David Briggs: So, why was Tom Prince fired as Mud Hens manager after great year?

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Oct. 10—So, what did Mud Hens manager Tom Prince do to get fired by the Tigers despite leading Toledo to one of its best seasons in franchise history?

I wondered the same thing many of you did.

But, really, the answer is simple.

What did Prince do? He chose to manage a minor league baseball team.

In trying to make sense of the dethroning of Prince — who was let go last week after leading Toledo to its third-best season (74-56) since the modern incarnation of the Hens began play in 1965 — the first thing you have to remember about the minor leagues is that the first thing is not the first thing.

As in: Winning isn't the primary objective. It's the development and alignment of players and coaches in a manner that best suits the parent club.

I know that might seem obvious, but it explains why jobs on the farm turn over like the soil, results be damned.

We've seen it in Toledo, where Doug Mientkiewicz led the Hens to the postseason for the first time in 11 years, only to be fired a year later for being a bit too opinionated for the Tigers' tastes. And we see it everywhere. Damon Berryhill of the Gwinnett Stripers was named International League manager of the year in 2019, only to be cut loose by the Braves after the canceled pandemic season.

That's life in the bus leagues.

As Mud Hens pitching coach Doug Bochtler told The Blade's Amanda Levine, "In baseball, good people lose their jobs all the time. It just happens. It's a direction and a voice, and it happens all the time in baseball."

For Prince, the writing was on the clubhouse wall in late August, when the Tigers demoted vice president of player development Dave Littlefield and announced front-office promotions for their senior director of baseball analytics (Jay Sartori) and rising-star director of baseball operations (31-year-old Sam Menzin). Shortly thereafter, they replaced Littlefield with Ryan Garko, who, like first-year Detroit manager A.J. Hinch, is a 40-something Stanford grad with a forward-thinking bent. (Indians fans will recall Garko for his time in Cleveland, where he was a first baseman from 2005-09.)

"We're looking to be a more progressive organization," general manager Al Avila told reporters.

If Littlefield represented the old guard — he'll return to his roots as a scout — that didn't bode well for Prince.

Because Prince was to Littlefield what Prince was to purple. They were attached. A big-league catcher for 17 seasons, Prince, 57, got his coaching start in 2005 when Littlefield — then the GM of the Pirates — hired him to manage the Class A Williamsport Crosscutters, and he was hand-picked by his old boss to lead the Hens last year. (During the pandemic year, he instead oversaw the Tigers' alternate site in Toledo.)

While I was surprised when I heard Prince had been canned after one successful season with the Hens, I shouldn't have been.

Agree with the move or not, our strong suspicion is Hinch and Garko simply preferred to have their hires and ways of teaching in place in Toledo and throughout the organization.

And understandably so, even as we can appreciate the excellent work Prince did in Toledo (and no question will do somewhere else).

"We're going to try to sync up everything in player development and in the major leagues," Hinch told reporters. "That is the lifeblood of what we're doing here, whether it's philosophy, whether it's fundamentals, whether it's what we preach. We are one big group."

Added Garko: "One of my biggest focuses and one of the things I'm most excited about with this role is coach development and teaching our coaches. Analytics, we can't be scared of it. It's not a scary word. It's information that helps us make decisions.

"We'll sit down in spring training, once everybody is in, and go over what we value, why we value it, how we use it, whether it's daily, monthly, yearly to evaluate and help players get better in the day-to-day of trying to help improve our players."

In the end, what happened to Prince is neither fair nor unfair. It's just baseball.

First Published October 10, 2021, 3:13pm

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