The Tigers Stay Patient in Baseball’s Waiting Game
LAKELAND, Fla. — So much of baseball is waiting. Waiting for your turn at bat. Waiting for the ball to be hit your way. Waiting, really, for your chance.
Scott Harris, the Detroit Tigers’ new president of baseball operations, is used to this. At 35 years old, he did not wait long, comparatively, for his chance to run a major league team. But his introduction to the world of baseball was a lesson in holding back until the time was right.
As a sophomore at U.C.L.A., Harris drove out to Palm Desert, Calif., to have lunch with Al Rosen, the only person in baseball history to be win both the Most Valuable Player Award and Executive of the Year. Harris’s grandmother, Joan Harris, had met Rosen, learned of his background, and played matchmaker for her grandson, who wanted to work in baseball.
Rosen, then in his 80s, won the American League M.V.P. as a slugging third baseman for Cleveland in 1953. As a general manager, he took the San Francisco Giants from last place to first in just two years, earning top executive honors from The Sporting News in 1987. The man had gravitas, and Harris, enthralled, listened much more than he spoke.
“It was one of those lunches that felt like it could have lasted forever,” Harris said on Tuesday, from his office overlooking the outfield at the Tigers’ training complex between Tampa and Orlando. “We went our separate ways afterwards and I just started writing letters to teams. On a whim I brought the responses I got back to Mr. Rosen and that sowed the seeds of a longstanding relationship I wish still existed today.”
Rosen was 91 when he died in 2015, the year Harris earned his masters of business administration from Northwestern — while also serving as director of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. Rosen had started Harris on his career path by arranging an unpaid internship for him with the Washington Nationals as a college junior, and Harris, in time, would keep his mentor current.
“One of the last conversations we had was about a trade we made with the Cubs, and he couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that negotiations were happening over text message these days — because in his day, you would have had to sit down in front of a G.M. and read their non-verbals and make decisions,” Harris said, smiling. “I miss him a lot. I owe my career to that chance encounter with him.”
After a three-year stop as the Giants’ general manager, under Farhan Zaidi, Harris took his career to Detroit last September. The Tigers had fired his predecessor, Al Avila, who had helped construct a team that won four consecutive A.L. Central titles, through 2014, but had not been back to the playoffs since.
The eight-year absence is tied with the Los Angeles Angels for the longest active streak in Major League Baseball. But in an off-season of aggressive spending by many teams, Harris decided to wait. He traded a couple of relievers, signed a couple of starters to one-year deals — and revamped the infrastructure of an organization that suddenly seems modern.
“Completely, from just the plan that’s laid out for each one of us, how camp’s being run, the staff that’s here — it’s exciting already,” said the left-handed starter Matthew Boyd, who returned to the Tigers for one year and $10 million after ending last season with Seattle. “I was here for seven years and I only was gone for one year, and I feel like I’m in a new clubhouse.”
The Tigers needed a reboot: They have lost almost half of their paying customers in the decade since 2013, when Miguel Cabrera won his second M.V.P. and the team drew almost 3.1 million fans to its regular-season home games. Despite making four top-five selections in the last five drafts, Detroit ranks last among the league’s 30 teams in Keith Law’s annual farm system rankings for The Athletic.
Harris said he cannot yet tell just how much talent the Tigers really have. But he was careful not to rush into any deals, and eager to see how the prospects respond to more nuanced, individualized instruction.
“Those players are going to change, and we want an opportunity to get through a whole development cycle with the talent we already have, in-house, before we make judgment calls on whether they will find themselves in a trade in the future,” Harris said. “We wanted to build the systems and the staff around these players to at least evaluate them on a little bit of a deeper level.”
So the Tigers will wait: for the right-handed starter Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, to return from last June’s Tommy John surgery; for first baseman Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, to hammer fastballs the way he did at Arizona State; for others, like center fielder Riley Greene and starter Matt Manning, to develop their top-of-the-draft talent.
Last year’s 96-loss stumble — when Greene’s modest .321 on-base percentage led all regulars and no pitcher reached 120 innings — was a painful learning process. Besides the 3,000th career hit by Cabrera, who turns 40 this April and is entering the final year of his contract, there was little to celebrate.
“As bad as it hurt to go through struggles like that at the highest level, reflecting on that, it’s only going to help me,” said Torkelson, whose .604 on-base plus slugging percentage ranked last among first basemen with at least 400 plate appearances.
He added: “You learn more when you fail than when you succeed, and I think 10, 15 years down the road, I’m going to look back and think, ‘You know what? Thank you for last year, because that really helped me out in my career.’”
Several veteran Tigers should also improve, like shortstop Javier Báez, who hit just .238 in the first season of a six-year, $140 million contract, and the left-handed starter Eduardo Rodriguez, who missed about half of last season for personal reasons. Outfielder Austin Meadows, who had 27 homers for Tampa Bay in 2021, missed almost all of the season with Achilles tendinitis and mental-health issues.
“For me, personally, I’m in a much better place,” Meadows said. “I think I can add a really good weapon to this lineup if I stay healthy and be a leader on this team.”
The Tigers have expanded their coaching, analytics and mental-performance staffs, improved the clubhouse food options (“Last year it would have been just a plain chicken breast,” Torkelson said, “and now it’s like lemon zest garlic chicken”), and the distant center field wall at Comerica Park has been pulled in by 10 feet, to 412 feet. The Tigers’ chief executive, Christopher Ilitch, has even promised a new team plane.
None of those changes, by themselves, will make the Tigers contend for the postseason this year. But the idea, Harris has always known, is to create an atmosphere that brings out the players’ best. That was Rosen’s most important lesson, he said: The players are the game.
“That’s what he meant — in this game, it’s easy to get distracted by all of the other things,” Harris said. “So we have to stay hyper-focused on the players in that room two floors below us and how we’re helping them get the absolute most out of their talent.”
The waiting, Harris and the Tigers believe, will be worth it.