Detroit Tigers Newsletter: The postseason is here, and it has lessons for the Tigers

Detroit Free Press

And now the real fun starts.

Well, not for the Detroit Tigers. Their fun — if you can call a gray, rainy day on the South Side of Chicago fun — ended Sunday with a win over the AL Central champion White Sox.

The Sox, of course, then headed to Houston for their ALDS opener Thursday. The Tigers headed home to Detroit, possessors of a 77-85 record, third place in the Central and, yes, a burning desire to be the ones getting ready for a postseason berth.

Hello, and welcome to the “Wait Till Next Year” Newsletter.

The Tigers weren’t shy this summer — especially as they kept beating playoff-bound teams — about their hunger to make the playoffs too, and soon. Whether you chalk it up to manager AJ Hinch’s new “winning culture,” a new wave of talent and hope arriving from the minors, a newly rediscovered hatred of the White Sox, or just the desire to get out of watching the Lions for another month, it’s clear how far the franchise has come from its last rainy finish in Chicago two years ago. On that 2019 day, featuring the Tigers’ 114th loss, then-manager Ron Gardenhire struggled to sound optimistic, even with the prospect in hand of not having to watch an awful baseball team for three months: “I would hope this will be the worst. Just looking at it, I sure hope we don’t do this again.”

Compare that to the Tigers’ anticipation for 2022, as explained by Jonathan Schoop to the Freep’s Evan Petzold this week: “I’m excited for next year, to go the playoffs and win everything. Seriously, I’m really excited.” (Click here to read more from Schoop and Hinch extolling October in Detroit, but maybe grab a winter coat first.)

But before we get to 2022, the 10 teams remaining have to finish off 2021.

And so, with that in mind, we thought we’d take a look at the five American League postseason squads, and what the Tigers can learn from them over the next month:

1. Tampa Bay Rays: Pitching flexibility. The Rays are the only one of the five AL playoff teams without a pitcher who topped 160 innings, and had just 14 appearances last longer than six innings, tied for the second-fewest in the majors. (The Dodgers were No. 1, at 46.) Instead, once the late innings rolled around, they focused on using a diverse bullpen to get the matchups they could excel in. It’s an approach AJ Hinch used well this year, mixing and matching Michael Fulmer, Jose Cisnero, Kyle Funkhouser and Gregory Soto — and sometimes for multiple innings.

2. Houston Astros: Let the kids play. Trash cans aside, you know (and perhaps are hoping to sign part of) the Altuve/Brantley/Bregman/Correa core of the Astros’ offense. But the ’Stros’ arguably two best-hitting regulars this season are also their youngest: 24-year-olds Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez, who posted OPSes of .917 and .877, respectively, while topping 140 games each. Of course, they weren’t sudden stars: Alvarez was the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year, and Tucker had an .837 OPS in 58 games last season. And for the Tigers? Well, they’ve got a couple young hitters in the minors — believe their names rhyme with “Pork” and “Bean” — that may benefit from learning on the job in the bigs.

3. Chicago White Sox: Rotation stability. The Anti-Rays? Not quote, but the ChiSox did have five pitchers — Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodon — make at least 24 starts each, and four of the five pitched at least 157 innings. (Rodon, who threw a no-hitter this year, fell 25 innings short due to an IL stint in August.) Of course, this is easier said than done, as evidenced by the Tigers’ struggles to keep their non-rookie arms healthy. But Mize/Skubal/Manning appear on their way to front-of-the-rotation roles, and signing one or two more veteran arms would go a long way toward stabilizing the 2022 rotation.

WC1. Boston Red Sox: Wait for the trade deadline. Yeah, the BoSox nearly missed out on the playoffs and couldn’t hold off the Rays for the AL East title, but still … they made it, at least partially because they picked up Kyle Schwarber — despite a reasonably solid lineup and no real defensive spot for him — in the Nationals’ fire sale at the deadline. He was injured till mid-August, but since then? A .291/.435/.522 slash line in 41 games. So even if the Tigers don’t clean up on the free-agent market during the offseason, there’ll still be time to paper over the roster’s holes at midseason. (Though we may not see a fire sale like the Nats’ again for a while.)

WC2. New York Yankees: You can’t take it with you. We’re not suggesting Christopher Ilitch and Al Avila take the Tigers (whose $85 million payroll ranked 22nd this season, according to Spotrac) up to the Yankees’ level — No. 2 in baseball at just over $200 million — in a single offseason. (Though if they do, we’re happy to accept a 1% advisory fee.) But even dropping $65 million or so would leave the Tigers at the fringe of the top 10 and, applied correctly — aye, there’s the rub — would give Detroit the kind of margin for error that allowed the Yanks to withstand down years from all their hitters not named Judge or Stanton.

One of those five teams will make the Fall Classic, whose Game 7 is set for Nov. 3. And five days after that, free agency begins. Not that we’re counting the days or anything.

Milestone watch

But back to the 2021 Tigers. Last week, we noted six players who had a shot at historic marks in the final week of the season. Here’s how they fared:

Miguel Cabrera: He picked up three hits, meaning he’ll go into the 2022 season just 13 knocks from joining the 3,000-hit club (and becoming the seventh player with 3,000 hits and 500 homers). Click here to find out why he’s looking forward to that — and perhaps the playoffs.

Jeimer Candelario: He didn’t add any doubles to his total of 42, but no one in either league was able to pass him. (The Red Sox’s J.D. Martinez, the Royals’ Whit Merrifield and the Phillies’ Bryce Harper also finished with 42, to share the AL and MLB titles.) Candelario is the first Tiger to win a doubles crown since Cabrera in 2014.

Akil Baddoo: The rookie didn’t pick up any more triples and was passed for the AL lead by the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, who hit his eighth triple of the year Thursday in Texas. Baddoo finished the year hitting .259 with 13 homers, 20 doubles and 18 steals over 124 games.

Robbie Grossman: The veteran executed his plan to perfection on Saturday, as Our Man Petzold reported here (once you scroll down a bit), and picked up his 20th steal to go with 23 homers and become the seventh Tiger in the 20/20 club. Unfortunately, he couldn’t scheme his way to becoming the first Tiger with 100 walks since 2011; he finished with 98 after sitting out Sunday’s finale.

Casey Mize: The rookie did indeed make his 30th start of the season Wednesday in Minneapolis, becoming just the sixth Tigers rookie in 50 seasons to hit that mark. (The others: Spencer Turnbull, 2019; Rick Porcello, 2009; Justin Verlander, 2006; Brian Moehler, 1997; and Vern Ruhle, 1975.) He also pitched four innings, to finish at 150⅓ and lead the Tigers in innings. Click here to find out why that mark — and his 3.71 ERA — are just the start of the things he took pride in this year.

Tarik Skubal: Alas, the other big rookie in the rotation didn’t meet his mark — the lefty had just one strikeout in his 3⅓ innings of work Thursday, finishing three behind the Astros’ Luis Garcia (167) in the rookie strikeout race. Still, it was a successful rookie season for Skubal, who posted a 4.34 ERA over 149⅓ innings. He does have something to work on in the offseason, though, as Our Man Petzold broke down here: His 35 homers allowed were the second-most in the AL among all pitchers — and the second-most all-time by a rookie.

He’s the Mann

Mize and Skubal weren’t the only rookie starters to wrap up their seasons; right-hander Matt Manning went out with a bang on Saturday night, allowing just two hits over five innings against the White Sox. (He didn’t get the win, but let’s not dwell on that.) The outing brought him to a 5.80 ERA with 57 strikeouts and 33 walks in 85⅓ innings. Click here to find out what he plans to work on over the offseason.

Mark your calendar

The Tigers will be back in action on Feb. 25, 2022, in Lakeland, Florida, for an exhibition game against Southeastern University, followed by the start of the Grapefruit League schedule on Feb. 26 against the Phillies. Check out the whole schedule here and start dreaming of sunny skies in Central Florida.

Hen-picked

And while we’re dreaming, let’s check in on Tork and Greene in Toledo, which finished up its season Sunday, too. Spencer Torkelson launched his 11th homer with the Mud Hens, and his 30th overall, to finish with a .267/.383/.552 slash line with three different teams. Riley Greene, meanwhile, sat out Sunday’s finale; he finished with 24 homers and a .301/.387/.534 slash line in 124 games with Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo.

The third wave

If Mize, Skubal and Manning were the first wave of Tigers prospects to hit, and Greene and Torkelson comprise the second, then the third wave is? That could be a pair of high schoolers drafted high by the Tigers in July: pitcher Jackson Jobe (No. 3 overall) and infielder Izaac Pacheco (No. 39 overall). They’ve already spent some time hanging out with the big leaguers at Comerica Park. Click here to find out how they became best friends even before the Tigers came calling.

Happy birthday, Dutch!

From the kids to the old … well, he’s not THAT old, we guess. Tigers reliever Derek Holland turns 35 on Friday. It was an up-and-down seasons for the 13-year veteran, with a pair of extended stays on the IL and a 6.81 ERA heading into September. But as so many veteran arms in the Tigers’ bullpen were shut down with injuries, Holland just got better and better; he allowed only run in his final 11 appearances, with 10 strikeouts and three walks in 14 innings. He finished the year with a 5.07 ERA and 51 strikeouts over 49 2/3 innings.

Other Tigers birthdays this week: Rod Allen (62 on Tuesday), Freddy Garcia (45 on Wednesday), Bruce Fields (61 on Wednesday), Milt Cuyler (53 on Thursday), Placido Polanco (46 on Saturday), Grayson Greiner (29 on Sunday), Dmitri Young (48 on Sunday).

’Pen pals

These three relievers were, well, a relief this season:

TYLER ALEXANDER: OK, he finished the year as a starter, and he was downright dominant in his finale.

JOSE CISNERO: The vet didn’t see much action in September due to a cut, but he proved himself in a variety of roles.

JASON FOLEY: He proved he belonged with one earned run allowed in five late-September appearances.

TL;DR

We won’t get as deep into the NL’s postseason lineup, but here’s a quick (we promise) cram session:

1. San Francisco Giants: Tied with the Tigers for the worst record in baseball in 2017, finished 77-85 in 2019 and won 107 freakin’ games this year. A best-case scenario for the Tigers’ rebuild. (Though their YOUNGEST hitting regulars are 27. It’s like they’re an entire team of Miguel-Cabrera-going-for-3,000-hits.)

2. Milwaukee Brewers: Daniel Norris’ new squad also features ex-Tigers prospects Willy Adames and Avisail Garcia, ho hit 20 and 29 homers, respectively.

3. Atlanta Braves: All four starting infielders hit at least 27 homers, which … yeah. This is really what the Tigers would like their infield to be within a couple seasons, even if they have to import a <ahem> shortstop to do it.

WC1. Los Angeles Dodgers: The defending champs scuffled to 106 wins and will likely have ex-Tiger Max Scherzer on the mound in the wild-card game. (Matthew Stafford’s best bud is probably done for the year, though.)

WC2. St. Louis Cardinals: Proof that old pitchers never die, they just fade away to the land of Budweiser, toasted ravioli and wrongly sliced bagels. (Frankly, we blame our WARP/AARP joke back in August for the Cards’ post-deadline success.)

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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