Baseball’s decision to delay the Triple-A season by a month and revive the alternate training site format for April puts the Tigers in an interesting spot with their top pitching prospects, none moreso than Manning, who was optioned to Triple-A Toledo on Tuesday.
With that in mind, is Manning better off working on those final touches at the alternate training site in Toledo playing in camp games, or in Minor League Spring Training, which will begin in Tigertown as soon as the Major League team heads north?
“The alt site’s an option. We’re a little bit concerned about building up a pitcher with no competition in 40-degree weather in Toledo in April,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “So we’re leaning towards leaving him here in a Minor League Spring Training setting to give him a normal workload to build himself up to be ready for a May Toledo start.”
But if the Tigers leave Manning in Lakeland, Fla., that essentially rules out a promotion in April. He could be bumped up from Minor League camp to the alternate training site, but the 23-year-old would have to go through a five-day intake process. So if Detroit needs another starter due to injury, it would have to turn to someone else. The Tigers have no shortage of options at the moment, but it’s unclear what their depth will look like in April, or whether some veteran candidates would accept assignments to the alternate training site.
“The players at the alt site are the only ones that you can draw from in a callup setting,” Hinch explained. “So we have to strike that balance of what our overall long-term plan is for a guy over the next couple months versus the availability of a callup right away.”
The Tigers expect to address that question with pitchers on a case-by-case basis. Franklin Perez, who was also optioned to Toledo on Tuesday, is expected to remain in Lakeland for Minor League camp so he can build up his arm and velocity. Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser, who were optioned to Toledo last week, are expected to go to the alternate training site and stretch out to around 50 pitches. At that level, they could be ready for a spot start or long relief.
Mize or Skubal could face a similar debate if they don’t make Detroit’s rotation. In their cases, having big-league experience already, they’re more realistic options for an April callup.
“The key is going to be: We don’t know if we can play games at the alt site other than just sim games,” Hinch said. “If they open it up to us being able to maybe have a small pod if a team trains somewhere close by that we can bus to, then maybe we’ll be a little bit more open to which guys are where.”
That would be a big difference from last summer, when Mize, Skubal, Manning and Alex Faedo all trained at the alternate training site in Toledo while playing simulated games, with coaches playing some positions because they didn’t have enough players. If Tigers Minor Leaguers could play camp games against, for instance, Indians Minor Leaguers in Columbus, Ohio, that would help.
Others sent down
In addition to Manning and Perez, the Tigers optioned outfielder Christin Stewart, infielder Zack Short and right-hander Alex Lange to Triple-A Toledo. Second baseman Kody Clemens was reassigned to Minor League camp.
Stewart will not be in the Tigers’ Opening Day lineup for the first time since 2018. It seemed an inevitable move once the club signed Nomar Mazara, another left-handed-hitting corner outfielder, in free agency last month. Still, it notes Stewart’s struggles over the past couple years since the former first-round pick made a strong first impression as a September callup in 2018.
Stewart batted 2-for-17 this spring with 10 strikeouts. The swings and misses, Hinch said, are going to have to improve in Triple-A for him to return to Detroit.
“It’s an important year for him,” Hinch said, “because he’s going to have to find a way to show us the reason to get him back into the big leagues. He knows that; he was super professional about it.”
Lange left an impression on Tigers officials by tossing 3 1/3 scoreless innings on two hits with three walks and three strikeouts.
“I think he leaped a couple guys and is an option faster than I expected coming into camp,” Hinch said. “We knew he had good stuff. We knew he had sort of a back-end-of-the-bullpen mentality and his aggressiveness that comes with it. But I think he showcased himself very well, opened some eyes. And if we needed help quickly in the bullpen, I think he’s equipped to help us faster than I anticipated.”