As Detroit Tigers trend up, young players foreshadow future success

Detroit Free Press

Gregory Soto stared down Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu, the 2020 American League MVP, with runners on the corners and one out Sunday in the ninth inning.

The Detroit Tigers, playing better than they have in years under first-year manager AJ Hinch, were two outs away from cementing a series win against the toughest AL Central opponent.

Leading up to the White Sox series, the Tigers won series’ against the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland, and split a four-game set with the Houston Astros. Results in Detroit finally show progress in Year 5 of a rebuild. The brand improved in May, got better in June and continues to boost its stock.

“We’re trying to build an expectation here that doesn’t get to high, doesn’t get too low, that can run the marathon of the season and play in October,” Hinch said before Friday’s series opener. “We’re not near October and where we need to be to get there, but we are taking steps in that direction.”

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Suddenly, the Tigers are in third place in the AL Central. They are within striking distance of second place but sit 11½ games back of the first-place White Sox, 10 games out from a wild-card spot.

The Tigers have a chance to gain ground. The rest of their July schedule: Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins, Kanas City Royals, Twins (again) and Baltimore Orioles.

Beating Chicago on Sunday felt necessary to prove these Tigers — even after losing 17 of their past 19 to the White Sox entering this weekend — aren’t anything like the Tigers of old. Hinch has his guys fighting back, controlling the strike zone, applying pressure by owning the basepaths with speed and dominating out of the bullpen.

That’s why it stung when Abreu caught a slider from Soto and crushed the ball beyond the left-field fence. The Tigers’ four-run lead was chopped to 6-5, with the tying run at the plate. Soto struck out Brian Goodwin for the second out, but walked Leury Garcia.

Andrew Vaughn, the go-ahead run, entered the batter’s box. Hinch replaced Soto — who found out before the game he was selected to the All-Star Game — with Jose Cisnero, who threw one pitch, which Vaughn lined out to right field.

“We have to stand up and defend ourselves against our division,” Hinch said. “These are teams that have had their way with us over the course of a few seasons, but we can put pressure on any team. When we take the lead, we feel really good about our guys.”

The Tigers (38-46) have a 29-22 record since May 8.

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As rookie outfielder Akil Baddoo put it: “We’re riding high right now.”

Beyond gaining respect in the division, the Tigers becoming competitive means the rebuild is working. Positive results from the young players foreshadow success for 2022 and beyond.

“We’re coming in confident,” Baddoo said. “To see all the work that is put in outside of the game and in practice and everything, seeing it finally pay off is good for us. We need to just continue to play baseball like we know how to play and continue to bring that energy.”

Better than expected

Since May 11, Baddoo is hitting .343 with 11 extra-base hits, 23 walks and 26 strikeouts. He is now the leadoff hitter and often the center fielder. He has 13 stolen bases, getting caught twice. His season-long batting average is .281, with 14 doubles, four triples, five home runs and 25 RBIs.

Baddoo, a 22-year-old Rule 5 draft pick, entered the season without playing above High A in the minor leagues. His story alone — from an unprotected Twins prospect to the best all-around player for the Tigers — is inspiring.

But it’s time to give him a new tag: AL Rookie of the Year candidate.

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“I let the guys know that (Soto) was going to be our (All-Star) representative,” Hinch said. “But I also tipped my cap to Casey Mize, Jose Cisnero, Jonathan Schoop and Akil Baddoo — names that I think should have been at the forefront when you’re talking about Tigers All-Stars.”

He later added: “I mentioned Akil for a reason. Put it in context of what he’s doing, that’s why I mentioned him in front of the team as well.”

Among AL rookies, Baddoo ranks first in batting average, second in doubles, first in triples, second in walks, first in stolen bases, third in on-base percentage (.382), fourth in slugging percentage (.418) and second in on-base plus slugging (.850).

“Akil is one of our best hitters, at the end of the day,” Hinch said. “I want to keep putting things in front of him.”

Rookie arms the real deal

The prized pitchers in the rebuild — Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning — are in the big leagues together. Mize and Skubal, both 24, continue to prove they are on their way to anchoring the pitching staff.

They’re still learning with experience, but this year’s results are encouraging, aided by new pitching coach Chris Fetter.

“He’s been excellent,” Hinch said of Fetter. “He’s been everything that we could have asked for and more. We expected it because we knew what we were hiring, but his impact with our players, developing our pitching plan and implementing it into the big leagues has been one of the highlights of our season.”

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Mize could also be considered for AL Rookie of the Year. He has a 5-5 record, 3.55 ERA, 27 walks and 75 strikeouts in 91⅓ innings over 16 starts. Against the White Sox on Friday, he was limited to three innings because of his load management as a young pitcher. After the All-Star break, Mize will ramp up and ditch the restrictions. His goal is to pitch through September without getting shut down early.

From May 5 to July 2, Mize posted a 2.92 ERA, 17 walks and 55 strikeouts in 64⅔ innings over 11 starts.

“I’m still not convinced he won’t be a replacement consideration (for the All-Star Game) if the guys had pitched on Sunday or if somebody gets hurt or declines the invitation,” Hinch said. “I could see Casey being added, Jonathan being added.”

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In time, Skubal could join Mize in the Rookie of the Year mix. He has a 5-7 record, 4.35 ERA, 37 walks and 100 strikeouts in 82⅔ innings through 17 games (15 starts).

From May 7 to July 3, Skubal earned a 3.71 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 60⅔ over innings over 11 starts. He joined elite company by striking out eight-plus batters in four consecutive starts: Noah Syndergaard, Jose Fernandez, Yu Darvish and Stephen Strasburg are the other rookies since 2010 to accomplish the feat.

Sometime after the All-Star break, Skubal will have his innings restricted for the second time this season.

“Competing in the strike zone is huge for me,” Skubal said June 27, after posting seven innings of one-run ball to beat the Astros. “Getting into counts that are in my favor and throwing strikes and getting ahead of guys and just letting my stuff play over the plate and having all the confidence in the world in that.”

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Soto’s value

Although Schoop, Mize, Cisnero and Baddoo didn’t receive All-Star bids, Soto gets to make his first appearance in his third year in the majors. He is one of the most valuable players on the roster, and the expectation is he will get better.

The 26-year-old All-Star has a 2.94 ERA, 20 walks, 40 strikeouts and six saves in 33⅔ innings over 36 appearances in high-leverage situations. The left-hander throws a 97-100 mph fastball and wipeout slider.

When he fires these pitches for strikes, he is one of the best relievers in the game.

For those reasons, Soto is a dream acquisition for teams at the trade deadline. He isn’t a free agent until after the 2026 season.

If he isn’t traded, he will remain a staple in the Tigers’ bullpen and could be named Hinch’s official closer. Right now, the team works without defined roles between Soto, Cisnero, Michael Fulmer and Kyle Funkhouser.

“Our best team this season is this committee-based bullpen,” Hinch said. “Is it going to be that way moving forward? The personnel will dictate that.”

Trade or no trade, closer or not, Soto’s performance in 2021 has been key.

“He wants be named the closer,” Hinch said. “He really does want the responsibility at the back end, but I know some outs in the sixth inning, seventh inning and eighth inning that he’s gotten this year specifically helped us win games. That should be valued, and that should be rewarded.”

His success, along with the improvements from numerous other young players, plus solid play from veterans, has boosted the Tigers to where they ought to be this far into a rebuild.

How they compete in the second half of this season will be telling, ahead of a big offseason this winter.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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