The steps Detroit’s new exec should follow to fix the Tigers

The steps Detroit’s new exec should follow to fix the Tigers post thumbnail image

The Detroit Tigers announced a new president of baseball operations on Monday, hiring former San Francisco Giants general manager Scott Harris. He replaced outgoing GM Al Avila, who was fired last month after presiding in Detroit from 2016 to 2022.

Under Avila, the Tigers posted a .415 winning percentage, following a 10-year period where they had a .533 winning percentage. Part of this was expected, as Avila took over during the teardown portion of a rebuild, but very few executives get five-plus years to execute a turnaround without getting particularly close to .500 at any point.

There were a lot of high draft picks and hyped prospects throughout Avila’s reign but the crown jewels now are outfielder Riley Greene and left-hander Tarik Skubal, with basically every other player a question mark.

Harris has a solid background with stints working directly under Farhan Zaidi in San Francisco and Theo Epstein, the former president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. As a 36-year-old with only office-based titles in his past, Harris is seen more as a CEO type than a scouting-evaluation type, which should help tackle his tasks in Detroit.

I’ll lay out what should be some smart steps going forward for Harris as he digs into his new role.

1. Pick a direction

This may seem obvious, but the Texas Rangers proved in the last offseason that reasonable minds can differ on this sort of thing.

Nothing about Harris’ past suggests he’d want to spend a mediocre team into contention, but it’s worth mentioning. One reason is that Detroit tried a version of this last winter, spending $217 million on Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez, and trying to turn a surprise 77-win team into a contender. More on this below, but the winter plan failed spectacularly.

There are enough bounce-back candidates (Rodriguez, Spencer Turnbull, Austin Meadows) and touted young players (Spencer Torkelson, Matt Manning, Dillon Dingler, Joey Wentz, Wilmer Flores) that if they all move in the right direction and you add three standout veterans, you could see this team being .500 or better next season. That’s the logic of someone that’s kidding themselves, but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

The more likely option is an incremental build focused on handing out only short-term free agent contracts while trying to target reclamation projects, potential rentals (who can be flipped if the team isn’t in contention) and filling holes at roster spots that there isn’t an obvious young player showing up during the next season.

There are examples for Detroit to draw from in this strategy: The Giants and Boston Red Sox (both with chief execs from the broadly defined Tampa Bay Rays‘ tree) are both doing a version of this — with a key difference that both teams were trying to compete from day one, a tough balancing act. If you want to be more optimistic, the Rays, Oakland Athletics and Milwaukee Brewers have found the playoffs regularly doing a version of this with a much lower payroll than what the Tigers can afford.

2. Development!

While picking a direction is the first thing that needs to be done (and probably has already been decided in part by the choice of Harris to run the front office), steps two and three are where Harris will prove if he’s the right fit.

You could argue that international and domestic scouting aren’t the Tigers’ biggest problems, and I think it’s reasonable to say those departments are average. But Detroit needs both areas to be above average to help boost the talent base, so I can see the logic of making changes to speed up that process. On the other hand, player development was a much larger area of concern under Avila — evidenced by the number of high first-round draft picks with little to show for it in terms of major league results.

Yes, there have been some gains in pitching development of late (as the result of some external hires), but development as a whole — from the big leagues all the way down to the Dominican Summer League — is the No. 1 thing that must be improved. The process to getting better results likely involves bringing in more outside hires with different perspectives, as well as overhauling the rest of the approach that hasn’t already been addressed on the pitching side.

Development is often seen as a minor league thing, but there are some real problems to address at the big league level as well.

  1. Baez posted arguably the worst season of his career in Year 1 of a $140 million deal.

  2. Rodriguez missed time with an injury and an off-field issue, but has also had arguably the worst season of his career in the first year of a $77 million deal.

  3. Jeimer Candelario (3.9 WAR in 2021) and Akil Baddoo (1.8 WAR in 2021 as a Rule 5 pick) were both below replacement level this year after looking like scouting and development feel-good stories.

  4. Former No. 1 overall draft pick Torkerlson had a bad debut season, even further below replacement level than Candelario and Baddoo, after being ranked as a consensus top-10 prospect in the sport.

  5. Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, will miss most or all of the 2023 season after Tommy John surgery, but has been mediocre (4.95 FIP) over 188⅔ IP in the big leagues.

If these six players were playing as well as expected, it’s reasonable to think Avila would still have his job.

3. Develop a point of view

Solving this development problem will come with the added benefit of helping establish a point of view. This may sound like something that should be well down the to-do list, but it’s something you find in all first-class organizations. It hasn’t been clear in Detroit’s recent drafts or major league roster construction.

In Detroit’s division, the first-place Cleveland Guardians turn late round college arms into good big leaguers (via velocity-training and pitch design) and generally build a big league team efficiently. The New York Yankees turn later round picks and low-dollar international signings into prospects (in a number of ways) and trade the middle-to-low-tier ones to prop up the big league team. The Los Angeles Dodgers teach hitters with untapped raw power how to lift the ball and often find improved command or pitch design for one-dimensional pitching prospects, with similar results on big league acquisitions.

I could go on, but in fixing a development problem, an organization finds what it’s best at, which then allows the executive team to lean into that competency and acquire more players like that — whether in trade, free agency, or amateur signings/draft. The best organizations will shift and change their point of view over the years as the market reacts to what is working with the winning organizations. There are hidden benefits in being at the bottom of a rebuild, beyond the attention-grabbing high draft picks: top waiver order, players choosing you on minor league deals because of a better chance to play and 40-man roster spots that can be used on high-upside gambles. A good rebuild finds a few good — maybe even core — players in the two-to-three worst years via these routes.

Free agents start calling you first because they see a chance to improve and get a big contract. Two recent examples in which Harris was directly involved are Kevin Gausman and Carlos Rodon, who have made well into the nine figures due to platform years with the Giants.

The other reason to do this is that at least two-thirds of MLB’s front offices (which as of Monday now includes the Tigers) are valuing players pretty similarly by leaning on sophisticated algorithms, which can obviously integrate scouting reports with stats, to be clear. To actually sign a free agent of some value or agree on a trade, you have to have some asymmetry from other teams in how you value players.

Some of the worst-run teams in baseball don’t make trades because they don’t have a POV and don’t have confidence they can beat an organization in a heads-up evaluation contest. With a development POV, you don’t have to: Both teams can be right, the trade can be perfectly equal and you just improve the player you acquire more than his previous team could have.

In free agency, if you juice your model’s value of available hitters with untapped raw power by 10% because your hitting coach is good with those types, for example, you’ll end up with some players like that.

But if you just let the market come to you with no preferences, you get everyone else’s leftovers. Think about the guy that goes into an auction fantasy draft with no plan, just a printout of some expert’s values in front of him. You want to bet that guy wins the league?

4. Prioritize big picture questions

The specifics of what is done with the big league team this winter isn’t that important in the long run. The pitching could well be a league-average unit next year and the lineup looks like it’ll be pretty bad.

Sure the Tigers have immediate questions to answer this winter: Do you platoon Candelario and Jonathan Schoop at an infield spot and then add a cheaper veteran infielder like Brandon Drury? Or bring everyone back, pocket that potential Drury contract, throw prospect Ryan Kreidler in the mix and wait for other prospects Dingler and Andre Lipcius to come up, trying not to put anyone in their way?

All of those paths, short of a nine-figure investment, equal a below-average lineup that isn’t making the playoffs.

But the questions that will define Harris’ tenure are things more like:

Big leagues

  • What kind of free agents do you target? Further, what characteristics do you want to acquire? What kind of resources/say will you give to scouts in pro scouting?

  • To get internal analytics to the level you want them at, will it take one year or three years?

  • Will you hire a scouting-oriented GM to handle some of these issues day-to-day or stick with the inner circle you’ve been handed?

Minor leagues

  • How much will you rely on a draft/international model and what will it emphasize more than other clubs’ models?

  • What skills do you think you can teach to players and which do you think you cannot?

  • Will you seek new development/scouting personnel that are consistent with your POV, or try to train the existing staff?

  • Are you taking a five-year approach to solving problems or looking for small wins wherever you can find them?

While Harris’ own background includes Epstein and Zaidi, there is another path that he can follow when putting his systems to answer these questions in place: Atlanta Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos, when he took the top job in Atlanta.

Anthopoulos spent the early part of his time in Atlanta getting the right people and analytics in place while allowing a wave of young talent to develop, instead of making an immediate splash in free agency or high-profile trade when he joined the Braves in 2017. A similar path would give Harris a chance to see what he has to work with from that collection of former high draft picks while setting his sights on big roster improvements a few offseasons in — which worked out pretty well for the 2021 Braves.

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