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Doug Mientkiewicz was a hometown hero a year ago, a Toledo-born Major Leaguer who returned to manage the Mud Hens to their first division title and playoff berth in over a decade. A year later, he is out as Mud Hens manager, having been dismissed from his post.
Though the Tigers have not formally announced their Minor League managerial posts, Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield confirmed that Mientkiewicz will not be back, as first reported by the Detroit Free Press. Though Mientkiewicz had a year left on his contract, he was not reassigned to another position in the organization.
“We simply decided to go in a different direction,” Littlefield said Thursday.
It’s an eyebrow-raising move as the Tigers prepare for their crop of highly touted pitching prospects to arrive in Toledo next year. Top prospects Casey Mize and Matt Manning are expected to make the jump to Triple-A on their way to eventual spots in Detroit’s rotation, as will third-base prospect Isaac Paredes. They’ll have different leadership in the dugout.
Mientkiewicz, who spent 12 years as a Major League player, joined the Tigers organization on the heels of his old manager, Ron Gardenhire, taking over as manager of Detroit. The move gave Gardenhire a trusted voice on potential callups from Triple-A while bringing in a proven winner in Mientkiewicz, who enjoyed success managing in the Twins farm system. Adding to the appeal was that Mientkiewicz was born in Toledo and lived in the area until his family moved to Florida while he was in grade school.
The pairing drew quick success; Mientkewicz’s Mud Hens won an International League’s Western Division title with a 73-66 record in 2018, earning Toledo’s first playoff berth since 2007. Among the success stories was top hitting prospect Christin Stewart, who hit 23 home runs with 77 RBIs that year, third-base prospect Dawel Lugo, Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year Matt Hall and infielder Ronny Rodriguez, who batted .338 with a .923 OPS in between stints with Detroit.
Despite Stewart’s graduation to Detroit, the Mud Hens entered this past season with a prospect-laden roster that included Lugo, prized center-field prospect Daz Cameron, former first-round pick Beau Burrows and starting prospect Kyle Funkhouser. However, though the Hens scored more runs than they allowed, they essentially reversed their record, finishing 66-74 and tying for second in their division.
Minor League managers and coaches usually aren’t judged on wins and losses as much as on player development, notably with prospects. That might have worked against Mientkiewicz. Burrows and Funkhouser, whom Tigers general manager Al Avila publicly touted at midseason as candidates to join Detroit’s rotation, struggled with injuries and inconsistencies. Funkhouser finished with an 8.53 ERA in 18 starts, while an oblique injury ended Burrows’ season early with a 5.51 ERA in 15 starts.
Cameron, whose strong Spring Training put him in line for a potential midseason promotion, batted .214 with 13 home runs and 152 strikeouts in 120 games. Top catching prospect Jake Rogers, who spent the middle third of the season with Toledo, batted .223 with a .779 OPS after a hot start upon being promoted from Double-A Erie. The most notable prospect emergence came from shortstop Willi Castro, who batted .301 with 11 homers, 62 RBIs and an .833 OPS as a Mud Hen, and Lugo, who improved his walk rate while batting .333 with an .859 OPS between calls up to Detroit.
Mientkiewicz has a reputation of being tough but loyal with his players, including prospects. His telling players they’ve been called up to the Majors for the first time can be memorable for the players involved. But he is also honest with players about the difficulty of the big leagues and doesn’t mince words when asked about prospects’ readiness.
“The difference between a Major Leaguer and a Minor Leaguer is like the difference between a T-Rex and a llama,” Mientkiewicz said in June amidst his pitchers’ struggles. “It’s a whole different animal. The attention to detail for most guys who go up is not where it should be. They realize that the mental focus has to be [better].
“There’s a difference between a Major Leaguer, and being a Major Leaguer that you see in October. And that’s what we’re trying to build.”
Whoever succeeds Mientkiewicz will be the Mud Hens’ fifth manager in six years. That successor will not come from within the organization; Littlefield said the Tigers will seek an outside candidate. Erie manager Mike Rabelo was speculated as a potential candidate for promotion, having managed Manning and Paredes at three levels so far, but he will return as SeaWolves manager.