Detroit — Call it whatever you wish. An asterisk season, a wasted season, a COVID calamity.
Call the Tigers whatever you wish. A scrappy team on a fun little streak, a rebuilding team biding its time, a hodge-podge one or two years from being good.
All fair. But as September dawns, be sure you add this about the Tigers: Playoff contenders.
They’re in it for now, 16-16 with 28 games left, two games out of a wild-card spot. They completed a three-game sweep of the Twins 3-2 Sunday with more clutch home runs and stellar bullpen work. They’ve won three consecutive series against upper-tier opponents — Twins, Cubs, Indians. They’ve climbed back to .500 with a five-game winning streak after limping through a nine-game losing streak.
So what does it mean in the grand scheme for a franchise that had no notion of contending if this were a normal season? Not a ton. At least not yet.
When the trade deadline arrives at 4 p.m. Monday, GM Al Avila won’t be strumming his fingers waiting for the phone to ring, and he won’t be dialing furiously. The Tigers aren’t buyers or sellers, they’re lurkers. Teams might poke around about Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull or Daniel Norris, but beyond that, the Tigers don’t have a lot to offer.
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“Right now there’s uncertainty all around the league,” Avila said. “In our situation, quite frankly, we’re not looking to add a big piece, nor trade away any of our young prospects.”
Savor the moment
Nor should they. Over 162 games, you can’t fool anybody. You are what the record says you are. Over 60 games of pandemic pandemonium, it’s easier to fool and be fooled.
But I checked the fandom bylaws, and I can confirm you’re allowed to enjoy this without fear of being called a sucker, and without much pressure. You’re allowed to appreciate the rise of Jeimer Candelario, who clubbed his fourth home run and is hitting .299. You’re allowed to appreciate newcomer Jonathan Schoop, who leads the team with eight home runs, including the winner in the sixth inning Sunday.
The real wild card in this is the awakening of Miguel Cabrera, who’s hitting .480 the past seven games. The milestones are piling up for the future Hall of Famer, who seems to be recapturing his joy and his swing. When it was announced in Comerica Park that his first-inning single was his 2,000th hit as a Tiger, Cabrera stepped out of the dugout and waved to the empty stands, a playful curtain call.
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“Only Miggy would think about something like that, which I thought was really entertaining,” Ron Gardenhire said. “He has a fun time at the ballpark. Every time he gets a hit, we have to get the ball. They said that’s 2,000 hits with the Tigers, and I started looking around thinking the rest of the team doesn’t have 2,000 hits together.”
In the space of four postgame interviews Sunday, the Tigers used the word “fun” approximately 174 times. You can’t yet call it a remarkable turnaround because it easily could turn the other way, with plenty of games left against the Twins, Indians and White Sox. But while there are fewer games this season, there are more opportunities. To keep things interesting into October, MLB expanded the playoffs from 10 teams to 16. The top two in each division get in, and the next two in the standings grab the wild cards.
Right now, the Tigers are two games behind the Blue Jays and 2.5 behind the Twins for one of those spots. Gardenhire has downplayed the recent hot streak, but don’t mistake that for downplaying the objective.
“Our goal is to try to get into the playoffs, I said that and people laughed at me,” Gardenhire said. “Now all of a sudden we’re back to .500 and everybody wants to talk about it. But I’ve been saying the whole time, anything can happen in this short season. We should be OK. We can hang in there with these guys.”
They certainly hung in there and handed it to the Twins, who had their ace, Kenta Maeda, on the mound for the finale. In the previous day’s doubleheader, the Tigers took both seven-inning games, and the shortened contests are another way to disguise deficiencies in starting pitching.
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But you can appreciate the Tigers finally are beating good teams, ending that nasty 20-game losing streak against Cleveland. No matter what happens the rest of the way, the Tigers might have found some pieces, and also lost some pieces.
After starting the season 0-for-17, Candelario has rebounded while playing out of position at first, in C.J. Cron’s absence. He has a chance to be a really good third baseman, as does youngster Isaac Paredes, while Victor Reyes has been spectacular in the outfield.
On the downside, Niko Goodrum is struggling mightily, with 49 strikeouts in 108 at-bats. Christin Stewart and Travis Demeritte also have taken a step back. There’s a reason the Tigers are smack in the middle at 16-16 — for every advancement, there’s a slide.
They may have found their future closer in Gregory Soto, who has been tremendous, but Joe Jimenez has faltered. The bullpen overall has been a pleasant revelation — small sample-size alert! — with Jose Cisnero, Bryan Garcia and Norris settling into nice routines.
“This is exciting, but let’s temper our expectations,” Avila said. “Understand this is a gradual progression.”
You see that when you watch Casey Mize. The prized pitcher made his third start and couldn’t command his splitter, or anything else, and left after three innings with two walks and three hit-batsmen. But he kept them in the game, just as fellow rookie Tarik Skubal did on Saturday in his first career victory.
The Tigers had two major goals this season — test-drive some of the youngsters and improve a horrid offense. They’ve done both, to modest success. Avila has no desire to accelerate the rebuild with risky trades, but he has been willing to fill holes with legitimate major-leaguers.
His offseason signings were good, from Schoop to catcher Austin Romine to Cameron Maybin to Cron (before he went out). Those are small, shrewd moves that buy time until bigger moves are warranted.
This was not supposed to be the season of big moves for the Tigers — not moves up the standings, not moves at the trade deadline. But they’ve made it interesting, haven’t they? Whatever it is or whoever they are, it’s better than expected and you’re entitled to enjoy it, without apology.