Wojo: How the 2021 Tigers’ puzzle pieces could begin to fit

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski | The Detroit News

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You probably won’t see everything you crave from the Tigers this season. You won’t get a look at all the prized prospects. You won’t get a taste of playoff contention. You might not even get to sit in the stands, although that could change as health restrictions lighten.

But after four dreary years, it’s time to see something. The Tigers’ comprehensive rebuild should pass the halfway point in 2021, with a team half-filled with veteran pieces and speckled with prospects. GM Al Avila and new manager AJ Hinch aren’t promising anything because they can’t. But frankly, we’re due for some revelations.

That means Casey Mize needs a full shot to begin proving he was worthy of the 2018 No. 1 overall pick. That means equally promising Tarik Skubal needs a long look. That means 2016 first-rounder Matt Manning should make his debut at some point, allowing the Tigers to start sketching their rotation of the future.

The rebuild wasn’t knocked askew by COVID, which shut down the minor leagues, but it was slowed. And it’s not yet time to artificially accelerate it. This season will still be about the names as much as the games, names like Riley Greene (2019 first-rounder) and Spencer Torkelson (2020 No. 1 overall pick). Hopefully, Greene makes it to Detroit this summer. Torkelson is more of a longshot because he hasn’t even played in the minors yet.

Another big name is the new manager. The transition from Rod Gardenhire to Hinch, who won a World Series in Houston, was one clue things are heating up. Hinch’s hiring of highly respected pitching coach Chris Fetter from Michigan was another clue.

The Tigers’ farm system is vastly improved thanks to high draft picks. ESPN ranks the system third and it’s top-heavy, with five of the top 25 prospects in all of baseball. In this case, it’s not about volume, it’s about velocity, and how fast they can climb.

For Avila and Hinch, that’s the nerve-wracking part. If you have a bunch of decent prospects, you have a bunch of chances to hit on one. If you have a few high-end prospects, you can’t miss on many.

The right pitch

“I’ve said it many times, if we’re going to do this right, we gotta get the pitching right,” Hinch said recently, before the Tigers’ first workout Wednesday in Lakeland. “That’s the tone-setter. Not to put all the pressure on Chris Fetter, but that’s why he was brought here. I’ve never seen a team have success at this level, and certainly not sustained success, without a good pitching staff.”

The 2021 Tigers are a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing. Few positions are set in cement. The rotation and the bullpen are in flux. The only absolute given: Miguel Cabrera, 37, is the DH, amid the annual reports he’s in good shape. He led the Tigers during their COVID-shortened season with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs, and as always, we’ll see how he holds up.

But hate to say, it’s almost immaterial. Avila plugged some holes with experienced free-agents — catcher Wilson Ramos, outfielder Robbie Grossman, pitcher Jose Urena — and brought back infielder Jonathan Schoop to improve the Tigers’ on-field competitiveness, as well as their in-house competition.

In other words, if the youngsters don’t look ready, they don’t get a free pass to the big show. That means young position players such as Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron, Christin Stewart and Jake Rogers will have to show more in camp, or in the minors.

“Obviously we want more competition for our youngsters, and we’re looking to win more games,” Avila said Tuesday. “We’re gonna make these guys earn it at the major-league level. In saying that, just because you bring a guy up and he struggles, it doesn’t mean all of a sudden you’re gonna get rid of them or send them back. You gotta give them an opportunity to work through it. There is a fine line, earning it and making sure you don’t cut the cord too soon.”

Greene and Torkelson are on the fast track, but it doesn’t take much to get sidetracked. Last season, Mize and Skubal looked excellent at times and got lit up at times, and finished with a combined ERA of 6.27 in 14 starts. Similar to erstwhile ace Matt Boyd and possible ace Spencer Turnbull, they were dinged badly by the long ball. Avila is still picking through the free-agent market for another starter, and the Tigers seem willing to use a six-man rotation to accommodate innings limits for young arms. And who knows, maybe they rediscover what they thought they had with once-dominant Michael Fulmer and once-promising Franklin Perez, the centerpiece prospect in the Justin Verlander trade.

Bigger bats

The lineup should have a bit more punch, although that’s not saying a lot. Grossman is expected to help in one important area — plate discipline. The Tigers were 28th in the majors in on-base percentage (.303). If the young players — Jeimer Candelario, Niko Goodrum, Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes — want to solidify their positions, they’ll have to tighten their discipline.

Other youngsters are lurking, and theoretically pushing, including catcher Dillon Dingler, second baseman Kody Clemens, and of course, Torkelson and Greene.

“What we’re hoping is, (Torkelson and Greene) are more advanced than the average hitter and maybe they move up a little quicker,” Avila said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re gonna push them where we feel they’re going to fail. We gotta make sure when we do push them to the next level, they’re gonna have success. And that doesn’t mean instant success. Player development is a very sensitive process, and everybody’s different.”

We’ve heard it for a while, through seasons of 64-98, 64-98, 47-114 and the 23-35 shortened slate. We expect to hear it a while longer, as the Tigers again are picked by most to finish last in the AL Central. But this is the year we expect to see key names impact the games. It’s essentially the swing year. If two or three prime arms, and two or three promising bats, show sustained success, a full transition should begin in 2022.

That’s always been the timetable, and in the midst of a pandemic, it’s difficult to demand they speed it up. It’s not remotely difficult to demand progress.

“I’m not afraid of the young players, I’m not afraid of their growth,” Hinch said. “As much as you want to give the opportunity to the young guys, they gotta keep playing well to stay here. I do want all the young pitching to be in the big leagues. I do want the young position players to get the at-bats needed to evaluate them. But this is an accountability league, where you got to play well to stay. This is not just a team you can come to and fill out a roster.”

It’s puzzle pieces and prime prospects right now, with a lot of sorting out to do. With half of the roster, we pretty much know what’s here. With the rest, we need to see what’s on the way.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski


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