bosio’s desire to oversee his pitchers. That was the beginning of the end for Bosio, who was fired in June for having aimed a slur at a clubhouse attendant.

But it will be something to observe six months from now. Managers can’t win a lot of games. But they can maximize what they have, which Gardenhire, by just about any account, has done in 2018. If he can figure out a path to greater gains in 2019, he’ll be on board.

Only remember this is baseball, not sorcery, and Harry Potter seems these days to be otherwise occupied.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning