Tigers embark on wide-open skipper search
Dombrowski to weigh experience, continuity in building list of candidates
DETROIT -- The last time the Tigers hired a new manager, the search lasted only a day. Out went former Tigers great Alan Trammell the day after the 2005 season ended, in came Jim Leyland the next.
On Monday, as president and general manager Dave Dombrowski answered one question after another at Comerica Park about the search for Leyland's successor, it became clear this wouldn't be that kind of search.
There's only one Jim Leyland. Finding the guy who can follow him and win with his team is going to take a while.
"We have a very good club, and expectations will be to compete and try to win a championship next year," Dombrowski said. "So, we'll put all of that in the hopper, have some discussions, have some questions and start to interview some people pretty soon."
It's not a simple matter of finding the right person. At the roots, at the first step along the road, it's a matter of the Tigers deciding whether they're better off keeping continuity, or whether their roster needs a different voice as a spark.
If the Tigers opt for continuity, they have two former Major League managers from Leyland's coaching staff to consider. Bench coach Gene Lamont managed at two stops in the 1990s, and he led the White Sox to an American League Central title in 1993 (and had them leading the division in 1994). He was the runner-up to Bobby Valentine in the Red Sox managerial search after the 2011 season.
The more likely in-house candidate, however, is hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, who managed the Pirates from 2001-05 before joining Leyland's staff in Detroit. Leyland has talked several times about wanting to see McClendon get another chance to manage somewhere, and he was a strong candidate for the Seattle Mariners' job that went to Eric Wedge after the 2010 season.
McClendon will turn 55 in January, and he has taken his share of criticism from fans over the Tigers' offensive struggles. Quietly, however, he has had his successes, from getting Miguel Cabrera to maintain his focus every at-bat to turning Alex Avila and Austin Jackson around at different points.
If the Tigers decide they have the mix to win in place now rather than shake things up, McClendon could be the front-runner. Dombrowski isn't talking names, but he indicated on Monday that the club is not looking for a culture change as it was when Leyland was hired eight years ago.
"You're not looking to change the culture at this time, that's for sure," Dombrowski said. "We've won a lot of games. We won three straight divisional crowns. I don't know that you're looking to change. I mean, everybody has their own unique personality and tackles situations in different ways. That person will be their own individual. But I think it's important that whoever we pick up gives us an opportunity to win."
If the Tigers decide they want a new voice from outside, shake-up or not, the question becomes how much experience matters to the organization. There are arguments on both sides for that.
The Cardinals are in the World Series behind Mike Matheny, who hadn't managed on any level of pro ball when St. Louis hired him a couple of years ago. In fact, three of the four managers in the League Championship Series were first-time skippers in their first, second or third seasons. Leyland was the one exception. Add in Robin Ventura's ability to push the White Sox into contention in 2012, and there's a reason why more teams have opened up to new voices.
On the flip side, Terry Francona took his experience from winning in Boston to Cleveland and pushed the Indians over the late-season hump that had stalled them the previous couple seasons. Clint Hurdle, who led the Rockies to the World Series in 2007, has become a savior in Pittsburgh. Dusty Baker led Cincinnati out of mediocrity a few years ago with three 90-win seasons in the last four years.
Dombrowski appeared inclined toward the experienced side in his remarks on Monday, but sounded open to the other direction. If he does go for a first-time manager, however, he doesn't have the time frame for an adjustment season. This is a win-now club, as in 2014, and while the team has a good amount of young talent, it also has contract situations that leave a short window before the roster makeup gets a change.
"I don't have a per se job description 100 percent," Dombrowski said, "but I will say that whoever steps in here has to be able to manage a club that has a chance to win right now and handle some very good, established Major League players. ... This club is built to try to win so the person that we're going to hire will be the person that we think gives us the best chance.
"I have always been a strong advocate of having managerial experience, because I think that there are some things that you learn, not necessarily always at the Major League level, but I think it's important, because those are tough shoes to fill and there's a lot that's involved in it. So, I think it's very important that that person know how to deal with as many issues as they possibly can ...
"There's been a new sort of trend in recent years where there's been some guys that have not managed that have come in and managed. So, I can't say that I would eliminate that because I think it's very important that you look at each and every case and get the best person possible. Is it likely the person has managerial experience to some extent? Yes. Is it for sure? I don't know that at this point."
One of the hottest names on the inexperienced side is former Tigers catcher Brad Ausmus. The 44-year-old's only managerial experience came with Team Israel in this year's World Baseball Classic qualifiers, but his 18-year career as a player and his work as a special assistant make him an appealing candidate.
A potential first-time manager with more experience would be Red Sox coach Torey Lovullo, who came up in the Tigers' system and gained brief fame when Sparky Anderson made him his Opening Day first baseman in 1989. Like Leyland years ago, the 48-year-old Lovullo built his resume managing in the Minor Leagues for nearly a decade before progressing to a Major League coach on John Farrell's staffs in Toronto and now Boston.
If Dombrowski opts for experience, the search still isn't going to be easy. As he acknowledged, there's no former manager turned hot name out there -- not in the broadcast booth, not in the special assistant ranks, nowhere.
"Last year, I thought there was an obvious name out there that was a real blue-chip candidate to manage a good club, and that was Terry Francona," Dombrowski said. "I don't have a name like that out there this year, so it's going to take a lot of thorough research."
Dombrowski has consulted with Leyland's good friend Tony La Russa on a search, but he said flat-out on Monday that the 69-year-old La Russa isn't interested in managing again. Most of the proven names out there are similar in age, from the 64-year-old Baker to 69-year-old ex-Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and 70-year-old Davey Johnson.
Of that group, Johnson has the advantage of proving he can connect with a younger team. He managed the upstart Washington Nationals to an NL East title in 2012, then overcame a miserable start to send them on a late-season charge this past season, eventually finishing second with an 86-76 mark. He took a slugging-oriented offense and pushed it, getting through the summer with a slumping lineup.
If there's a hot name with experience, it's Diamondbacks manager and Tigers legend Kirk Gibson. His Michigan ties and Tiger loyalties are a logical fit. However, these veteran, slugging, superstar Tigers are almost the exact opposite of the gritty Arizona club Gibson has helped build. There's also the loyalty Gibson has with Alan Trammell, whom Dombrowski let go in 2005 along with a coaching staff that included Gibson.
Dombrowski has hired just two managers in his Tigers tenure, not counting in-season replacement Luis Pujols. In both cases, the list of candidates was short -- in Leyland's case, it wasn't even a list. This is the first time in a long while that Dombrowski has had a job to fill and no logical favorite attached to it.
"I've got a list already made," he said, "but it's not to say that list won't be expanded or people taken off, just because I haven't asked questions of anyone. It's not like I've been out there bantering names about with individuals."
Luckily for Dombrowski, there's arguably more riding on his choice than any other managerial hire he's done. For that reason, he might widen his field and take his time. He'll consult with Leyland, obviously, and he's even open to taking ideas from players. In the end, though, the decision rests with him and owner Mike Ilitch, whom Dombrowski said remains actively involved in the organizational decisions at age 84.
"We'll find somebody that's good," Dombrowski said. "They've got some tough shoes to fill, but we'll find somebody that can handle the club."