AJ Hinch close to agreement to be Tigers’ new manager

Lynn Henning Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

An exhaustive plan to rebuild the Detroit Tigers into a playoff contender and Comerica Park hot-ticket perhaps moved a step closer Thursday night as the team neared agreement to make A.J. Hinch the team’s new manager.

A source close to negotiations, who requested anonymity until a contract is finalized, said fine print was being resolved that could perhaps lead to an announcement as early as Friday.

AJ Hinch

The Tigers interviewed Hinch on Thursday, talks progressed steadily throughout the day and night, and an agreement on a three-year deal was said to be “close.”

The Tigers have been preparing for a new manager since Ron Gardenhire retired with a week to go in 2020’s regular season.

Hinch, who is 46, won a World Series with the Astros in 2017 and for five seasons steered one of big-league baseball’s most radiant rosters to winning seasons and October drama. His only blemish was huge: being tied to the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal of 2017, which led to the firing of Hinch, as well as Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. Because of his part in the Astros’ misdeeds when he was Houston’s bench coach, Alex Cora, who had become Red Sox manager in 2017, also lost his job in Boston last winter and, like Luhnow, remains in relative exile.

Hinch’s departure from the Astros differed primarily in the accountability and contrition he displayed when he was fired last February. He was suspended from baseball until completion of the 2020 World Series, which wrapped up Tuesday. Hinch apologized, deeply, for his tacit role in a sign-stealing scheme that involved hidden spy-cameras and trash-can audio messages to hitters that relayed the pitch about to be thrown.

The Tigers were moved by Hinch’s penitence, which was immediate and differed markedly from anything said, or not said, by Luhnow and Cora.

Hinch’s reputation as a highly sophisticated manager, as good with people as he is with analytics and baseball scholarship, made him an immediate attraction to the Tigers, the team for which he played in 2003 when Hinch was a big-league catcher.

From 2010-14 Hinch served as vice president of pro scouting for the Padres. One of his top scouts and best friends there was Scott Bream, who is now the Tigers' vice president of player personnel.  

One team seemed ready to thwart any Tigers-Hinch courtship: the White Sox, who earlier this month fired manager Rick Renteria, even as they made it to October’s playoffs with one of the most blessed young rosters in baseball.

But the White Sox on Thursday rocked Major League Baseball when they opted for Tony La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager who first worked for the White Sox in the 1980s. La Russa is 76 and has not managed since 2011. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf nonetheless has long regretted that La Russa was allowed to leave Chicago for grand years with the A’s and Cardinals that burnished his Cooperstown profile.

With a man of La Russa’s status a potential fit for a sublimely talented young team on Chicago’s South Side, the White Sox chose a former skipper who wants one more ride with his old team.

Subscription: Henning: White Sox get Tony La Russa, now Tigers need to get A.J. Hinch

The Tigers were not looking at Hinch, exclusively, as their next manager. There were concerns about the White Sox hiring him for what would appear to be, at least immediately, a more appealing job. There were concerns as well about Hinch’s issues in Houston and whether he might yet be tainted by the sign-stealing chicanery that drove him, in shame, from the Astros job.

The Tigers, too, had interviewed a number of potential hires who had been consistently impressive: Marcus Thames, Pedro Grifol, Mark Kotsay, Will Venable, and others, all before they were allowed following Tuesday’s World Series wrap-up to contact Hinch.

Hinch, it was known, had heavy interest in the Tigers job. Of heavy appeal was that the most rugged years of a rebuild that didn’t formally begin until 2017 had been completed. Gardenhire, in fact, had borne the brunt of strife associated with an old-growth roster’s tear-down, and a slow, barely discernible influx of young talent from a newly revived Tigers farm.

The years were cruel for Tigers followers – and for Gardenhire. But ravaged seasons begot pick-of-the-litter draft choices – Casey Mize, Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson – that have combined with other young talent, such as left-handed whiz Tarik Skubal, to begin a slow remodeling of the Tigers roster that will continue its makeover during 2021 and beyond.

While Gardenhire had something of a caretaker’s job with the Tigers, Hinch will be asked to take on loftier objectives, with a deep playoff run that could ultimately lead to a World Series parade as the Tigers’ most daring dream.

A.J. Hinch

Hinch’s credentials differ from the customary managerial candidate’s resume.

Born in Iowa, he moved to Oklahoma as a boy, became the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a prep catcher, then was honored with a scholarship to Stanford.

He was drafted in the second round out of high school by the White Sox in 1992, then in the third round by the Twins as a junior in 1995. He returned to Stanford, got his degree in psychology, and again was drafted in the third round, by the A’s, in 1996. He played seven big-league seasons for five teams, including the Tigers, where he worked in 27 games during the team’s deplorable 2003 season when the team finished 43-119.

Hinch’s cerebral gifts, as well as his skill for working with people on all levels, are regarded as exceptional. His ability to wade deeply into baseball’s analytics galaxy is especially enticing to sophisticated fans, and figures to have charmed the Tigers, a team that has been rushing the past five years to join MLB’s avant-garde members and mathematicians.

He also has past experience beyond Houston. In 2009 he was named Diamondbacks skipper, replacing Bob Melvin. Hinch was 34 years and 357 days old, the youngest man next to Eric Wedge to ever have been named a big-league manager, with Wedge beating him by 82 days.

Hinch’s potential to be more than a manager had also been noticed during his playing days. He went to the 2003 Winter Meetings, just after he wrapped up his Tigers stint, interested in making contacts and absorbing front-office insight that might lead him to more advanced baseball roles.

The initiative paid off. Three years later he was in charge of player development for the Diamondbacks. In three more years, he was Diamondbacks manager.

He was fired at midseason, 2010, and replaced by one-time Tigers star, and current Tigers broadcaster, Kirk Gibson. But two months later Hinch was on his way to San Diego as vice president of professional scouting. He worked there until 2014, the year Houston hired him to turn Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Cora, Jose Altuve, and other splendid stars into the world champions they became, however marred by their sign-stealing antics, in 2017.

Now it is the Tigers who have beckoned and who want Hinch to replicate, to whatever extent their young talent permits, the same process that brought Houston to baseball’s summit.

Hinch, who is married with two daughters, appears ready for a job that, at least initially, figures to be more complex than he inherited in Houston.

But late Thursday night, it was known the Tigers and Hinch were drawing close to a deal. Once formalized, Andrew Jay Hinch will next command a 120-year-old Major League Baseball charter member yearning for better days at Comerica Park.

A.J. Hinch managerial record

Arizona Diamondbacks

2009: 58-75 (.436)

2010: 31-48 (.392)

Houston Astros

2015: 86-76 (.531) – Lost ALDS vs. Royals

2016: 84-78 (.519)

2017: 101-61 (.623) – Won World Series vs. Dodgers

2018: 103-59 (.636) – Lost ALCS vs. Red Sox

2019: 107-55 (.660) – Lost World Series vs. Nationals