Detroit Tigers’ preseason hope just as responsible as lack of offense for early pain

Detroit Free Press

Jeimer Candelario is starting to hit. Jonathan Schoop is not.

Miguel Cabrera is hitting — some — but without power. Akil Baddoo still has power but isn’t hitting.

Spencer Torkelson had the potential to hit but it’s still just potential. Javier Baez has shown he can hit — and has hit in moments — but isn’t hitting to his potential, either.

Up and down the Detroit Tigers’ lineup the story is the same: One struggling batter after another. Save for Austin Meadows and Harold Castro and, lately, Candelario, who hit a two-out, two-run homer in the top of the ninth in Houston on Thursday night to tie the game.

Which means the Tigers hadn’t scored a run until his at-bat, which shouldn’t be surprising, because, again, the Tigers haven’t been hitting. The Astros won the game in the bottom of the inning, 3-2. Houston then won the next night’s game by an identical score. On Saturday afternoon? Another 3-2 score in favor of the Astros.

Saturday was the fifth time this season the Tigers have lost after giving up three runs or less.  It’s a statistic both maddening and impressive — maddening because, well, the Tigers aren’t hitting and impressive because the Tigers are pitching.

Especially their relievers, who rank among the best in the major leagues. (Never mind the mini-implosion by Michael Fulmer, who hadn’t allowed a run since September before Saturday.)

Even the starters are (mostly) holding up their end, despite missing two pitchers who began the season in the rotation.

In fact, when Casey Mize and Matt Manning went down with injuries last month, it was easy to imagine the patchwork rotation leading to lots of losing. It hasn’t though, outside of the occasional bad outing.

All of this is stating the obvious, I suppose, and if the Tigers hadn’t left spring training carrying real expectations for the first time in half a decade, I wouldn’t be stating this at all.

But they did. And here we are, watching a team flail once again.

What’s harder now is that the expectation didn’t just come from the media or from you; it came from the Tigers themselves.

Here’s what general manager Al Avila said after he traded for Meadows a few days before the season began:

“It’s a lot different than what we were doing a few years ago, that’s for sure.”

Meaning the Tigers weren’t chasing All-Star-caliber free agents as spring training wrapped up. Also, meaning the Tigers weren’t spending much at all.

The Tigers began spring training with hope and expectations. Trading for Meadows doubled down on that. Avila said as much when asked why the team made the move.

“Obviously, counting on winning some games and getting to the playoffs,” he said.

Meadows has been the team’s best hitter. Don’t blame him for the 8-18 start after Saturday. Don’t give up hope just yet, either.

By my math, 8-18 adds up to 26 games, which is roughly one-sixth of the season. If the Detroit Lions started 1-2 — through about one-sixth of the NFL season — would you give up on their playoff hopes, too?

Sorry, don’t answer that. They’re the Lions; of course you would. But if, say, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Green Bay Packers or San Francisco 49ers opened their season 1-2, would you think they were finished?

No, you wouldn’t.

Even at 10 games under .500, the Tigers can reach a playoff-worthy 90 wins with an 82-54 finish, which is a .603 winning percentage — or about what the AL Central-leading Twins (17-11, .607) have opened the season with.

In other words, math — and time — is still on the Tigers’ side. Perspective? Not so much.

Preseason hype will do this. The general manager talking about playoffs will do this. Knowing the franchise has one of the best managers in baseball will do this. Though not even A.J. Hinch can fix a lineup stuffed with hesitant and/or overly aggressive bats.

“We tried to tell them not to try to make everything up in one swing,” Hinch said after Friday’s loss. “It’s pretty natural when you’re playing just well enough to lose and not hitting just enough not to win, guys want to do too much … Everybody wants to be a hero. Everybody wants to do more. The work is being put in. The results aren’t on the field.”

No, they are not. Funny how much more that is deflating this year. Hope is cruel that way.

It’s also all you’ve got for the moment:

Hope that Mize returns and finds last year’s late-season form. Hope Manning returns and builds on the lights-out outing he had against the Boston Red Sox in mid-April. Hope Torkelson begins to adjust to the off-speed nastiness at the big-league level. Hope Schoop finds his level, just as Candelerio is finding his.

Hope Baddoo recaptures his magic and Riley Greene gets the chance to unveil some of his own. (It’s in him.) Hope that the Tigers can win more than one in a row and take advantage of a schedule that is about to soften.

At least for a little bit.

Hello, Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles. Goodbye Astros and L.A. Dodgers.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays await after Baltimore. So do the Twins and the Cleveland Guardians, who the Tigers have already demonstrated they can compete against.

They’ll just have to slow down, as their manager said. Do that and some of these one- and two-run losses will start becoming wins. And the summer — yes, it’s close — won’t seem so bleak.

It had been a while since anyone bundled “playoffs” and one of Detroit’s big four pro teams into the same sentence. So don’t be so hard on yourself for forgetting how thrilling expectations can be. And how disappointing it is when they aren’t met.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.   

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