After managing the Class A West Michigan Whitecaps to two Midwest League titles in three years, Walbeck will get his next chance at Double-A Erie. The Tigers officially announced the long-expected move on Monday, along with the rest of their Minor League coaching assignments.
For Walbeck, it's the next step in a rising coaching career that began upon his retirement as a backup catcher with Detroit. The Tigers had considered him managerial material watching him work with pitchers, teammates and coaches, and they offered him the West Michigan job after longtime baseball man Phil Regan retired after the 2003 season.
Walbeck took the job and showed a gift for it. Dealing with players in their first full Minor League seasons, Walbeck had a penchant for molding young, talented players into a team that would surge down the stretch. Both years the Whitecaps won their league, they won their division in the second half. Even when they didn't win it all in 2005, they went from fifth place in the first half to second place in the second half, capturing a Wild Card playoff spot in the process.
The Whitecaps won both halves this year, posting identical 48-22 records en route to the title. Walbeck said during the season that it would be his last at West Michigan, saying he was looking to take the next step for next year.
"I just think the overall speed of the game, the talent, there's more experience," Walbeck said when asked about the differences in levels Monday after being introduced at a press conference in Erie. "The guys here have a little better idea. I just wanted to get a better feel for it. Not that I didn't love every minute in West Michigan teaching guys, but I just felt it was time for me."
The Tigers agreed on the timing. Walbeck's promotion came after Detroit dismissed former SeaWolves manager Duffy Dyer and his coaching staff at season's end.
"Wally is a manager, he comes to manage and to handle a group of young men," Tigers player development director Glenn Ezell said. "His intensity, his enthusiasm, his ability to do what he can do today to help the players get better has put him in a position where I feel very good about that promotion."
Likewise, longtime West Michigan pitching coach A.J. Sager made the jump to Erie.
While game strategy remains the same, Walbeck's developmental job becomes much more advanced than simply an extra letter in the classification. Instead of looking at a player and judging whether he projects as a Major Leaguer down the road, Walbeck now will be looking at a player and trying to judge whether they're ready for the big leagues, or at least Triple-A.
"That's something I'm going to have to pay a lot more closer attention to," Walbeck said. "The possibility of this happening in the 2007 season is much more likely. It's a good experience for me to watch the developmental side of the game that much closer."
At least some of those players Walbeck will judge are players who have developed under him already. Eventually, it'll include top prospect Cameron Maybin, who is expected to start the year at Class A Lakeland along with top pitching prospect Andrew Miller.
Former Tigers infielder Tom Brookens, who last year managed the short-season Class A team at Oneonta of the New York-Penn League, was promoted to fill Walbeck's old helm with the Whitecaps. Replacing Brookens at Oneonta will be longtime Minor League first baseman Andy Barkett, whose 12-year playing career included a stint at Triple-A Toledo in 2004. Barkett's pitching coach will be ex-Tigers hurler Mark Johnson, who pitched in nine games for Detroit in 2000 and had several stints in the farm system.
The other managerial change came at Class A Lakeland, where former Gulf Coast League Tigers skipper Kevin Bradshaw will make the jump to the squad he managed back in 2001. It will mark his 14th season managing in the Tigers system, during which he has served at four different levels on the developmental ladder. Including playing and coaching, it will be his 23rd season in the organization.
Bradshaw succeeds former L-Tigers manager Mike Rojas, who will fill the newly-created role of roving catching coordinator. All other roving roles remain the same, including pitching coordinator Jon Matlack, hitting instructor Toby Harrah, infield coordinator Rafael Landestoy, outfield and baserunning coordinator Gene Roof, medical coordinator Victor Trasoff-Jilg and strength/conditioning coordinator Chris Walter.
Though Rojas had enjoyed a good amount of success in two years of managing at Lakeland, Ezell said they both thought he was a natural for the instructional role at a position the Tigers have made a priority to develop in the farm system.
"There's a certain kind of guy who you have to have for that job," Ezell said, "a guy who has some intensity. It's a very, very important job for me, and I was real comfortable whenever this came to my mind."
The one team in the Tigers farm system that kept its entire coaching staff intact is Triple-A Toledo. Manager Larry Parrish, pitching coach Jeff Jones and hitting coach Leon Durham are all scheduled to return.
The announcement doesn't necessarily mean Durham is out of consideration for the hitting coach vacancy in Detroit. As of Monday afternoon, Durham said he had not been contacted about the job.
"I'm already basically committed to Toledo," Durham said. "If it happens [in Detroit], it happens. If not, then I'll just continue to do what I'm doing. I like developing these guys."
Here is the current roster of Tigers Minor League coaching staffs for 2007:
Triple-A Toledo: Larry Parrish (manager), Jeff Jones (pitching coach), Leon Durham (hitting coach), Matt Rankin (trainer)
Double-A Erie: Matt Walbeck (manager), A.J. Sager (pitching coach), Glenn Adams (hitting coach), Chris McDonald (trainer)
High Class A Lakeland: Kevin Bradshaw (manager), Britt Burns (pitching coach), Larry Herndon (hitting coach), Dustin Campbell (trainer)
Low Class A West Michigan: Tom Brookens (manager), Ray Burris (pitching coach), Benny Distefano (hitting coach), Jay Pierson (trainer)
Short-season Class A Oneonta: Andy Barkett (manager), Mark Johnson (pitching coach), TBA (hitting coach), Eric Hall (trainer)
Gulf Coast League: Benny Castillo (manager), Greg Sabat (pitching coach), Basilio Cabrera (hitting coach), Tyler DePew (trainer)
Dominican Summer League: Andres Thomas (manager), Marcos Aquasvivas (pitching coach), Francisco Cabrera (hitting coach), Margaro Del Rosario (trainer)
Venezuelan Summer League: Josman Robles (manager), Jorge Cordova (pitching coach), Jesus Laya (hitting coach), Luis Rodriguez (trainer)
The Tigers also added experience to their scouting staff by hiring former Major League general manager Murray Cook as an East Coast cross-checker. Cook, who worked for Dombrowski on the Marlins scouting staff in the 1990s before joining the Red Sox, served as GM for the Yankees, Expos and Reds during the 1980s.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.