Detroit Tigers hire Mike Hessman, minors home run king, as interim assistant hitting coach

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Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch used the word "bittersweet" to describe losing assistant hitting coach Jose Cruz Jr., who was hired Wednesday as Rice University's head coach.

"First and foremost, we're really happy for Cruz and his family," Hinch said Thursday. "Jose is a tremendous person, tremendous coach. ... As an alum, he's got a great presence there. He lives near there. He's got family members there. It's a real touching story for him in a return to a place where he's pretty famous."

While Cruz, 47, gets to return to his alma mater, the Tigers took on the responsibility of tweaking their coaching staff during the season.

General manager Al Avila, alongside Hinch, landed on Triple-A Toledo hitting coach Mike Hessman as an interim. He will be in the dugout for Friday's game against the Chicago White Sox and stick with the team for the remainder of the 2021 season.

"He's earned his way here," Hinch said Friday. "He's very familiar with our players, and a lot of our players were excited that he got an opportunity to come up here. He worked with (hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh) and Jose during the spring and was around our club. It was an easy transition for us."

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Mike Hessman hit just 14 home runs over his major league career.
Mike Hessman hit just 14 home runs over his major league career.

Cruz was hired by Hinch in December for his first coaching gig. He played 12 years in the majors, from 1997-2008, with nine teams. Previously, Cruz worked for the MLB Players Association.

The Tigers had Cruz for 60 games before he accepted Rice's head coaching job. He is staying with the team through Saturday then will travel to Rice, located in Houston, for a formal introduction. Because bullpen coach Juan Nieves is away from the team for Friday's game to attend a graduation, Hessman was allowed in the dugout one day earlier than expected.

Jeff Branson, an on-field hitting coordinator, will take over the hitting coach duties in Toledo.

Since Hessman, 43, announced his retirement in 2015, he has worked as a hitting coach in Detroit's farm system for Short-Season A Connecticut (2016), West Michigan (2017), Erie (2018) and Toledo (2019-21).

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As a player, Hessman spent 19 seasons in the minors with the Atlanta Braves (1996-2004), Tigers (2005-09, 2014-15), New York Mets (2010), Houston Astros (2012) and Cincinnati Reds (2013). He also played in the Japan Pacific League in 2011.

Hessman holds the all-time record for minor-league homers, with 433 in 2,094 games across 19 seasons. He also struck out 2,374 times — the downside to his elite power. He only played 109 games in the majors, including 29 games for the Tigers in parts of two seasons.

Simply, Hessman was the most logical choice to replace Cruz.

"I knew there would be a threat at some point of him going somewhere," Hinch said about his assistant hitting coach leaving. "I didn't think it was going to be this soon or back to his alma mater. I thought he might get looked at in various roles around Major League Baseball, but the fact that Rice came and got a really dynamic person and a really influential guy is credit to them."

Jones clears waivers

Tigers outfielder Jacoby Jones cleared waivers Thursday and was sent to Toledo. The 29-year-old started the 2021 season in the majors, got demoted to the Mud Hens on May 24 and was designated for assignment June 6 to clear space on the 40-man roster.

Any team that claimed Jones off waivers would have paid the remainder of his $2.65 million contract — about $1.7 million. He could have declined an assignment to Toledo in favor of free agency, but that would have cost him the rest of his salary.

JaCoby Jones #21 of the Detroit Tigers catches a Kansas City Royals outfield hit in the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, on Sunday, May 23, 2021.
JaCoby Jones #21 of the Detroit Tigers catches a Kansas City Royals outfield hit in the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, on Sunday, May 23, 2021.

In 36 games for the Tigers this season, Jones hit .170 with two home runs, nine RBIs, five walks and 42 strikeouts.

When Jones went to the Mud Hens, his struggles continued through 10 games. He had a .205 batting average, seven of nine hits for doubles, six RBIs, three walks and 18 strikeouts. The poor results forced the Tigers to give Jones' 40-man roster spot away.

Sunday's pitcher

The Tigers have Tarik Skubal and Jose Urena scheduled to pitch Friday and Saturday, respectively, for the first two of three games against the White Sox. The starter for Sunday, which was supposed to be Matthew Boyd, remains to be determined.

Hinch said Boyd is scheduled to start Monday against the Kansas City Royals.

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"We'll have a different starter on Sunday," Hinch said. "I'm not sure now, especially with Rony (Garcia) going out (with a left knee sprain). He was going to factor into that decision. We'll see how we're going to mix and match it. But Boyd is going to get an extra day, simply because of the length of the season. He's doing fine. There's nothing to cause an alarm, but any chance that we're going to get to give extra days, we're going to do it. Gives Casey (Mize) an extra day, as well."

Candelario's return

The Tigers are planned for third baseman Jeimer Candelario to return to the team this weekend. He was placed on the bereavement list Tuesday and returned home to the Dominican Republic.

"He has to go through the protocols," Hinch said. "I doubt we'll activate him the day he gets back, given that he hasn't done anything for four or five days. We'll want to have a full workday and then be activated the next day."

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Hinch expects to activate Candelario for the upcoming series against the Royals, from Monday through Wednesday, at Kauffman Stadium. For now, the Tigers have prospect Isaac Paredes occupying his spot on the roster.

"I don't know what we're going to do when Candy comes back," Hinch said. "(Shortstop) is just another way for us to utilize (Paredes) on this team, and he continues to open some eyes. It depends on how he does, how he looks, how he feels and what we feel like is best for him developmentally."

Bad news: Rony Garcia

Right-handed reliever Rony Garcia struggled to walk off the field — even with help from two trainers — during Thursday's warmups. The Tigers placed him on the 10-day injured list with a left knee sprain, and the injury is considered serious.

Garcia, 23, could miss a significant amount of time.

"It looks like he's heading for surgery," Hinch said. "He's going to get a second and third opinion, and if so, he's going to be out for a while. It's going to be difficult to know completely until he goes through the tests, but the initial diagnosis is that he's going to need surgery."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers hire Toledo's Mike Hessman as assistant hitting coach