Chris McCosky | The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — On Friday, for the first time this spring, Tigers manager AJ Hinch was late to his morning Zoom call with the media. Now, in the recent past, whenever the manager was late to a press conference, it usually meant there was a roster move or some other such malfeasance going on.
But it’s too early in camp for that.
“Sorry about my lateness,” he said, with a smile that indicated he most certainly was not sorry. “I love you guys but I like Tarik Skubal more.”
One thing that has been unassailably evident in the early going has been Hinch’s willingness, his insistence, on looking after the “kids.” The long session he had with Skubal Friday mirrored those he’s had with most of the other prospects in camp now — Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Joey Wentz, Alex Lange, even catcher Dillon Dingler, who is a 2020 draft pick and has yet to play in a professional game at any level.
Hinch’s talks are part getting-to-know-you and part baseball instruction, to be sure. But they’re also part of psychology and mental hygiene. Hinch understands the unique pressures these players are under. He was a second-round draft pick and came straight to big-league camp after playing for Team USA in the Olympics in 1996.
His goal is to get them to think less about expectations and more about straight-up competing.
“The competition in the big leagues is hard enough,” Hinch said. “But the expectation level is through the roof and we’re firing these guys through the minor league system at a rapid rate. They’re getting to the big leagues prepared, but maybe not as prepared as they were the last couple of decades.
“And the expectations of their performance right away has never been higher.”
Hinch tells them they have a choice: You can let your draft status and prospect ranking be a distraction or you can take it for what it is, put it in a box with the rest of your old trophies and go do what you do best.
“What’s important is, when they are on the mound or in the batter’s box, you’ve got to play game, you’ve got to complete the game,” he said. “And not try to live up to a reputation that somebody external has put on you.”
None of the prospects carries more weight of expectation than Mize — externally from being the first pick of the draft in 2018, and internally from his intense desire to be great.
“I want to take some of that burden off of him,” Hinch said. “He doesn’t have to be perfect right now. He just has to go compete with his stuff. We want pitchers and players and young prospects nowadays to be perfect when they get to the big leagues and they’re not going to be.
“I don’t care where you are ranked on that prospects list, the learning curve at the Major League level is tough. Casey has every ingredient he needs to make the adjustments off of last season. His pitches are elite across the board.”
Hinch understands what these players represent for the franchise – hope. And he gets why the organization would sell them as such. He would just like, as much as he can, to shield them from that kind of outside weight.
“It’s exciting because we can start to dream on what Tigers teams are going to be like for the next decade,” he said. “But that doesn’t help you beat (Indians starter Shane) Bieber on Opening Day. It doesn’t help you when you are staring down (Yankees slugger) Aaron Judge sometime in April or May.
“That’s the message: Go beat the game and don’t’ worry about your prospect status.”
Make it a foursome
Before his session with Skubal Friday morning, Hinch spent some time with Wentz, who has become, because of Tommy John surgery last spring, kind of the forgotten pitching prospect.
“I told him, eventually we’ve got to stop just talking about Mize, Manning and Skubal,” Hinch told him. “Eventually we’d like to add you into that. Once you are healthy, you are going to be very much a part of this young pitching core that we’re developing.”
Wentz, a 6-5 lefty who came to the Tigers from Atlanta in the Shane Greene trade, threw off a slope for the first time since the surgery on Friday. He just played catch with a standing catcher, but it’s an encouraging step. He’d been taking part in all the meeting and the defensive drills.
“He’s so happy to be part of camp,” Hinch said. “Just so happy to be on the team again and feeling like a player and not a patient…He still has a rehab tag on him. He’s only able to do so much throwing. But I’ve never seen a pitcher happier to do PFP (pitcher fielding practice) in the first couple days of camp.”
In the kid’s room
Dingler, the Tigers’ second-round pick last year, is not about to complain about anything, mind you. Still, Hinch has had quite a bit of good-natured fun with him. In the Tigers’ catchers’ room is starter and veteran Wilson Ramos, then three guys competing for the back-up job — Grayson Greiner, Jake Rogers and Eric Haase.
In a tiny staff locker behind that main room is where Dingler dresses.
“Due to COVID constraints, there is more space between lockers,” he said. “There are like six or seven players in that one room and I’m in the room behind that. There’s a couple more guys coming next week (when full-squad workouts start), so I will be a little less lonely.”
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Dingler has made a strong impression in his first big-league camp. He earned praise for his poise from Joe Jimenez after their bullpen session on Thursday. He earned praise from Hinch for speaking up and being forthright with the pitchers he’s caught – telling them exactly what he sees.
“It’s good to hear that,” Dingler said. “Even though you don’t want to say it, there are nerves that go into it. Especially in the position I am in and getting the opportunity I have in front of me. It’s good to hear that I have been able to slow it down.
“I just try to be the same person with everybody. I don’t try to ramp-up too much. Just try to stay even-keel.”