Lakeland, Florida – When we all have been staring too many times at masked faces the past 12 months, it was soothing to look across a Lakeland baseball field in March, 2021.
Not as inspiring was studying a particular sector of the Tigers’ regular lineup.
Robbie Grossman. JaCoby Jones. Victor Reyes. On some days, you might see Nomar Mazara.
And then, of course, there was the spring-camp headliner, the blindside star – and the best player by far among those five outfielders Tigers manager AJ Hinch will be overseeing, at least early, as the Tigers get ready for Thursday and Opening Day at Comerica Park.
Ponder that reality for a moment. A kid who hasn’t played above Single A, a player who couldn’t crack the Twins’ 40-man roster heading into 2021, is possibly, if not probably, the best talent in Detroit’s outfield and its great hope at infusing some actual run-creation in a Tigers lineup featuring little muscle and alarming opportunities to be shut out.
Outfield hitters typically are a big-league team’s offensive drive-train. Most often, outfield is where the sluggers and game-breakers are stationed. Extra-base pop, the kind that can score a runner from first base, is typically a requisite.
The Tigers have an outfield filled with too many fourth-outfielder talents. The infield is better-equipped, and new catcher Wilson Ramos can hit. But who’s belting 20 home runs on this team? Where will the drives up the alley and against the wall emerge, and who will be on base to be chased home?
There, unquestionably, is the big issue for a Tigers team that will have better pitching in 2021 but, seemingly, too little thunder to make it count.
The ceiling from this perch is 70 victories. It could be as few as 65.
Now for the rest of the story.
The season will, amid a lot of grimacing, likely be entertaining. And not as bleak for a Detroit baseball crowd as the above forecast implies.
►1. Baddoo will find big-league pitching to be often withering, particularly during these frozen early days. But he has talent that, even in a worst-case scenario, will allow the Tigers to bank him as a Rule 5 investment who should pay off, perhaps handsomely.
►2. The young starters, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, will have their moments, but these kids are superb talents. Watch them grow.
►3. The bullpen is better. So much better that, had the Tigers had these arms in 2013, the year their World Series parade blew up because of a fractured back-end crew, Mike Ilitch would have had his championship. They’ll have moments, as well – this is baseball, remember – but the arms are solid, and Derek Holland has been a steal.
►4. The Tigers almost certainly will make a Big Trade at mid-season. The price will be steep – maybe Spencer Turnbull, perhaps Jeimer Candelario as well, possibly Gregory Soto – but the Tigers will swing a deal that will get them and general manager Al Avila a bedrock piece. And the bet here is that it will be a young shortstop who offers more assurance than Willi Castro.
The market, and Detroit’s trade pieces, should finally coalesce in July or August and allow a swap that is absolutely essential if this supposed rebuild ultimately crafts a playoff contender.
►5. Young talent will steadily filter into Detroit from the minor leagues. Heaviest expectations there ride on Isaac Paredes. He’ll need some tune-up time at Triple-A Toledo. But when his bat heats up, he can become the team’s new everyday second baseman – or replace Candelario at third – and allow Jonathan Schoop or another option to play more regularly at first base and boost Hinch’s offense.
All of this is a prelude to what squawking fans most want – a big free agent for Detroit.
They’ll get that player, or players, this offseason. And here’s your guarantee: Hinch.
He signed with Detroit for a reason. He liked what was developing on the farm. He liked as much assurances from Chris Ilitch that the Tigers would once again begin shopping, hard, in free agency’s big-ticket aisle.
He wasn’t being lied to. The Tigers know they got lucky with Hinch and want to keep him as manager. They know, if things don’t work out here, that Hinch – remember the mysterious unannounced length of his contract? – can take another job with another team with resources and a commitment to spend whatever it takes to win.
Fans have wanted to tie the Tigers’ plight these past five years, in great part anyway, to a late owner’s son being cheap. It hasn’t been the case. Not for a minute has it been true, and a front office knows it.
The Tigers had immense clean-up and debt to retire after Mike Ilitch splurged on his grand dream and left enough red ink to have re-floated the Suez Canal ship that last week got stranded.
Fans can howl all they want about Little Caesars Pizza, and Ilitch’s billions, and all the other justifications that can be amassed by aggrieved victims of an empirical villain.
But it’s not a malevolent tale, the Tigers’ ugly string of seasons. It was set in motion largely because the farm was raided during their earlier heyday and Mike Ilitch, in his benevolence, so ran up the bill that a mid-market team was actually paying luxury tax on an over-the-top payroll.
This was going to be a long, long rebuild. Some of us knew it, some of us wrote it, six and seven years ago. It has been every bit that long.
Mike Ilitch, bless his generosity, hung on to the dream and to the hope until he passed away four years ago.
But what a mess he bequeathed his son and a new front office.
The last really tough year – from a strict win-loss standpoint – should extend into this season.
By the time next spring’s camp in Lakeland rolls around, much will be different: Riley Greene will be part of the outfield. A big free agent will be seated somewhere in the lineup. Good young starting pitching that by then should have added Joey Wentz and Matt Manning will be more in place.
Add to the mix a couple more hotshot prospects — probably Spencer Torkelson who will indeed figure it out — and maybe Dillon Dingler or Daniel Cabrera or another talented kid, any of whom should be moving closer to Detroit.
This is when a team will have moved, certifiably, toward better days that will point them toward playoff opportunities as the kids mature. As with the ‘80s teams that took time to grow up, the same timetable will be in place with this bunch. But fans won’t mind the vigil as legitimate talent moves into the lineup and more widely into Hinch’s pitching corps.
But back to current-day matters.
Things very likely will be god-awful in these early weeks.
Has anyone looked at that early April schedule?
It’s loaded with playoff-grade teams: the Indians, Twins, A’s and Astros.
I’ve got the Tigers going 4-12 in those first 16 games, and four victories could be a stretch.
But, again, the kicker: It won’t be as bad throughout these next six months. The team will improve as rosters and lineups are shuffled. and as kids show up, and as trades and July’s draft and overall personnel steadily shifts for the better.
That’s the difference in 2021. It won’t be evident early, but if fans can hang on throughout a long spring and summer, and into an offseason that will have more fireworks than has been the norm of late, they’ll begin to rediscover their old baseball ardor.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and a retired Detroit News sportswriter.