Henning: Here’s how rookies could play part in Tigers’ 2022 Opening Day plans

Detroit News

Job promotion happens for a reason, which is why a bunch of Tigers farmhands at Double-A Erie a week ago were bumped to Triple-A Toledo, a doorstep from Comerica Park.

Three of them are doing just fine in their first week: outfielder Riley Greene, first baseman Spencer Torkelson, and shortstop Ryan Kreidler. They happen to be, along with catcher Dillon Dingler, the hottest prospects and most vital potential add-ons to manager AJ Hinch’s lineup in Detroit.

A question six months before players check into Lakeland, Florida, for spring camp:

Will as many as three of the above play their way onto the Tigers’ Opening Day roster?

Based on how they’ve been passing their everyday tests in 2021, and based more on the fact the Tigers and Hinch would like to win, immediately, in 2022, the answer should be obvious.

Minds will be open next spring. The Tigers have gotten better in 2021 as they’ve gotten younger and more talented. Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Akil Baddoo — even Derek Hill and Jake Rogers, along with late-bloomer Eric Haase. All have factored in a season that, for all its bumps, has been an exercise in better baseball.

Theoretically, the Tigers next March will be able to say to Greene, Torkelson, and even Kreidler, what the Tigers said this year to Baddoo and to the young pitchers, just as they spoke in 2006 to two kid pitchers named Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya:

Let’s win some big-league games. Now.

Reality also should be observed. Three kid players, who are 20 (Greene), 22 (Torkelson on Thursday), and 23 (Kreidler), also can show during a batch of Grapefruit League games next year that they will benefit from a dash more seasoning at Toledo.

And that will be fine. No reason to rush.

But remember that had the Tigers not played such contemptible baseball during their first 21 games in April they would be above .500 and at least gratified that October’s playoffs were moving within sniffing distance.

Hinch came here to win. The front office was assigned a rebuild, long and messy.

Now, it’s time to get serious.

Or, at least it’s easy to say as much in August of the preceding year.

There are reasons to suggest the Tigers should, and even must, wait for the kids to do a bit more growing.

Big-league baseball is harsh. Kids get premature call-ups all the time. It can be potentially damaging, throwing prodigies to the wolves, in cold weather, to boot. You trust a general manager (Al Avila) and a manager, Hinch, who have worked well together the past 10 months to make a mutually agreeable decision there.

Another factor can’t be ignored. But in the Tigers’ case, it actually can be.

Service time, as it’s known in MLB circles, is a consideration for most clubs, most times. The march toward free agency (six seasons of big-league duty) begins on Opening Day. Wait until later in April to promote your hotshots and you don’t spend one of those vital years of service. It delays free agency by one big, big season.

That’s a fair issue to ponder — especially so if the kids show too many tender tinges during their Lakeland auditions.

But it won’t influence next spring’s decisions. Avila isn’t interested in service-time delays. Hinch isn’t. And neither is Tigers owner Chris Ilitch. Their positions on that very issue are known to be aligned.

This will come down instead to how kids perform and whether they’re ready for baseball on the most extreme and skilled level.

Ponder again last week’s moves from Erie to Toledo. Notice, even in these early days, how the blue-chippers are handling their upgrades.

Greene, who could be something special indeed in Detroit, handled an ambitious Double-A assignment and now is settling in at Triple A seemingly as comfortably as he did at Erie.

Torkelson, who was picked first overall in last year’s draft for a reason — his big, right-handed bat — has now moved from high Single A, to Double A, to Triple A, all in the span of 3½ months and is acting, well, like the star prospect he was supposed to be.

Kreidler is the surprise — somewhat. He also is the longest shot to make it out of Lakeland next spring.

The Tigers very possibly committed fourth-round draft thievery in 2019 when they got Kreidler out of UCLA. He is 6-foot-4, and guys that lengthy, and muscular (208 pounds), typically don’t hold up at shortstop. They lack necessary range.

Kreidler’s different. Fine range. Solid glove. Big arm.

More: Around the Tigers’ farm: Ryan Kreidler off to scorching start for Triple-A Toledo

The concern, then and now, is if his bat would hold up, either at short, or at another position.

There’s still plenty he must prove before the Tigers make any bold moves and move him quickly to Detroit.

There also is the matter of autumn/winter free agency.

The Tigers will be shopping. They’ll see what the market offers — whether Carlos Correa could be signed for something less than an insane figure, or whether it would be feasible to go for, say, a Marcus Semien on a shorter, big-bucks contract, which would allow Kreidler more time to gestate at Toledo.

They might go for a less gaudy shortstop, also as a fill-in ahead of Kreidler, who has apart from his defense the brand of power that could one day deliver 20-25 home runs in Detroit.

More: Henning: Tigers have glaring problem at SS; throwing money at it might not be wise

But so much can’t yet be projected. The free-agent market is murky, in August, anyway. And the kids are still learning on the farm.

The Tigers will pay hourly attention to Greene, Torkelson, Kreidler, et al, during these final five weeks at Toledo.

They’ll then mix in either a ticket to the Arizona Fall League for all three, or perhaps opt for winter ball — or both — for any of the trio.

They haven’t yet decided how that will play out. It depends on health, fatigue, proper challenges — issues that aren’t yet resolved. What is known, for sure, is there will be no September calls to Detroit for any of the above.

Simply too early for that, the Tigers have made clear.

If an August bet were to be placed here on how this shakes out, it would be this sequence of events:

Greene makes the cut in spring camp and becomes Hinch’s new center fielder. Robbie Grossman, Akil Baddoo, and Derek Hill will complete the four-man arrangement that will sort itself out in terms of who plays where and how regularly.

Torkelson becomes the Tigers’ new first baseman. Third base was a handy experience for Torkelson, and for the Tigers, but he is comfortable and very good at first base, and it just happens the Tigers need a regular there.

Kreidler is more problematic. Unless he keeps doing what he’s been doing this year — becoming steadily better, which is conceivable — he will need more shifts at Toledo. The Tigers will make other arrangements at shortstop for 2022 and beyond, knowing, of course, that trades can always be made down the line if push comes to shove on the part of Kreidler or any of the other farm-team thoroughbreds.

No matter how it’s all resolved, what is clear is this: The Tigers are better in 2021. They will be better in 2022, maybe quite a bit better.

The arc is moving upward, not surprisingly, given the manner in which cycles and rebuilds often proceed.

Detroit has been waiting years for better baseball; for reasons to buy a ticket; for an invitation to watch something other than Netflix from 7 p.m. till 11.

The kids are delivering. There are more coming, whether it’s on Opening Day, 2022, or a tad later.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

On deck: Cardinals

Series: Two games at Busch Stadium, St. Louis, Missouri

First pitch: Tuesday — 7:45 p.m.; Wednesday — 1:15 p.m.

TV/radio: Tuesday — BSD/97.1 FM; Wednesday — BSD, MLBN/97.1

Probables: Tuesday — RHP Casey Mize (6-6, 3.69) vs. RHP Jack Flaherty (9-1, 2.68); Wednesday — LHP Tarik Skubal (8-11, 4.02) vs. LHP Jon Lester (4-6, 5.46).

Scouting report

Mize, Tigers: He’s due for a good one. In his three previous starts this month, Mize has allowed nine earned runs in 13.1 innings, with an 11-6 strikeout-walk tally. Opponents are hitting .302 and slugging .698, with an OPS of 1.081 in those three outings. He’s better than that. Command has been an issue. From May through July, he had a 64% strike percentage. It’s down to 59% in August.

Flaherty, Cardinals: In his two starts after coming off the injured list, he’s allowed two runs in 12 innings with 13 strikeouts and one walk. He had been out since May 31 with an oblique injury. He pitches off a well-located four-seam fastball (93-94) but does his damage with his slider (39% whiff) and curveball (37% whiff).

Chris McCosky

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