Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Me and Julio (Teheran), down by the schoolyard

Detroit Free Press

You want to believe.

That might be the most important aspect of spring training every year, the belief. The fresh start, under the sun in Arizona or Florida, after so many cold months without baseball, and, well, you can be forgiven for staring a little harder at a player coming off a bad year, squinting at him until he resembles his past All-Star form, at least a little.

It’s a habit we in Detroit have gotten into, over the past 15 years, perhaps — though it’s hardly a recent trend — ever since the Tigers signed Kenny Rogers a few months before the 2006 season.

Hello, and welcome to the Detroit Tigers Newsletter, and we’re going to talk about belief, at least a little.

Rogers was coming off a 3.48 ERA in 195⅓ innings in Texas. But that was following back-to-back seasons with ERAs closer to 5 than 4, and right as he was entering his age-40 season; even the rubberiest of arms lose a bit of snap at that age.

Rogers’ spring stats that year were, uh, less than encouraging as well: six strikeouts, 10 walks and 13 earned runs allowed in 16 innings. But he made the rotation anyway, because that’s what veterans with $8 million-a-year contracts do.

And … it worked. One earned run in his first start. A 2.59 ERA by the end of April. A 3.84 ERA (and 17 wins) on the year, wrapping up with 23 scoreless postseason innings.

And so, with every veteran the Tigers have signed off the scrap heap since … yeah, you want to believe. Of course, there are only so many Kenny Rogerses, and a lot of Brad Pennys, Mike Pelfreys, Francisco Lirianos, Ivan Novas, Matt Mo…. Well, you get the idea.

Which brings us to this year, and Julio Teheran.

Teheran is no Rogers. For one, he’s only just turned 30. For another, he’s much closer to his peak years with Atlanta, posting a 3.67 ERA over 1,360 innings and making two All-Star teams (the last in 2016) from 2011-19.

Then again, 2016 was a long time ago in baseball years. How long? Miguel-Cabrera-hit-38-homers-and-the-Tigers-had-a-winning-record long. And Teheran isn’t coming off a passable year, as Rogers was. Teheran’s 2020 — 20 strikeouts, 16 walks and a 10.05 ERA in 31⅓ innings — might have been the worst in the majors. Just four other pitchers 29 or older in major-league history have posted an ERA above 10 while pitching at least 30 innings; none of them were serviceable starters after that.

But Teheran has looked good this month, with five strikeouts, one walk and two earned runs allowed in five innings. His slider is sharp. He looks like his 2016 self.

You want to believe.

And, like we said, that’s what the spring is for — that wanting to believe. And just in case you want a few more reasons to believe, the Freep’s Evan Petzold broke down what the veteran righty has to do to keep that belief going into April.

Believe in blood

Of course, belief isn’t just for veterans in camp on minor-league deals. If the belief starts early enough, and has enough support from family, it can change a child’s life. At least, that’s what happened for prospect Alex Lange, whose adoptive mother pushed him, in the best way, to develop the talent in his blood. The Freep’s Jeff Seidel has the story here of Lange, his mother Renee and how she made his biological mother’s prediction come true.

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Believe in social distancing

Opening Day is less than three weeks away, and teams are starting to release their plans for fans in the stands. The Rangers, apparently looking to make up for lost time after their brand-new stadium sat empty for its first season, are operating at full capacity. (The seats, that is … the brains, maybe not.) Most other teams have settled in the sweet spot of 10%-25% capacity, or about 4,500 fans (in Boston) to about 12,000 fans (in Baltimore). And then there’s the Tigers, who’ll be at a hard 1,000-fan limit unless Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state revise their plans. Our Man Seidel has some questions, especially after enjoying his time in Tiger Town, which had a 2,000-fan limit. Click here to find out what those questions are.

Believe in youth

Look, if this whole rebuild thing is going to work, it won’t be guys like Teheran coming through, it’ll be the youngsters. Say, for example, Tarik Skubal. The young lefty is making the most of his new splitter, and Our Man Petzold looked at why the pitch is making a believer out of manager AJ Hinch: “He’s got no fear in throwing it.” Click here for the rest of Hinch’s praise.

Oh, and further down the prospect pipeline, the Tigers have Matt Manning and (much, much further down) Franklin Perez. Our Man Petzold broke down their latest outings here (just in case you were too busy watching the Big Ten tournament).

Three more to believe in

Hey, it’s not all about the pitchers; here are three hitters to keep an eye on this week:

JONATHAN SCHOOP: The Curacao National Team kept him sharp, or was it the other way around?

DAZ CAMERON: It’s all about the arm, not the bat this spring

VICTOR REYES: No pressure, just hits for the 26-year-old

Believe in birthdays

Kyle Funkhouser turns 27 Tuesday, and his birthday present from the Tigers was less than ideal on Friday: A ticket to the minors, likely through the start of the season. The 2016 fourth-round pick has struggled with walks the past two seasons, averaging 5.7 free passes per nine innings pitched. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be back in the bigs at some point this season. Our Man Petzold retraced the career of the prospect Hinch says “is in the area right in between Triple-A and the big leagues.”

This week’s other birthdays: Michael Fulmer (28 on Monday), Robert Fick (47 on Monday), Curtis Granderson (40 on Tuesday), Vance Wilson (48 on Wednesday), Fernando Rodney (44 on Thursday)

Mark your calendar

Thursday is a special day, despite there being no Tigers game scheduled … or perhaps because of that. Yes, that off-day marks the end of the second phase of spring training, according to Hinch; starting with Friday’s game against the Blue Jays — yes, them again — the Tigers will have a mere 12 games remaining before Opening Day against Cleveland on April 1.

TL;DR

Of course, belief is nice … but a little gunk on the palm goes a long way on the mound, eh, Kenny?

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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