Wojo: Tigers’ rebuild enters most dangerous phase

Detroit News

With every stellar outing by a young starting pitcher, the promise grows. With every botched defensive play or anemic hitting effort, the urgency grows.

We’re entering the most delicate, difficult phase of the Tigers’ rebuild, one that could determine many fates, including that of GM Al Avila. The Tigers’ touted cache of arms is starting to deliver, led by former No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize, who has strung together five consecutive impressive starts.

You know what that means? It means the rebuild is hitting the clock-ticking phase. It means the foundation is taking form, and the pressure to upgrade the lineup, the defense and the bullpen will ratchet.

The Tigers have a top-five starting rotation in the American League with a 3.96 ERA (compared to a majors-worst 5.75 bullpen ERA) but a last-place division record (18-30) and we all know why. The rotation — Mize, Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Tarik Skubal, Jose Urena — is getting very little help. Fine outings are being wasted. Nobody cares much about the won-loss record, but this is the final season we can say that.

“As far as starting pitching, we’ve done a marvelous job, players have really done well,” Avila said Wednesday, speaking at a virtual Detroit Economic Club meeting. “We’ve got one of the best starting rotations in Major League Baseball. We feel very good about that.”

Avila wasn’t quite as upbeat on other areas, perhaps signaling his own waning patience.

On the bullpen: “We expected the bullpen to be better; it’s been mixed results.”

On the lineup: “As far as position players, you can see we’re still trying to figure some things out, who will be the mainstays, who’s here for the future.”

On the defense: “Our defense has let us down. We’ve had tremendous pitching performances and all of a sudden we make an error here or there. A lot of areas to clean up for sure.”

The defensive disasters are traced to an untenable plan. In the Tigers’ attempt to find suitable positions for moderately suitable players, they’re putting them in position to fail. Niko Goodrum is a solid role player, not an everyday shortstop. Willi Castro can be a decent hitter, but not a dependable fielder. The catching rotation has swung from Wilson Ramos to Grayson Greiner to Eric Haase and Jake Rogers, with Haase and Rogers showing promise. The defense’s dreadfulness is best reflected in this: Every position player on the roster has a defensive-WAR of negative or zero, except for the rookie Haase.

Hitting is equally erratic. The Tigers have warmed up a bit but are 28th in runs entering Tuesday, and I swear on many nights, AJ Hinch could just write “Work in Progress” at each spot on the lineup card. The Tigers generally play hard and that counts for something, but not enough at this level.

More: Al Avila on the clock: A look at every move he’s made as the Tigers’ GM

Bats needed

Futures are being decided right now, at a time when baseball is back on the front pages and fans are returning to Comerica Park. A product obscured and partially ignored during the pandemic is on larger display. At the July 30 trade deadline, and also in free agency, the Tigers have to get aggressive. That means Avila needs to show he’s more than a rebuilder, and owner Chris Ilitch needs to show he’s more than a caretaker.

As the Tigers grow some arms, it’s become painfully apparent they’ll have to buy some bats. They can’t just wait on premier hitting prospects Riley Greene, 20, and Spencer Torkelson, 21. The free-agent market is loaded with top shortstops — Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Javier Baez, even Twins defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons — and that’s the place to kickstart a rebuild now in its fifth year or so.

In 2004, spurred by a humiliating 119-loss season, owner Mike Ilitch lured prized catcher Pudge Rodriguez to Detroit, and others followed. Conventional wisdom says good teams must be strong up the middle — catcher, shortstop, center field. It’s not a coincidence the Tigers have been holding fruitless auditions at all three positions for several years now, with a dizzying carousel in the outfield, other than left fielder Robbie Grossman.

If you don’t complement good starting pitching with good defense and timely hitting, you’re wasting your time. In football terms, it’s like trying to win with a good quarterback, a poor defense and a non-existent running game. I’d refer you to the Lions and Matthew Stafford, for example.

Hinch is a fine manager, and when (if) the Tigers are poised to win, he’ll be a major part of it. Right now, his primary job is to stay calm, be upbeat and parse words. It can’t be easy but he’s pulling it off, so far.

“I know we’re making progress, I know we’re seeing a lot of good things,” Hinch said. “We’re also seeing a lot of areas we have to get better at. We’re all pretty new. I’d say the state of the team 40-50 games in is, it’s been an acclimation process.”

Call to arms

In one way, the development of the starting pitchers lessens the pressure. If Mize is officially arriving, and Skubal’s velocity and arsenal are back — he struck out nine each of his past two outings — and Turnbull is spinning an occasional no-hitter, and Boyd is posting a 3.08 ERA, and Urena continues to be a pleasant surprise, the Tigers theoretically can be in every game.

In another way, it increases the pressure. Some of those arms might have to be traded for hitters. Some will have innings limitations after missing last season with the minor leagues shut down. With other pitchers — Matt Manning, Joey Wentz — progressing in a farm system generally ranked top-five in the majors, Avila should have ample options. But there are only so many times a young pitcher can be dominant and lose without diminishing his confidence or value.

“When your starting pitching goes six innings, you have a chance to win every single game,” Avila said. “The biggest challenge will be getting through the whole season without overtaxing them on innings. … Pitching is the most difficult thing to go out and find in the free-agent market. It’s the most expensive thing and it’s going to be the riskiest thing from a health perspective. So we need to have a good nucleus of homegrown pitching talent, which we’re developing as we speak.”

The Tigers have shown they can identify high-end talent at the top of the draft, although at some point, we assume they’ll be picking a little lower. As an organization, they haven’t remotely shown they can develop position players. And Avila hasn’t shown the timing and trading acumen of his predecessor, Dave Dombrowski.

Ilitch backed Avila with a contract extension two years ago, when all the potential was percolating down on the farm. Now some of it is here, and Avila has to prove he can supplement it through trades or signings. As the timetable ramps up, everyone should be under heightened scrutiny, from the top down.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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