The Detroit Tigers formally introduced Scott Harris on Tuesday afternoon as the team’s president of baseball operations.
Harris, a 35-year-old forward-thinking executive, joins the Tigers after three seasons with the San Francisco Giants, holding the general manager title, and seven seasons with the Chicago Cubs.
“When it came time to make a decision,” Harris said, “it was just something that was too good to pass on.”
He played a role in the Cubs snapping a 108-year World Series drought in 2016, then helped the Giants to a franchise-record 107 wins in 2021. He has worked for and learned from Farhan Zaidi, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.
Now, Harris is in charge of reviving the Tigers, a slow-to-modernize franchise that hasn’t advanced to the postseason since 2014 and hasn’t won the World Series since 1984.
Former general manager Al Avila was fired Aug. 10 in his seventh season running the organization. Entering Monday, when Harris’ hire became official, the Tigers had a 55-91 record in 2022.
They won Monday night, 11-0 against the Baltimore Orioles, to start 1-0 in the Harris era.
“We looked at it as though it were a recruitment as much as it was an interview,” CEO and chairman Christopher Ilitch said. “Scott has been very successful in his career. I’m excited that he saw the same opportunity that we saw, this being a great place to lead a baseball organization at this point in his career.”
Here are five takeaways from Harris’ news conference:
Before fielding questions, Harris presented the three main concepts of his vision. This was the most important part of everything that happened Tuesday.
1. The Tigers must acquire, develop and retain young players, especially over the next few years; 2. The Tigers must get the most out of the players at all levels of the organization by creating a culture of development; 3. The strike zone influences everything on the field.
“When I think of Detroit, I think of trying to create an environment that inspires players to want to get better and to put in all the work that they can to get better,” Harris said.
To address these in order, starting with the first concept, the Tigers have a decent group of young players at the big-league level, though a couple are injured: Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Casey Mize (Tommy John surgery), Tarik Skubal (flexor tendon surgery) and Matt Manning. There’s also Ryan Kreidler, Beau Brieske, Kerry Carpenter and Akil Baddoo, among others. The farm system is running dry, but the new player development department has revived several careers that appeared to be falling apart.
“I’m excited to meet him,” Greene told USA TODAY Sports’ Gabe Laques on Tuesday in Baltimore. “We watched his press conference and heard some of the things he said. He comes from a winning background, and we’re excited to get started. But we’re going to focus on stuff we need to focus on the field, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Harris said he wants free agents to feel confident they will improve and lengthen their careers with the Tigers because of the technology, coaches, support staff and overall environment. The same is true for younger players from the amateur draft and international signing period that work their way through the organization.
“If we have a young player coming through the system, when he finally gets that call to come to Detroit, I don’t want him to take a breath and feel like he’s made it,” Harris said. “I want him to be excited about the next level of development. When he comes in and walks into the clubhouse, I want him to know A.J. and his staff are going to know everything about him. … That’s going to be really important if we’re going to build the type of organization that we want to build here.”
Harris’ thoughts on the strike zone gives us a sense of what the on-field product will look like, as soon as 2023 spring training. Harris said the strike zone dictates pitch counts, count leverage, length of innings, the load on a pitcher’s body and how many pitchers are used in a series. The strike zone, he said, also dictates quality of contact a team is giving up and how much contact a team is giving up, which influences the defense.
In 2022, the Tigers’ offense ranks 30th with a 33.5% chase rate, according to Statcast, and the pitching staff ranks 12th with 49.1% of pitches thrown in the strike zone but 27th as opponents have an 84.1% contact rate when swinging at pitches in the zone.
“It touches essentially every part of our game, so we’re going to start there,” Harris said. “We want to dominate the strike zone on both sides of the ball, and we want to acquire, develop and retain players that can give us a chance to do that.”
The elephant in the room, always, is payroll.
“As I’ve mentioned over the years, my intent is to make sure that our organization has all the resources to be highly competitive on a sustainable basis and ultimately be a championship team and organization,” Ilitch said.
Here’s what Harris said: “We talked about resources. This ownership group has a long history of supporting the baseball operation. It’s on me to come up with compelling opportunities and to pitch those opportunities to Chris. I know if I do that, I’ll have his full support.”
General manager search
Harris will hire a general manager, but he does not have a timeline for his decision. He referred to Tuesday as “Day 1” and believes he needs to fully grasp the strengths and weaknesses of the organization before establishing a target date for what should be his first hire with the Tigers.
“These jobs are increasingly large and complicated,” Harris said. “Every single year, they get more complex. Having another bright and talented person to partner with in these jobs is critically important. If you look around the game, there are a lot of very successful organizations over the last handful of years that have adopted this approach. … I think it gives you an edge, bringing more talented people to this front office and empowering them to make decisions.”
Here’s one name that might fit: Jason McLeod. He worked for Epstein, Hoyer and alongside Harris with the Chicago Cubs. If building a three-headed monster within the front office is the plan, McLeod makes sense.
Harris said internal candidates — he didn’t mention assistant general managers Sam Menzin or Jay Sartori by name — will be considered if they fit the description of what he’s looking for in a general manager.
What about A.J. Hinch?
Speaking of Hinch, the Tigers’ manager has been in contact with Harris for weeks. They’ve bantered about game strategy, deploying players in the best way to be successful and development of players at the highest level. Two smart minds — both on and off the field — have converged and shared their visions for the organization.
“It’s a very comfortable conversation very early on when you get to know him,” Harris said. “That meant a lot to me. It made me feel comfortable here.”
Hinch, hired under former general manager Al Avila, became an instant hit in Detroit, though the allure has worn off with some fans because of the poor results this season. Taking over the on-field product in October 2020, Hinch guided the Tigers to a third-place finish in the American League Central last year, surpassing expectations. This time around, the Tigers are one of the worst teams in baseball. With Harris steering the ship, Hinch should be able to focus more of his energy on his role as the manager. The direction of the organization is in good hands.
The search process
Apparently, Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman played a part in Harris joining the Tigers. First, Ilitch thanked Hinch, Chris McGowan (president and CEO of Ilitch Sports and Entertainment) and Ryan Gustafson (senior VP of business operations strategy). They were at the epicenter of the search process.
Ryan Garko (player development) and Scott Bream (player personnel) contributed, too. Menzin and Sartori, the two of the Tigers’ three assistant general managers, helped at the end of the process. Ilitch did not mention assistant general manager David Chadd.
During the interview, Harris detailed to Ilitch a clear vision and plan. A progressive candidate, he brought examples, seemingly based on data and technology, of how he will achieve his goals. Ilitch called him “very intelligent, very humble and very low key,” as well as “very competitive” in search of a World Series championship.
“It became very clear to me that he places a strong emphasis on innovation and not necessarily chasing what others are doing but trying to innovate what’s next and staying ahead,” Ilitch said. “Innovation is where growth occurs, and a lot of value gets added. That was very appealing to me.”
The overall vibe
After the news conference ended, I received this text message from a person in baseball who watched: “Reminded me a lot of Theo.” Someone else mentioned Theo Epstein in a conversation Monday. Not to make this all about Epstein — because it’s not — but having that said about you isn’t a bad thing. This wasn’t anything like an Avila press conference. After all, they’re two completely different executives with completely different ways of operating. Harris dominated the press conference with his presence. He appeared confident and poised, not speaking too little or too much.
Harris also tried connecting with the fans: “This is an exceptional opportunity and responsibility, but this isn’t my team, this isn’t the front office’s team, this isn’t the players’ team. This is Detroit’s team. … We know that this team means more to the fans in this city than I’ll ever know. We’re going to be mindful of that.”
Obviously, Harris understands a lot more than he led on. He did an excellent job of balancing what he knows and what he didn’t say, never tipping his hand publicly. “It’s probably not that strategic to share exactly what I think we can and should do here to differentiate ourselves,” he said. To be fair, he hasn’t met face-to-face with a lot of people he will make decisions about, and he doesn’t know everything he needs to about the organization and its old process. What’s clear, though, is every word matters and he is very calculated. That’s a good sign.
Also, I thought Ilitch presented himself well.
Essentially, they crushed it.
Other noteworthy quotes
• On analytics and biomechanics: “I did the best I could to get a feel for what we would be inheriting here. I can’t tell you I have a great feel for it. Through all these conversations that I have planned for the weeks and months ahead, I expect to have a much better feel for that.”
• On the farm system and Miguel Cabrera’s future: “Those are totally fair questions. I don’t have answers for those questions right now. I have to get in and understand all the information that we have on the players in the farm system. I also have to sit down with Miguel and talk with him to better be prepared to answer that question. I have some hints on the farm system from the outside, but I’m not really sure it’s all that fair to share the Giants perspective of the Tigers farm system right now.” (That comment drew laughs from the crowd.)
• On Javier Báez’s production: “I haven’t talked to Javy since I left the Cubs, but I’ve seen the absolute best version of Javy. He is a dynamic impact player who brings energy and 80 on-field makeup to every game he plays. I don’t know what has happened here in Detroit, but the first step to figuring that out is sitting down with Javy and trying to figure out what this season has been like for him and ways we can support him better. In that, we can help bring the absolute best out of him. If we and Javy bring the best out of him, it’s a very exciting player, and it’s a player we love to have.”
• On where the roster can improve this offseason: “It’s a little bit premature to opine on that. I’ve never met any of these players. I haven’t met most of the coaches. I’ve talked extensively with some people in the organization about their evaluations of the players. That’s really important to me. They know better than I do. I need to take an evaluation period over the next few weeks and assess each of the players. … I’m looking forward to meeting them and having those conversations with our scouts, analysts and front office staff.”