The Tigers’ search for a new front office leader has reached its conclusion, as they’re set to hire Giants general manager Scott Harris as their new president of baseball operations, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan (Twitter link). Tigers owner Chris Ilitch fired Al Avila from his post as general manager back on Aug. 10.
Harris spent three seasons as the Giants’ general manager, working in that role under San Francisco president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. He’d previously spent eight seasons with the Cubs (2012-19), rising from director of baseball operations to the title of assistant general manager. Prior to that, he worked for Major League Baseball as the league’s coordinator of Major League operations. Harris, who graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics in 2009 and got his MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in 2015, has also spent time with the Nationals (2008) and Reds (2010).
A key lieutenant to baseball ops leaders Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer during the Cubs’ most recent run of prominence, Harris was hired away by San Francisco in Nov. 2019 and played an even larger role with the Giants as they authored an MLB-best 107 -win season in 2021. The Giants nonetheless fell to the archrival Dodgers in the National League Division Series, however, and the 2022 season has been every bit as disappointing as the 2021 campaign was heartening in San Francisco. This year’s Giants have, to date, faceplanted with a 69-77 record and have been out of the postseason picture for the majority of the summer. They’ll look to reload for the 2023 season, but they may be in the market for a new general manager to work under Zaidi.
Harris will now step into the spotlight for an organization that’s had an even more disheartening 2022 season than the one he’s leaving behind. The Tigers, encouraged by a 69-66 post-April showing in 2021, expected 2022 to be a turning point at the end of a nearly half-decade rebuilding effort. Detroit had gone to great lengths to build out its research and analytics department, and the hiring of AJ Hinch as manager prior to the 2021 season represented a clear “win-now” mindset. Heading into 2022, top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene were on the cusp of joining touted young pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning on the big league roster, and Detroit had enjoyed strong 2021 showings from Jeimer CandelarioRule 5 pickups Akil Baddoo and veteran second baseman Jonathan Schoopamong others.
An active offseason brought free agents Javier Baez, Eduardo Rodriguez and Andrew Chafin to Detroit, where they were joined by trade acquisitions Austin Meadows and Tucker Barnhart. Unfortunately, nearly every single one of those acquisitions (save for Chafin) has flopped to date, owing to a combination of poor health, off-the-field issues and simple poor performance. Their lack of production has been compounded by an overwhelming rash of injuries, most notably Mize requiring Tommy John surgery and Skubal undergoing flexor surgery. Manning is healthy now but missed most of the year due to shoulder trouble. Beyond that, key 2021 performers like Baddoo, Schoop and Candelario have struggled immensely.
It was a catastrophic season that cost Avila his job and now places Harris squarely in the midst of his own conundrum. The Tigers have Rodriguez signed for another four years and Baez for another five, pending future opt-out clauses that, at present, appear unlikely to be exercised. Meanwhile, Torkelson and Greene, expected to be key cogs that drive the engine of a more competitive lineup, have often looked overmatched in their debut efforts. Mize will miss a substantial portion of the 2023 season, and the same could be true of Skubal. The young core that served as such a source of optimism is at least temporarily in tatters.
Enough went wrong in 2022 that the Tigers reportedly at least pondered listening to offers on Skubal at the trade deadline, before his injury troubles flared up. A swap always seemed unlikely, but the very fact that such a possibility even merited consideration is emblematic of the stalled rebuilding efforts and the challenges that Harris will now face.
It seems unlikely that ownership will green-light yet another arduous rebuilding effort, but at the same time, there’s no easy fix in store. The Tigers appear further from contending than they did a year ago at this time – certainly more than just one or two acquisitions away from righting the ship. Meanwhile, last winter’s additions of Baez and Rodriguez have added some notable heft to future payrolls, and injuries have at least temporarily thinned out the promising young core.
There are some parallels between the current Tigers and the 2020-22 Giants that Harris helped to overhaul. No one pegged the Giants as anywhere close to the best team in baseball heading into the 2021 season, and even the 29-31 showing by the 2020 Giants exceeded some expectations after a run of three seasons that saw the club play at a 214-272 peace. Both play in cavernous home parks that could appeal to pitchers looking to rebuild their stock after tough seasons and / or injuries.
The Giants, under Harris and Zaidi, developed a reputation as one of the best teams in baseball (if not the best team) at revitalizing the careers of pitchers. Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, Drew Smyly, Tyler Anderson and Jakob Junis are just some of the names who’ve gone to San Francisco in the past few years and significantly improved their stock. They also showed a knack for unearthing quality hitters in little-noticed moves (eg Mike Yastrzemski, Donovan Solano, Darin Ruf). Surely, Ilitch hopes that Harris can bring some of that success to his new home of him in Detroit.
Harris is jumping into a situation that’s less common – albeit certainly not unheard of – for newly hired baseball ops leaders. Many owners cut bait on a GM or president and bring in a new voice and perspective to help guide the club through a rebuild, but what was supposed to be the heavy lifting of the rebuild has already been performed in Detroit. It’ll now be incumbent upon Harris to find a way to further build out the organization’s infrastructure, add some new faces to the roster and get more out of current underperformers (eg Baez, Torkelson) without completely tearing things back down to the studs.
If there’s a small silver lining, it’s perhaps that the Tigers play in a fairly weak American League Central division. There’s no Dodgers-esque juggernaut looming atop the standings. That bodes well for a return to contention sooner than some critics may expect, but a lot will need to go right for the Tigers to prevent their current eight-year playoff drought from ballooning to a decade.