Henning: MLB labor limbo prolongs anticipation of new-look Tigers

Detroit News
Lynn Henning |  Special to The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Strolling through the quadrant of practice fields at TigerTown on Friday morning was Al Avila, who runs the Tigers as general manager and executive vice president of baseball operations, should you be into formal job titles.

It was one of those late-February mornings the Michigan fandom dreams about: 80 degrees, blue sky, sunscreen required, with bats cracking against baseballs and pitches thumping into catcher’s mitts joining in a kind of spring-camp symphony.

And yet it seemed distant, the intimacy that normally envelops spring training.

MLB’s lockout, with its long and tedious march to a new contract between owners and players, still keeps the big names and the big-leaguers from workouts that otherwise now would be giving way to Grapefruit League games and to dress-rehearsals for Opening Day.

It will be with us for a while longer. Probably for another week, or two. Too many issues. Too much distance between the two sides. Too big of stakes for this year’s CBA (collective bargaining agreement) to ever have been expected to be resolved easily, or early. The long-held belief here, getting closer to the mark each day, is that spring camp would never get going before mid-March and never result in Opening Day arriving much before the third week of April.

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And so here was Avila on Friday morning as the kids and minor-leaguers and the hottest of prospects all scampered from field to field.

He stopped and chatted with a youngster who was stretched across a training table positioned behind one of the four fields’ backstops. He slapped the back of a scout and friend who was dressed in slacks and golf shirt watching the kids warm up.

Avila headed for another field, caught the eye of a media guy who had just slipped into town, and waved and said hello as best as a GM is permitted to do during a lockout when there can be no meaningful chatter with baseball writers or broadcasters or anyone who’s tracking this labor showdown.

This is somber on all fronts.

There are a few fans are here, but they’re obliged to watch the kids from afar, through the Cobb Field’s outfield fence. And that hurts.

Normally, folks would be strung along the walkway from Tigertown’s clubhouse to the practice diamonds, getting autographs, kibitzing with players, their baseball-loving blood rushing as winter dwindles and a new season bubbles.

COVID’s hangover is the big reason why fans and players are walled-off. But the absence of baseball’s stars and celebs is knocking down those knot-holers who otherwise would be here jostling for a look, even from a distance, at the 2022 Tigers.

This labor limbo will end, of course. Again, the guess here is that inside of two weeks there will be big-league baseball convened, or about to convene, in Lakeland and elsewhere.

And then it’s going to get interesting for those who are wired to Detroit’s MLB club.

The Tigers made progress in 2021, more than was expected, as they soared to within eight games of .500 and to third place, ahead of even the Royals and Twins.

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This season, the folks who take this team and game, personally, are thinking along the lines of a .500 record, at minimum, with maybe a whiff of the playoffs, particularly if MLB goes to 14 teams for its October tournament.

That’s probably a bit rambunctious, for this reason: Remember the 1984 Tigers, the last of Detroit’s world champion baseball teams? The talent that forged the ’84 Tigers had begun arriving in the late ‘70s. It took a full five years, and even longer, for that talent to mature into a playoff team and World Series champ.

Some of the talent destined to be in Detroit’s lineup at some point in 2022 has yet to play a single big-league game. Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson are the big names there. So, be careful about assuming too much too fast.

But here’s where people expecting bigger things in 2022 have a reason to believe:

The Tigers, up the middle, have all but transformed themselves.

Greene is all of 20 years old but probably will be manager AJ Hinch’s center fielder on Opening Day.

Javier Baez, a blessed defender and hitter, is the team’s new shortstop and its most critical new piece as Avila continues to weave a 2022 roster.

Tucker Barnhart won a couple of Gold Gloves with the Reds and now is the Tigers’ starter at catcher.

Toss in a rotation of Casey Mize, Tark Skubal, Matt Manning, and Eduardo Rodriguez, the sturdy left-handed free agent Avila signed last autumn, and you have neat right-left pairings, which you can bet will be boosted by another free-agent starter once the labor hassles cease and teams can begin signing all the unclaimed talent stacked on MLB’s docks ahead of 2022.

The Tigers will want – and, in this view, are required – to find another back-end power arm for their bullpen, as well.

But once the pitching cast has been assembled, and with Greene and Baez and Barnhart forming a new drivetrain for Hinch’s lineup, the Tigers have something to work with in making gains maybe equal to last year’s breakthrough.

You can do worse than begin the season with Jeimer Candelario at third base and Jonathan Schoop at second, while Robbie Grossman and Akil Baddoo set up at the outfield’s corners.

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You can imagine the lift a rookie might bring, if not on Opening Day, then no later than early June, in Torkelson, a hotshot hitter who is polishing his act at first base.

As always, there will be setbacks, because baseball is a cruel game that forever turns hopes and expectations into sawdust. Players will get hurt. Pitchers will break down. Young players will struggle.

There are depth issues, deep ones, with the Tigers. There are trap-doors waiting to be sprung on Avila and Hinch.

But what gradually should morph into form and substance on these very fields, probably within a couple of weeks, will be a cast that promises interesting, entertaining, competitive baseball.

That’s all a baseball town and baseball state, wedded to the Tigers, has pretty much asked for during generations when baseball became Detroit’s deepest and most enduring sport.

Give the folks something to feel good about. Something to believe in, even knowing the tough odds in which baseball specializes.

Give them players at whose talents they can marvel. Give them a reason to wheel into the parking spaces at TigerTown for a game at Marchant Stadium’s Publix Field and to feel good because more than spring’s promise has arrived.

Let them see a team, with legitimate talent, promise six more months of fun at Comerica Park.

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Lockouts and strikes aside, that’s what could be appreciated even Friday as the kids worked out. This is the first spring camp in eight seasons where a Tigers team looked as if it had a chance to be something compelling, even riveting.

The big names aren’t yet here. But the intrigue is back, intact, after too many years of demolition and reconstruction.

Play ball, the umpire likes to say.

In a few weeks, after this irksome CBA has been inked, that’s exactly what the newly crafted Tigers will do.

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