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Henning: Tigers make shrewd move in landing Ron Gardenhire

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Ron Gardenhire

This is what the Detroit Tigers got Thursday when it was revealed Ron Gardenhire will be their new manager.

They are bringing to Detroit a skipper with 2,107 games of big-league experience, which is crust general manager Al Avila wanted in his new man.

Gardenhire won six division championships for the Minnesota Twins and was known across baseball as one of the steadiest, most astute people in any big-league dugout.

Tom Kelly, something of a wizard during his earlier days as Twins skipper, early on had seized on Gardenhire’s smarts and made him his third base coach.

Jim Leyland, whose Tigers team lost some gut-gashing games to the Twins, said many times the manager he most respected anywhere within baseball’s corridors was Gardenhire. That’s a tall hosanna from a man who might well end up in the Hall of Fame and who managed 3,499 big-league games.

The Tigers got also in Gardenhire a goateed gentleman who has an uncommonly high reputation for human decency. He is not haughty or self-impressed. He is straight. He is stand-up. He will please fans with his postgame analyses to the extent being pointed and accountable is appreciated by folks whose team is about ready to lose a whole bunch of baseball games.

Here is what the Tigers did not get Thursday:

A guy with a magic wand.

This team has a great chance to get socked in 100 games next season. The Tigers are in the process of putting down footings for a total rebuild. Construction is likely to last several years.

This team will not compete for a good, long while, not for serious playoff status, and that will have absolutely nothing to do with Gardenhire or any other manager Avila might have hired.

Man with integrity

The Tigers will get better when their players get better. And when their roster is revamped, and bluer chips dot their pitching staff and everyday lineups, voila, Comerica Park’s crowd suddenly will like its manager a whole lot more than they figure to be pleased by Gardenhire.

What he will bring to the Tigers, which underlined Avila’s decision to hire him, is everyday core capability and integrity. He will do as much with this team, for as long as he is here, as a manager reasonably can be expected to bring a Tigers team enduring a makeover.

Ron Gardenhire

In that sense, no amount of analytics is going to change realities that are ingrained in Detroit’s immediate baseball seasons.

That, of course, is the popular critique on Gardenhire. He is old school, the folklorists insist. He is anti-algorithms. He brushes aside sabermetrics as a child knocks away a plate of brussels sprouts.

And it’s Grade A-certified malarkey.

The Tigers have expanded their analytics staff by 700 percent since Avila came aboard. Dave Dombrowski, somewhat ironically given his math background and Cornell semesters, was never a huge analytics disciple during his days in Detroit.

Avila is much more into the numbers and the Tigers now are at least approaching mid-stream among big-league analytics cubicles, with more staff coming.

This no doubt was a heavy part of the interview in which Gardenhire was grilled by Avila, assistant GM David Chadd, development boss Dave Littlefield, big-league scouting general Scott Bream, as well as Alan Trammell, who is an assistant to Avila.

The Tigers are not building their version of a NASA lab only to see it treated casually or indifferently by a new skipper.

Gardenhire will be privy to all the numbers staff’s data. He’ll be expected to incorporate it, and, knowing Gardenhire, there will not be the least hesitancy. He’ll want any edge he can get. He specialized in edges when he ran the Twins and extracted from those teams about as much baseball advantage as could be squeezed, something the Tigers remember all too painfully.

He cannot, however, sprinkle pixie dust on this 2018 roster and push it to win more games than a transitory pitching staff will permit.

The mound matters

The Tigers were last in pitching in 2017. Based on current personnel and limits on what can be added and subtracted, they would be a personal bet to finish 30th in pitching next season.

There is your determinant when it comes to plotting a team’s fate. It’s pitching. And not until 2019, at the earliest, are people going to enjoy those Gardenhire trips to the mound, which next summer might as well be calculated in miles.

The new manager knows this. And so does Avila. Teams necessarily endure these times, particularly after they have had the fun Detroit had with a team from 2006-14 when, apart from missing that World Series parade, baseball here was very good.

Now comes the cyclical penance. And yet it needn’t be viewed that way by a town that, every bit as much as St. Louis, or Cincinnati, or Boston, has a sophisticated knowledge and appreciation for the game.

There will, in fact, be new and talented kids arriving at Comerica. Soon. The flow will grow steadier and more inspiring in 2019, when young pitchers begin to take root, and when the draft’s probable prizes are at least on the horizon. As the thoroughbreds begin to crack a rotation and bullpen and lineup, Gardenhire, or possibly the next Tigers skipper, will suddenly become a more popular manager.

But for now, the Tigers need a solid, seasoned steward who will safeguard the skipper’s seat from undue worry or drama.

Gardenhire is in that context a splendid option. He will be respected by his players. He will impose a certain ethic his Twins teams always carried. He will insist on conduct that, win or lose, will ensure as much baseball integrity as revamped teams can display on a big-league field.

He is, frankly, a nearly perfect choice for a most imperfect job.