‘We expect to win’: Optimism bubbles as Tigers emerge from rebuild

Detroit News

Detroit — A couple of days ago, the Tigers had their roster just about set, except for maybe the last two spots in the bullpen.

Then in rapid succession, Andrew Chafin’s groin tightens, Derek Hill tweaks a hamstring, Jose Cisnero’s shoulder aches, Riley Greene breaks a bone in his foot and suddenly chaos ensues less than a week before Opening Day with the front office in full scramble mode trying to plug widening holes in the outfield and bullpen.

Get used to it.

This might be what the 2022 Major League Baseball season looks like — some twisted episode of Survivor.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s our reality,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said.

The reality is, because of the 99-day lockout, spring training was compressed from six weeks to 3½ weeks. The 162-game regular season schedule is also compressed. A full week of games that was initially cancelled during the lockout got crammed back in while the schedule-makers still maintained the integrity of the original postseason schedule.

Games were shoe-horned into off days. Doubleheaders were created; the Tigers have three scheduled doubleheaders, including one in October in Seattle, part of a four-games-in-three-days series added to the end of the original schedule. And there’s bound to be additional doubleheaders created by rain.

Not ideal, to be sure. The rash of injuries the Tigers and other teams across baseball experienced this past week could be a recurring theme. Anyone remember the impact of the shortened, two-week ramp-up to the COVID-shortened 2020 season? A record number of players landed on the injured list, most with soft-tissue injuries.

It adds a heightened sense of uncertainty and mystery as the curtain rises on the new season. It’s not just about who you start the season with. It’s about depth. It’s about workload management, roster management and flexibility.

Few are better at plotting out a normal season than Hinch. He showed that last year, scripting a full season of starts for young pitchers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, while keeping their innings load right at 150. He also routed raw Rule 5-rookie Akil Baddoo around all the potholes and speed bumps in what was a promisingly successful first season.

But this season, especially the first month or so, may defy any attempts at scripting. The Tigers open the season with 10 straight games and will play 21 in 24 days in April, most against division rivals and expected playoff contenders (White Sox, Royals, Twins, Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers).

Hitting the ground sprinting, after a shortened spring, is not conducive to even well-trained athletes surviving a six-month, 162-game endurance test.

“I don’t necessarily fear the unknown,” Hinch said. “There are positives that can come out of the unknown. It’s not like the sky is falling if an expectation in April is not reached. I’m just not afraid of the unknown, based on experience.”

To his point, who knew at this time last year what Baddoo could do? Who knew what Eric Haase could do? Who knew that Kyle Funkhouser (who didn’t make the squad out of camp last year) and Michael Fulmer (who nearly didn’t) would end up being vital cogs in the bullpen? Who knew that Alex Lange would emerge as a viable late-inning leverage reliever? Who knew that Mize and Skubal, rookies both, could hold the rotation together after injuries to several veteran starters?

“Part of the job is the ebbs and flows of a season and reacting to it,” Hinch said. “That’s where experience really helps. I don’t want my players to think of that stuff. Let me and the coaches fret over that. How a team is laid out on paper is never how a team really functions.”

More: Henning: A long, excruciating rebuild is taking shape for Tigers’ Al Avila

Out of the gloom

And yet, the way this 2022 version of the Tigers is laid out on paper is intriguing. Encouraging, even. Legitimately exciting, maybe for the first time since 2016. It’s like seeing daylight after years of gloom.

“We brought in a bunch of winners and guys who have won,” said right fielder Robbie Grossman, whose presence and performance last season helped establish the win-today mindset that pervades the clubhouse now. “The culture here now is, we expect to win. Nothing other than winning is going to be acceptable. It’s not OK just to be up here anymore.

“It’s fun when you are in an environment like this — no matter what you do in life. It just brings the best out of people.”

General manager Al Avila went out this offseason and restocked the roster with $247 million and 13 wins above replacement worth of talent. He added a No. 1 starter in Eduardo Rodriguez, and elite shortstop in Javier Báez. He traded for a two-time Gold Glove-winning catcher in Tucker Barnhart. He signed a highly-regarded left-handed leverage reliever in Andrew Chafin and an innings-eating veteran No. 5 starter in Michael Pineda.

Then, after projected starting center fielder and the club’s No. 2-rated prospect Riley Greene was lost for at least eight weeks with a broken foot, Avila didn’t look for a stop-gap. He traded for slugging left-handed hitting outfielder Austin Meadows, who comes with a $4 million price tag this year and two more years of team control.

“It’s a lot different than what we were doing a few years ago, I can tell you that,” Avila said, thanking chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch for endorsing and sponsoring the moves. “In baseball, so many things can go wrong. Everything’s not perfect. But to get legitimate major-league players, we’re all here for it.”

Cabrera and Báez

Miguel Cabrera, the future Hall-of-Famer and last link to the previous playoff team in 2014, is certainly here for it. In fact, give Cabrera an assist for the signings of Rodriguez and Báez — he was part of the recruiting campaign — and for easing their transition and acceptance in the clubhouse.

Before official workouts even started this spring, Cabrera said of Báez, “We’re going to follow him, you know what I mean? Like, Javy, where you go, we’re going to go. I am really excited to play next to him.”

Cabrera also endorsed rookie Spencer Torkelson, the first overall pick in the draft in 2020, as the everyday first baseman — knowing that will relegate him mostly to a full-time designated-hitter role. Cabrera even participated in the meeting when Hinch told Torkelson he’d made the team.

“Miggy plays a big role in defining what we’re all about,” Hinch said. “He’s going to have a statue someday. He’s going to have his number up on the wall. He’s going to be in Cooperstown, and that carries significant weight when you are talking about wearing the same uniform.

“I think he’s eager to win. He knows his time is winding down and the more players he can help attract, the better our chances to win.”

The dynamic between Cabrera and Báez, under different circumstances, could be sticky. Two high-profile alpha-dogs, one older and settled, entering his 20th season just 13 hits shy of 3,000. The other one younger, with fresher hardware, trying to make his mark in a new clubhouse.

A non-starter. Any threat of that was wiped away the day last November when Cabrera patched himself into the Zoom call with Hinch and Avila.

“To see Javy’s face light up, he was so excited to hear from Miggy,” Hinch said. “Everyone seems to light up when Miggy pays attention to you. Even coaches and managers.”

Asked about playing with Cabrera earlier this spring, Báez said, “Everybody wants to play with him. I think he’s a big influence for everybody in this game. The way he plays the game. He almost got 3,000 hits. I think we are all excited to see him get that far.”

Hinch purposefully put the two stars together in a hitting group early in camp.

“It was like our feature group,” Hinch said. “Like if it was a golf game, that was the Sunday feature group. The other pitchers would migrate over. The other position players would come over. The young kids from minor league camp would be taking pictures.

“It used to be just Miggy. Now it’s Miggy and Javy.”

There are more similarities than difference between them, frankly. They are both, as Hinch said, baseball savants. They both have an advanced baseball IQ, they both take active roles in the infield strategy and positioning sessions and they picked each other’s brains about hitting all through the early days of spring.

“I didn’t realize the magnet Javy was until the first day of spring when I saw him come in and integrate himself into a very close-knit clubhouse,” Hinch said. “The response he garnered from Miggy first and the coaches and Robbie, you could start to see him as a central figure.

“Like he became immediately one extra member of the roundtable. So, there is a great foundation for him to be an interesting guy. Be he still will always influence by how he plays more than he will with what he says.”

Outside the game, Báez is as close to a TMZ-type celebrity as the Tigers have. Even with the iconic Cabrera in the room. Chants of “Javy, Javy, Javy” rang out in everywhere the Tigers played this spring.

“Javy is an energy provider,” Hinch said. “He’s an ignitor. He’s a competitive person. But he has that ‘it’ factor. He has a ring. He has presence. And he plays shortstop. There is something about that position in our sport that garners that captain feel, that leadership feel.”

And yet, there is not one ounce of diva in Báez. He’s not loud or overly outgoing. He’s friendly but he doesn’t seek the limelight. Mostly, he’s all business.

“The guy is a winner,” Grossman said. “He’s won at the highest level of our sport. He’s got a ring. I don’t have a ring. I want to get there. I just want to learn everything I can from him because he knows what it takes every day to go out there and win.”

‘A special group’

With the upgrade in talent and experience comes a significant raising of expectations. As Grossman said, it’s not about trying hard anymore. It’s about winning and being in the playoff hunt, especially with an extra spot on the dance card now.

That’s not exactly how Hinch sees it, though. Why would expectations be any different?

“One of the things we wanted to establish last year was to win the day’s game,” he said. “Our preparation is the same. If you do that right in a season where people wrote you off before April, then you’re going to do it right before a season when people are hopeful.

“Nothing really changes in here. One thing I learned in my time as a manager, set the same standards, regardless of what people think about your team. So when you are good, or you are expected to be good, or you are on the rise, it doesn’t change anything for the players.”

The mechanics of this team will be different, though, just from the fact Hinch can field nearly a fully-set lineup.

He had to mix and match at all but two positions last year (third base and whatever corner outfield spot Grossman played). This year, he can on most days write in Cabrera at DH with Torkelson, Jonathan Schoop, Báez and Jeimer Candelario around the infield.

Tucker Barnhart likely will be his catcher on most days, all days against right-handed starters.

With Meadows in left and Grossman in right, his corner outfield is set — though he might slide Eric Haase out to left sometimes against left-handed pitching. The only unset spot for now, until Greene heals, is in center where Baddoo and Victor Reyes might split time.

Not insignificantly, too, Hinch has more weapons to use against right-handed pitching this year.

The Tigers were 30-46 within the Central Division last year. A primary reason for that was, in a division dominated by strong right-handed pitching, they collectively slashed a meek .234/.302/.394.

The additions of Báez (who has hit 106 of his 149 homers and driven in 332 of his 465 RBIs against righties), and left-handed hitters Meadows, Barnhart and eventually Greene — supplementing Baddoo, Candelario, Grossman and Harold Castro — should help shore up that deficiency.

On the pitching side, the top of the rotation (Rodriguez, Mize and Skubal) and the back end of the bullpen (Gregory Soto, Fulmer, Chafin) can be real strengths — when healthy.

Conversely, the back of the rotation, with the No. 4 starter Matt Manning still developing and the eventual addition of Pineda, and the front end of the bullpen — three non-roster invitees and one pitcher initially sent to Double-A Erie got the last four bullpen spots -—are not only question marks, both could remain in flux throughout the season.

“I think if everybody does his job, we’re going to be really good,” Candelario said. “Nobody has to do too much. Just do their own job. We feel like we can compete all the time and that’s what you want. You want a team that’s going to come to compete every day and believe they’re going to win a ballgame.

“We have to keep working really hard, but we have a special group.”

The credibility of this team has changed. That’s the difference.

The Tigers have brought in playoff-tested, World Series-championship players. Those high draft picks earned through the horrific rebuild — Mize, Skubal, Manning, Torkelson, Greene — are stepping into impact roles. Some of the holdovers from the dark days (Candelario, Schoop, Fulmer, Soto) are finally stepping back into a competitive atmosphere.

It’s not the same temporary, disposable roster vibe you got during the rebuilding years. Finally, it seems there are players here now the fans can emotionally invest in.

Which, especially in this lockout-condensed environment, guarantees nada.

“Maybe people start to like our team a little more,” Hinch said. “But the daily day-to-day doesn’t change. The understanding of what the expectations are changes a little bit, but the behavior doesn’t. Our routines and how we prepare are the same. I shrug off the flirtation with making this any bigger of a deal.

“This year’s games aren’t any more important than last year’s games. The last thing this team is going to see is a change in me or my perspective. Because we still have one challenge in front of us — which is to win the game we’re playing that day.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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