AJ Hinch has a message for Detroit Tigers prospects: Embrace the joy of the game

Detroit Free Press

Jeff Seidel | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Joey Wentz bounded off the mound on a back field behind Joker Marchant Stadium, fielded a ground ball and tossed it to first base.

He was full of excitement and happiness.

“I’ve never seen a pitcher happier to do (pitcher fielding practice) in the first couple days of camp than a rehabbing pitcher like Joey Wentz,” Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch said.

Wentz, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, took another step in his rehab on Friday when he threw off a mound for the first time — although just to a standing target, not a crouching catcher.

“Just playing catch off a mountain, which is an accomplishment coming off Tommy John,” Hinch said. “And he’s bouncing around. He was so happy to be on a team again and feel like a player and not a patient.”

In many ways, Wentz is a talented Tigers prospect who is cruising under the radar.When Baseball America came out with its top-100 prospect rankings, the Tigers had five in the top 31: third baseman Spencer Torkelson (No. 5), pitcher Tarik Skubal (No. 20), pitcher Casey Mize (No. 28), pitcher Matt Manning (No. 30) and outfielder Riley Greene (No. 31).

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(MLB Pipeline, which is run by MLB.com, also had those five in its top 25, with Torkelson at No. 3, followed by Mize at No. 11, Greene at No. 21, Skubal at No. 24 and Manning  at No. 25.)

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Wentz was not ranked, even though he projects to be a member of the Tigers’ future starting rotation — just like Manning, Mize and Skubal.

“I keep telling him, eventually we have to stop talking about just Manning, Mize and Skubal, in whatever order, eventually we’d like to add his name to that group,” Hinch said. “And once you’re healthy, you’re going to be very much a part of this, this young pitching core that we’re developing at the minor-league level.”

Laying a foundation

Hinch is tiptoeing down a complicated path, dealing with all of these prospects.

For Wentz — a pitcher coming off an arm injury — Hinch is pumping him up, reinforcing how important he is to the organization.

For others like Skubal, Mize and Manning — whichever order you prefer — Hench is laying a foundation to to help them navigate expectations.

Because being a top-ranked prospect can be a burden.

Trying to live up to expectations can be paralyzing.

And seeking perfection, well, it just doesn’t work in a game of failure.

“More than anything, I want to take some of the burden on Casey off of him, that he doesn’t have to be perfect right now,” Hinch said. “He just needs to go compete with this stuff. We want pitchers and young prospects nowadays to be perfect when they get to the big leagues and they’re not going to be.”

Mize, the Tigers’ No.1 pick in 2018, blew through the minors, including throwing a no-hitter in his debut at Double-A Erie in 2019. Expectations soared as he became Baseball America’s No. 8 prospect in baseball.

Mize struggled after arriving in Detroit in August 2020, though. He pitched in seven games, didn’t record a win and had a 6.99 ERA to go with a 1.482 WHIP. His BA ranking dropped to No. 28.

And you know what all of that means in the big picture?

Absolutely nothing — at least in the eyes of his skipper.

“I don’t care where you rank top prospects or where the experts say you are in the industry of prospects — the learning curve in the Major League is tough,” Hinch said. “I think he’s taking a lot of the good from last year and applying it but you know his pitches are elite across the board.”

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Look for the joy

Fans are clamoring for these prospects.

When will Greene make it to Detroit? How about Torkelson? Can Dillon Dingler be the catcher of the future? Will Kody Clemens be the second baseman?

There is an entire industry based around baseball prospects, which only serves to heighten the expectations, as well as the potential to mess with guys’ heads.

“The other part of it is the volume of information that’s out there for players,” Hinch said. “You can read your headlines a little bit easier nowadays, and the expectation level is through the roof. We’re firing guys through the minor-league system at a rapid rate. They’re getting to the big leagues, you know, prepared but maybe not as prepared as the last couple of decades and that expectation of them performing right away is never been higher.”

So Hinch has a message for all of these projects: “You are competing with the game and not to live up to a reputation that somebody external has put on.”

For all of these prospects, the secret is what Wentz showed on the back fields.

Play the game with joy and happiness, not with the burden of expectation.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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