Tanking would’ve been easy.
One of the worst baseball teams in the past three seasons, the Detroit Tigers simply could have kept the status quo in a 60-game season — searching for another top-five draft pick to bolster the organization’s future, as they have done three times with their 310 losses from 2017-19.
The suspense of a prospect, namely right-handed pitcher Casey Mize, being added to the team’s roster grew Sunday night when general manager Al Avila scheduled a news conference for noon Monday, meaning one of two things: Either the No. 1 pick from 2018 was coming up, or Avila wanted to give his frustrated manager, Ron Gardenhire, a break from the never-ending questions about Mize’s status.
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Instead of just bringing up the Mize, Avila dipped further into the farm system and made a risky, yet necessary, play that could pay dividends now and in the coming years. The Tigers (9-10) called up Mize, left-hander Tarik Skubal and third baseman Isaac Paredes to make their MLB debuts this week against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Finally, Avila delivered on the organization’s methodical plan, which seemed to become more unpredictable as Mize waited for a month with the reserve squad in Toledo. And he also guaranteed the Tigers won’t purposefully plummet this year.
“I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” Avila said Monday. “I’ll be on the edge of my seat. … This is an exciting time for the organization to see three of the top prospects up here and start competing. It’ll be a great process, and hopefully, a few more guys will be coming a long in the not too distant future.”
[ Tigers counting on Casey Mize, fellow top prospects to perform in shortened season ]
You see, the future is now in full swing.
“When I took the job, I knew exactly what I was getting into — a rebuild,” Gardenhire, in his third year, said Monday. “It’s been an eye-opener, it’s been fun. It’s hard when you’re not winning enough games, but this is the fun part.
“Hopefully, it’s going to turn into something wonderful for Tiger fans, and even after I’m long, long gone from this job, they’ll still be winning baseball games. And I’ll be proud of them.”
‘Calm, cool, very professional’
Getting Mize, Skubal and Paredes to the big leagues would typically start with a phone call from the GM, but Avila gave the honor to Dave Littlefield, the vice president of player development.
Littlefield spends countless hours with the prospects. He makes cuts following spring training, delivering heartbreaking news. Avila fgured it would be nice for him to hear excitement on the other end of the phone call.
But what he heard was nothing of a minor-leaguer.
“Very calm, cool and collect,” Avila said of the reaction. “And very professional. It just tells you about their demeanor of how they go about things.”
[ Ron Gardenhire ‘fired up’ about Tigers’ stud prospects making MLB debuts ]
That’s good news as Mize and Skubal enter a starting rotation that has been battered and bruised, both by opponents and through injury. Outside of right-hander Spencer Turnbull, the combination of left-hander Matthew Boyd and righty Michael Fulmer have helped give the Tigers one of the most ineffective rotations in the league..
While Fulmer is coming back from Tommy John surgery, Boyd lost his title as the team’s ace with a league-worst 10.24 ERA in four games (entering Monday) — forcing Mize into the rotation. Once right-hander Ivan Nova, who has a 8.53 ERA, went to the 10-day injured list, Avila needed to bring up Skubal, though he’d rather give him more time.
“Ideally, the guys that were here first could have done it better, better pitching out of our starters,” Avila said. “That would have been the best plan. But, obviously, we’ve been struggling here in that sense.”
Now that Mize and Skubal are in the rotation, it’s up to stick. Because Skubal contracted COVID-19 and missed summer camp, he will be limited to 50 pitches, but Mize has the freedom to pitch deeper into games.
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Skubal starts Tuesday and will likely be piggybacked by one of two left-handers in Tyler Alexander or Daniel Norris. When Mize starts Wednesday, Gardenhire hopes to give the bullpen — which has been overactive this season because of the starting pitching woes — a break.
“COVID took me down a little bit, took me down for like another week or so, but it’s just getting back into that,” Skubal said. “Getting my strength and my health back, and that’s kind of been my priority. And I feel strong and feel healthy, so I’m ready to go.”
‘Fighting for playoffs’
This isn’t just a chance for three prospects to test themselves against big-league talent. It also signifies the potential beginning of the end of the Tigers’ rebuild. Years of anticipation is evolving into measurable information to bet on the future.
But that’s not only noticed by fans and the front office.
The prospects are aware of what could come as more minor leaguers make their way to Detroit, including right-handers Matt Manning and Alex Faedo, outfielders Riley Greene and Daz Cameron and third baseman Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft.
“I was foreseeing the future, and I realized our future is going to be very good and pretty competitive,” Paredes said Monday through an interpreter. “We’re going to be fighting for a spot in the playoffs, and I’m happy that’s it’s happening with Casey and Tarik. It’s exciting to see what’s going to happen with us.
“The guys that haven’t made in the majors, they’re ready to make a debut.”
[ Tigers add Casey Mize & Tarik Skubal, but don’t forget about fireballer Matt Manning ]
With the organization’s No. 2 (Mize), No. 5 (Skubal) and No. 6 (Paredes) prospects in the majors, the Tigers have put themselves in a position to win, develop their top talent and prove they are committed to work toward contending in the coming years.
If all of that becomes real, and Detroit makes yearly playoff runs once again, people will look back on Monday as the day the revival truly began — from a hotel room in Chicago amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I will try to temper everybody’s expectations because remember that there’s guys in that past that we brought up (where) it takes a little while to really blend in and take off,” Avila said. “But at the same time, it is exciting.
“And it’s just more preparation for 2021 and 2022 as we move forward into the future.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.