No limitations: AJ Hinch expects Tigers to get creative in putting pitching staff together
Detroit – It’s easy to see why AJ Hinch connects with players and how his message, his confidence and optimism, resonates.
The topic was expectations. Earlier in the week, in an interview on MLB Radio, he’d talked about not putting any labels on who or what the Tigers are – not losers, not winners, not rebuilders, not builders.
“We want to beat you today and we have players here who can do that,” he said. “We can win on any given day.”
He expanded on that message in a national Zoom call Wednesday.
“I just don’t believe in putting limitations on teams,” he said. “I don’t believe in conceding anything until we get on the field and we match up and we see how many we can win. That mindset has proven good for me over the years.”
It almost sounded like he was rehearsing the speech he will give to the team in Lakeland in February before the first full-squad workout.
“I’m not saying we’re a World Series-caliber team right now, but we’re not going to lose a game without playing it,” Hinch said. “It’s important for us to have that mindset as a young team that hasn’t had the success the last few years that is expected around here in Detroit.
“You don’t put limitations on yourself in December. That to me is a garbage mentality and it’s not how we’re going to operate here.”
Unlike his predecessor Ron Gardenhire, Hinch seems to have more direct involvement in roster decisions. With Gardenhire, there was a distinct separation between manager and general manager.
“This time of year it’s usually just shooting down rumors you guys (media) have to cover,” he said, laughing. “But it can get interesting. I have a lot of information. I talk to Al (Avila, general manager) every day. I talk to Scott (Bream, vice present of player personnel), David Chadd (assistant general manager) and Sam Menzin (director of baseball operations). I know what’s true and what’s not true.”
What’s true is, other than drafting a Rule 5 outfielder (Akil Baddoo), the Tigers have yet to make any significant alterations to the big-league roster.
“You can get a little impatient this time of year because you want to get a team put together,” Hinch said. “But you have to believe in the process. … I love that I’m involved. Al has been tremendous, not only keeping me in the loop, but as an active participant.
“We’re going to keep chiseling away to get better. We have a lot of work to do.”
The priorities, as both Avila and Hinch have stated, are acquiring one or two veteran starting pitchers, one or two offensive upgrades, be it corner outfield or corner infield, and hopefully a veteran catcher.
Alexander, Norris in mix
While the Tigers hope to sign a couple of veteran starters, Hinch also said left-handers Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander will be given a chance to earn rotation spots. Both pitched effectively in long relief last year.
“Alexander and Norris are going to factor in,” he said. “This pitching staff can be put together creatively in a lot of different ways. And it doesn’t mean the young starters (Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, specifically) aren’t on the team to start the season. They’re going to have to earn that.”
Hinch said he hopes the Tigers can build a rotation – at the big-league level and at Triple-A Toledo – that goes as much as 10 to 13 pitchers deep. That’s what it’s going to take to bridge the innings gap from a short 60-game season – where top of the rotation starters Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull worked 60 and 56 innings – to potentially a full, 162-game season where starters typically work from 170 to 200 innings.
“We’re trying to give ourselves as many options as we can to not only get through the innings, but be good at it,” Hinch said. “We don't want to just cover the innings, we want to be good at it.”
If Alexander and/or Norris don’t win rotation spots in spring training, Hinch said their ability to pitch extended innings will valuable out of the bullpen.
“One thing I am steadfast about is having our guys be multiple-innings relievers,” he said. “That’s goes beyond Alexander and Norris. Joe Jimenez, Buck Farmer, Jose Cisnero, Bryan Garcia, guys that we’re going to count on to pitch important innings, they’re going to have to be able to get up and down twice.
“You are going to see us be creative with the pitching staff.”
Hinch wasn’t about to specify position players the Tigers might be targeting in free agency, but he did talk about the type of hitter he wants.
“The key for us is we’ve got to find some better at-bats,” he said. “We have to have tougher at-bats. Those kinds of players are going to be really attractive to us.”
According to FanGraphs, the Tigers led the Major Leagues in strikeout percentage (27.3) and were second only to the Orioles in chasing pitches outside the strike zone (34 percent). On top of that, they were last in walk percentage (7.1).
“We have to minimize the strikeouts and the non-competitive at-bats,” Hinch said. “Whatever position that is, it could range from outfield, to infield, second base/first base. Quality at-bats have to be the primary driver of adding a position player, if it was solely up to me.”
The offensive side of the equation may factor less in the Tigers’ pursuit of a veteran catcher.
“We’re looking at upgrades there from the standpoint of – if we do this right, we have to protect our pitching,” he said. “One of the ways we can produce better results from our pitching staff is out of the catcher position.”
Hinch said he was intrigued by prospect Jake Rogers and he thinks he can be an everyday catcher – at some point.
“I haven’t been around him enough to really put my stamp on him yet,” he said. “He’s got the ingredients but we haven’t been able to maximize that yet. We will put that challenge in front of him at some point – whether he makes our team out of spring training or if he continues to develop in Triple-A.”
The free agent catchers available in the Tigers’ price range include Jason Castro, Austin Romine, Alex Avila, Wilson Ramos and Tyler Flowers.
“We get so fixated on projections now and labeling how many wins are going to be possible or what the roster makeup is,” Hinch said. “The roster is not made. I have no idea how many games we can win, but I also don’t know how many games we can’t win.
“So for me, it’s a mindset of trying to win today’s game, capitalizing on opportunities and trying to put guys in positions to be successful.”