Niyo: Tigers giving the kids a shot, playoff push or not

Detroit News

Call it a happy accident before an ugly crash. Or a silver lining on an overcast day. Or a bit of progress, if you must, despite all that budding optimism taking a serious beating Wednesday

But even as you count all the extra-base hits the Milwaukee Brewers pounded off Tigers’ pitching in a getaway game at Comerica Park — a baker’s dozen in the end — the more important tally was the one manager Ron Gardenhire scribbled on his lineup card earlier that morning.

Batting seventh and playing right field … Daz Cameron.

“They said he’s swinging good, so we’ll give him a shot up here and see what happens,” Gardenhire explained, a few hours before his team endured a 19-0 shellacking at home and then boarded a flight to St. Louis to start a five-game road trip.  “He’s in the lineup, has a big smile on his face and we’re excited about it. He’s another (one) of the guys that we’ve talked about for a long time.”

Another of the guys, too, who’ll help decide just how long this rebuild might take in Detroit. Or how much money the owner, Chris Ilitch, might have to spend to begin filling in the gaps in a couple years. Or whether it’ll work at all under the leadership of general manager Al Avila, quite frankly. 

Youth is served 

For now, though, Cameron’s just a rookie getting his first real glimpse of the show, and the horrors it can bring. And even on a bad day — “a bad day that just snowballed from there,” was how Gardenhire described Wednesday’s debacle — he’s in good company there, because Cameron is the 10th player to make to his major-league debut for the Tigers this season.

That ties them with the White Sox for the American League lead in that category. And like Chicago, Detroit’s list ranges from top prospects like Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal and Isaac Paredes to the likes of Kyle Funkhouser, who notched his first MLB win Sunday against the Twins and then got demoted a few days later, and Sergio Alcantara, who cracked a homer in his first big-league at-bat in that same game and was treated to a laundry-hamper shower of shampoo and talcum powder. 

Cameron’s first plate appearance didn’t pack quite the same punch: He tried to check his swing on the first pitch he saw from Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes leading off the third inning Wednesday and ended up grounding meekly to second base. But the 23-year-old rookie, who went 0-for-3 on the day, had plenty of company there, too, as the Tigers mustered just two hits all afternoon.

Yet just getting here was the hard part for Cameron, one of three prospects acquired from the Houston Astros in the Justin Verlander trade three years ago last week. After a strong showing at Double-A Erie in 2018, he endured some growing pains last year in Toledo and then something even worse this spring. Cameron missed the preseason camp in Detroit in July after testing positive for COVID-19, an illness that waylaid him for weeks and included a bout of pneumonia.

“It’s one of those things that was life-changing, in a sense,” said Cameron, who was cleared to join the Tigers’ alternate training site in Toledo in early August. “I’m just glad I got through.”

And, really, that’s what this season is supposed to be all about for the Tigers. It’s about getting through to the other side, figuring out how long it’ll take to get from nowhere to somewhere.

Pressure’s on prospects

Yes, the Tigers are still ostensibly in a playoff chase here with 2½ weeks left in the season, beginning Wednesday’s play only a game behind the New York Yankees for the final American League wild-card spot.

But even in a pandemic-shortened season, that’s a bit misleading. FanGraphs gave the Tigers an 8.5% chance of making the playoffs prior to Wednesday’s games, based in part on Detroit’s current standing in the AL Central, where the top three teams all carried a win percentage of .600 or better prior to Wednesday’s slate. Nine of the Tigers’ final 17 games will come against those teams, beginning this weekend with a three-game series at the White Sox.

And the likelihood of this team putting together a September run with this lineup and that kind of pitching from Matthew Boyd, who faced 19 batters and only retired seven of them Wednesday, seems a bit far-fetched. The Tigers were counting on veterans to help bridge some of the troubled waters, but injuries (C.J. Cron) and ineffectiveness (Boyd) have short-circuited some of those plans.

In St. Louis, they’ll be counting on both sides of that bridge, as Skubal — coming off a six-inning gem in Minnesota — starts the first game of Thursday’s scheduled doubleheader against the Cardinals and 34-year-old Jordan Zimmermann — fresh off the injured list — takes the mound for the second game.

“With where we’re at — two games out of the playoffs or wherever we are right now — it’s awesome to have him in the clubhouse,” Boyd said after Wednesday’s loss. “He’s been in it. He’s been in it multiple times. So just to have him here is gonna be huge for us.”

Maybe so, but the bigger deal is what any of this finishing stretch will do for the rookies like Skubal and Mize in the rotation. Or Paredes and Willi Castro on the left side of the infield. And now Cameron in the outfield, where the pickings are still embarrassingly slim for this organization five years into Avila’s tenure as GM.

“We’ve used a lot of young players. and they’re having to step up and do some things for us, (with) us putting a lot of pressure on them,” Gardenhire said. “We have some good days and bad days, and (with) the bad days you’ve got to keep that positive attitude. So that’s what we’ve tried to do.”

But whether it’s good, bad or occasionally ugly like this, that’s really all the fans were asking them to do this season: Give the youngsters a shot and see what happens. Accidentally or not, that’s what we’ve got. 

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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