Wojo: Tigers keep whiffing wildly, and patience is cracking

Detroit News

A rebuild isn’t an excuse for lethargy. It’s not a free pass to the future. It’s not whatever ugliness the Tigers are offering up right now.

They’re the worst team in baseball again, at 7-15. They have one of the worst offenses imaginable, a conglomeration of retreads and scuffling youngsters. With another dreary loss, 4-0 to the Royals on Sunday, the Tigers have scored 18 runs in 10 games, and lost nine of them. In that span, they have an incomprehensible 102 strikeouts and 13 walks.

A.J. Hinch escapes blame, for now, 22 games into his tenure here. But everyone else should be under increasing scrutiny, starting with Al Avila. He has to be on notice, in his sixth full season as GM. Chris Ilitch has to be concerned about the fans maintaining their patience. We knew when the rebuild officially began in 2017 it’d be long and painful. But it would be palatable if there were signs of steady progress, or any progress.

The Tigers’ starting pitching has been fine, led by a rejuvenated Matthew Boyd, as well as Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer. But the lineup? The fundamentals? The defense? Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

They’ve thrown to the wrong bases and run to the wrong bases. In the fourth inning, they collected three hits and didn’t score, as Niko Goodrum was caught stealing. The Royals, who won the World Series in 2015, then rebuilt and already are back in first at 13-7, apply constant pressure and collect clutch hits.

Hinch has to be wondering exactly what he got himself into here. For the record, he’s remained mostly unflappable amid mounting frustration and declines to single out players for sickly at-bats. When I asked him if his team grinds and competes hard enough each time at the plate, he took the opportunity to stand up for them, as a manager generally does.

“These guys are prepared and competing, they’re getting after it, that’s unfair to the hitters to call them non-competitive,” Hinch said. “Us being able to lay off tough pitches and not fall behind, the chasing probably bothers me more. Their intent is good, their give-a-(blank) is good. No one wants to go up there and swing and miss all the time.”

It’s about concentration

One problem with rebuilds are they take a long time and have impossible-to-predict timelines. The bigger problem is, they blur the lines of accountability. Did anyone think the Tigers would be contenders in 2021? Nope. Were their young players especially damaged by the absence of a minor league season in 2020? Yep.

The season is barely 14% over, too early to toss people aside, too early to scapegoat someone such as hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh. But it’s not too early to question how a team that added a few experienced hitters to a weak lineup looks even weaker. It’s not too early to again ask why Avila can’t fill out a roster with even average hitters.

The Tigers are 28th in the majors in runs, last in batting average (.205) and OBP (.264), fourth in strikeouts and 27th in walks. This isn’t just about talent, or lack thereof. It’s about concentration, or lack thereof.

Robbie Grossman was signed to provide a professional bat, and he walked eight times in his first three games. He’s walked six times in 19 games since and is hitting .200. Miguel Cabrera returned Sunday and struck out three times. Jonathan Schoop is hitting .174 with an OBP of .203 (!!). Catcher Wilson Ramos has six home runs but struggles defensively.

In the field, the Tigers are prone to unforced gaffes. Right fielder Victor Reyes’ ill-advised throw to third in the fifth inning Saturday led to the winning run in the Royals’ 2-1 victory. After that game, Hinch admitted the Tigers were frustrated, even “pissed off.” Against Kansas City starter Danny Duffy and an excellent bullpen, they didn’t exact retribution, with 13 strikeouts and one walk.

“We’re all continuing to talk, we’re in the trenches together, we’ve all gone through it,” Hinch said. “It’s aggravating, it’s maddening, it’s frustrating, everything you can think of. We’re not gonna accept it. It’s not something guys are just blowing off. We’re trying to find solutions. And the more you try and don’t get the results, it continues to weigh on guys.”

‘We’re gonna be all right’

Third baseman Jeimer Candelario has hung in there, collecting two hits Sunday. Rookie Akil Baddoo has cooled since his remarkable start but shows promise. Beyond that? The batting averages are miniscule — JaCoby Jones (.136), Goodrum (.204), Willi Castro (.221). The Tigers hit a bunch of home runs with nobody on base, which happens when you usually have nobody on base.

“I know we’re gonna be all right,” Candelario said. “We trust the process.”

Ah, the process. Avila is frittering away trust, not because the Tigers should be winning by now, but because they should be developing. This roster is legitimately worse than the 2017 team that went 64-98 in the first season of the rebuild. Position players on that team: Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, Nick Castellanos, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez.

Obviously the Tigers had to move on. But Avila botched the Castellanos situation and dealt him to the Cubs, and now he leads the NL with seven home runs with the Reds. Avila’s trades have been mostly fruitless, and look worse because the prospects are slow to grow.

Casey Mize has scuffled. So has Tarik Skubal. So has most of the bullpen. I honestly think the pitching will come around because the Tigers have too many young arms not to hit on someone.

So why can’t they hit on hitters? Riley Greene or Spencer Torkelson might arrive late in the summer, which will buy more time. Ilitch has said he’ll spend when the team is ready, and the theory is, that’ll be after this season. I think he’ll have to push it whether the team is ready or not, because the product is unsightly and fans are getting restless.

Hinch knows he doesn’t have enough decent players but he’s not going to call them out. For now, all he can do is remain calm and encouraging, and espouse things I’m not even sure he believes.

“We’ve been better than this, and we’re gonna be better than this,” Hinch said. “But riding this out is very difficult when you’re getting punched in the face every day and not scoring runs and everybody’s asking questions about the lack of offense. They read it, they hear it, they know it. It’s not a competitive issue. It’s not a care issue. They’re not content just putting up zeros.”

And nobody is content watching it, from Ilitch to Avila to the fans. It’s hard to demand accountability when the organization doesn’t have major-league-ready players to bring up. That’s on Avila, who doesn’t get unlimited time to rebuild, not if it keeps looking like this.


Twitter: bobwojnowski

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