Detroit – There comes a point in every baseball season – apparently even in a 60-game season – when will and want-to collide with reality, when spit and grit gets trumped by superior talent, when all the intangibles in the world can’t save you from the tangible truth – that you just aren’t good enough right now.
The Tigers have hit this point. It probably happened in Minnesota, when they lost four out of five to the Twins, the first three by two run or less – two of them late-inning collapses. But if they didn’t realize it then, they do now after being swept by the division-leading White Sox in Chicago, losing five of the last six and being outscored 57-13.
In a week’s time the Tigers went from 1.5 games out of a wild-card spot to five games out with 14 games left. It’s not mathematically over, but, it’s over.
“We have a season to finish,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after the 5-2 loss to the White Sox Sunday. “You never know what might happen. You might run off five or six in a row and everything is back to rosy. Run off two wins and you all feel better about yourselves.
“We just need to figure out day to day how to win.”
The ship started taking on water Sept. 1 in Milwaukee, more precisely, in the eighth inning of what would be a 12-1 romp that put the Tigers back over .500 (17-16). Center fielder JaCoby Jones, who earlier that day had talked excitedly about finally being in a playoff race, got his left hand broken by a fastball from rookie Phil Bickford.
Also in that game, shortstop Niko Goodrum clutched at his side after flying out in his last at-bat.
Jones was lost for the season. Goodrum hasn’t played since, though he is expected to finally return to active duty Tuesday. The Tigers are 3-10 since then.
Those two injuries, even with Goodrum’s offensive struggles, had a devastating impact on the team offensively and defensively.
The Tigers survived losing slugging first baseman C.J. Cron earlier in the season largely because Jeimer Candelario made a smooth, uncomplaining transition to first base and caught fire at the plate – .325/.385/.571 with a 155 OPS-plus, ranked among the top 10 in the American League in all four of those categories.
It helped, too, that Willi Castro was able to step in at third base – he’s hit .353 with a .400 on-base average this month.
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But the Tigers just didn’t have the depth to withstand long-term injuries to two more starting position players, especially with super utility player Harold Castro on the injured list and left fielder Christin Stewart struggling to the point of losing his starting job.
Willi Castro moved to shortstop, where he’s made four errors and been worth a minus-6 defensive runs saved. And the Tigers have not gotten any offensive production from the third base position since he moved over.
With Jones out, Victor Reyes moved over to center field, where he’s continued to impress. But it left the Tigers weaker at both corner outfield spots.
Jorge Bonifacio has filled one of those spots creditably, going 11 for 40 this month with 11 RBIs. A Reyes-Jones-Bonifacio outfield might’ve been useful down the stretch. Instead, the Tigers have had to mix and match, mostly with prospects.
►Daz Cameron – 1 for 20, eight strikeouts.
►Travis Demeritte – 3 for 12, six strikeouts.
►Stewart – 4 for 20, optioned.
►Derek Hill – 0 for 7.
►Isaac Paredes – 4 for 42, 10 strikeouts.
►Sergio Alcantara – 2 for 16.
The Tigers scored 24 runs in their three wins since Jones and Goodrum went down. But in the 10 losses, they are averaging 1.9 runs and have been shut out three times. They were hitting .261 and slugging .433 as a team in August; they’ve slumped to .232/.360 in September.
As for the pitching, well, how serious of a playoff contender can a team be with opponents slashing .336/.408/.584 with a .992 OPS against you, and with a collective ERA of 8.02 and a WHIP of 1.909 for the month of September?
How serious are you with a starting rotation – one that features an opener coming off Tommy John surgery and two prospects who hadn’t thrown a pitch above Double-A ball – with a season-long ERA of 6.70 and averaging just four innings per start?
There aren’t many bullpens in the game that wouldn’t collapse having to eat up five innings a night for two months.
So, yes, dreams of a wild-card chase went quickly off the rails for the Tigers. But, honestly, the value of snaring the last wild-card spot in a year like this, with the shortened season and expanded playoffs, would have been minimal.
More valuable to the process here was the taste. The taste, however fleeting, of being in contention. The taste of winning, 12 come-from-behind victories. The taste, the first taste, of big-league competition for so many young players – 10 of whom made their debut.
But for the most part, this was always going to be a throwaway season, one that would ultimately slow the Tigers’ rebuilding process, not hasten or enhance it.
Is it better for Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal to make seven big-league starts this year as opposed to none? Of course. But it would’ve been best had they been able to make seven big-league starts after making 20 at Triple-A.
Both will come to camp next year having thrown less than 40 innings this year. That means their workloads likely will be restricted in 2021.
More questions and holes
Truth is, the Tigers will be left with more question marks, more holes to fill after this season than they were after the 114-loss 2019 season. What set pieces are there? Reyes, Candelario, Jones, Goodrum and Miguel Cabrera.
Do you bring catcher Austin Romine and second baseman Jonathan Schoop back? The Tigers aren’t likely to turn things over to Grayson Greiner or Jake Rogers just yet. And unless they think Willi Castro can handle second base, there is nobody in the system ready fill Schoop’s considerable shoes.
Going around the diamond, the Tigers need to either get a first or third baseman (depending on where they want to play Candelario). Paredes and Alcantara need more seasoning. Another experienced middle infielder would help, too (even if they stay with Goodrum at shortstop), and they need at least two more outfielders.
For sure they will have to bolster the rotation, especially given the likely restrictions on Mize, Skubal, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo. Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander could end up locking in to the No. 4 and No. 5 spots.
Ironically, given this team’s history, the most settled group is the bullpen with Buck Farmer, Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto and Bryan Garcia stepping up. A fair question, though, is whether any of those four pitchers can be a reliable closer.
Farmer and Garcia have been more pitch-to-contact than swing-and-miss pitchers this year. Cisnero and Soto have power arms and both can miss bats, but their command can be sketchy.
And what about Joe Jimenez? You wonder if the Tigers have the patience to find out. Granted, they are two very different types of people, very different in terms of work ethic, but performance-wise, there is little difference between Jimenez and another late-inning reliever the Tigers lost patience with – Bruce Rondon.
►Jimenez – 157 innings, 17 saves, 11 blown saves, 5.89 ERA, 1.405 WHIP.
►Rondon – 111 innings, 7 saves, 9 blown saves, 5.00 ERA, 1.388 WHIP.
All these question marks suggest another season of transition, at least, for the Tigers as they build back from the total deconstruction of the three previous years.
Which begs one last question: If the transition is still in place, wouldn’t it make sense to extend Gardenhire for another year or two and keep the on-field leadership in place, as well?
On deck: Royals
Series: Two-game series at Comerica Park
First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday – 7:10 p.m.
TV/radio: Tuesday-Wednesday – FSD/97.1 FM
Probables: Tuesday – LHP Danny Duffy (3-3, 4.24) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (1-6, 7.63); Wednesday – RHP Brady Singer (2-4, 4.68) vs. LHP Tarik Skubal (1-2, 7.27).
Duffy, Royals: He’s coming off 5.2 scoreless innings at Cleveland and all things considered, he’s having a solid year. Opponents are hitting just .222 and slugging .409 against him. His biggest issue has been control – his walk percentage in 9.6, averaging nearly four walks per nine.
Boyd, Tigers: After three straight encouraging starts, Boyd had a clunker last time out, allowing seven runs in three innings to the Brewers. His issues with the four-seam fastball continue. The velocity is down a tick but he hasn’t been able to hit his spots consistently. The result, opponents are hitting .349 against it and slugging .711. Overall, his .402 weighted on-base average against is in the bottom seven percentile in baseball.