Henning: Tigers’ somber day and forecast has three chances to get better

Detroit News

St. Petersburg, Fla. — You wanted no part of that postgame Tigers clubhouse Wednesday at Tropicana Field.

Somber. Angry. Fed up, all after a 6-1 loss to the Rays that saw starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez exit in the first inning.

Begin with AJ Hinch, the Tigers manager who is rather weary of seeing four-fifths of his rotation and most of his outfield own a time-share with the injured list.

Hinch was biting off words afterward as he tried to explain the latest casualty among his starting corps, Rodriguez, who has a mid-section muscle strain that Hinch could only say “would be a while” healing.

This is bizarre. Unprecedented in modern Tigers annals. A starting rotation is ravaged. Outfielders have been dropping since rookie flash Riley Greene broke his foot a week before Opening Day.

The Tigers are 13-25, which even in mid-May is a long way from the .500 record they seemed best-equipped to aim for in 2022.

Re-examine that .500 goal, because even ahead of what was supposed to have been a baseball fan-fest in 2022, with the hint of a playoff chase taking shape, Comerica’s customers probably were over-thinking this team’s potential.

The Tigers finished eight games beneath .500 a year ago. Getting to break-even this year would have been a major step toward reuniting with those old playoff seasons that once were a Tigers staple. But that, realistically, seemed to be a ceiling.

Now — oh boy. The Tigers’ pitching, even with starters disappearing by the week, has been the only thing keeping them from total fragmentation. It has been a remarkable story as outfielders were felled and as the rest of a lineup’s bats turned cold.

The danger, now, is that there’s a limit to how many bodies, and significant arms, you can lose to the injured list before everything falls apart.

Hinch knows it. So does his boss, Tigers general manager Al Avila.

They are banking on these possibilities and/or probabilities, as nearly as their innermost thoughts could be imagined late Wednesday when the team headed to Cleveland.

1. Pray the stunning degree of pitching depth holds up: No team in memory has lost this many front-line arms. And no team in memory has patched up as well as the Tigers have through the season’s first six weeks.

The Tigers will keep dredging up kids from Triple-A Toledo, and maybe even Double-A Erie –— watch out for Joey Wentz, Garrett Hill, maybe even Reese Olson — as they try and stitch together a starting corps that waits for Matt Manning to make it back, soon. Casey Mize, Michael Pineda, and now Rodriguez, likely will be gone for extended time.

This will be the Tigers’ cruelest stretch, with 15 games in 14 days against the Twins and Indians and plug-in starters trying to keep a team afloat.

Gruesome, this assignment, but the Tigers have survived for six weeks and need to find a pulse for probably another month.

► 2. Get the rookies cooking: This is doable. Spencer Torkelson slammed a homer and a double Wednesday. He is figuring out big-league pitching. Greene, an even more talented all-around hitter, will be back in June and will help stabilize, and energize, a lineup, even as a 21-year-old. Greene’s talent is real, and while it won’t always be pretty early, hold tight, because he will leave a mark on opposing pitchers.

By themselves, two kid hitters aren’t going to change a team’s profile. But there have been enough signs of late that Jeimer Candelario and Jonathan Schoop are returning to sea-level. When and if that happens, paired with Torkelson and Greene, you’ll see a different Tigers offense.

If the pitching doesn’t disintegrate, Hinch’s offense should pick up, and suddenly, a team is looking at something other than devastation.

► 3. Keep an open mind as July and trade season draw near. On the surface, it’s an easy appraisal: You aren’t trading pitchers when the only starter who isn’t in a sling or taking pain pills is Tarik Skubal.

But ponder one, all-important constant that yet governs the 2022 season: This is yet a team amassing parts and weapons for the future. There remains a deep need for bats, particularly for an outfielder who soon could join Greene as a heavy-lifter in that Tigers lineup.

This should be the Tigers’ strategy, this entire year, including July’s trade mart. Everything should be geared toward 2023 and beyond.

If it means dealing a pitcher — any pitcher or prospect — in July to get a whopping bat or multiple blue-chippers, then Avila must consider it. He cannot rule it out, even as such a script becomes less likely because of this murderous series of mishaps and ailments.

More: Henning: Pitching-rich Tigers will have to deal arms to give bats a hand

The shame of it is this is the second consecutive year in which pitching breakdowns have probably cost the Tigers a shot at doing something spectacular at midseason. Last year, just as Spencer Turnbull was becoming a rotation monster and a trade mart hot-ticket, he was lost to Tommy John surgery.

Now, Hinch’s rotation pieces continue to fall. And yet, once most of these gents return, as anticipated, the Tigers will be back featuring enough quality pitching depth to make trades — this summer or this autumn — they’re absolutely obliged, eventually, to pull off. That is, if the Tigers want to balance those stockpiled arms with enough bats to give Hinch’s offense a fighting chance in the seasons ahead.

Not a pleasing landscape, the Tigers’ terrain as the season’s first quarter nears. Not with so many talented players gone. Not with another starter leaving a game, early, Wednesday, with little chance he’ll soon be back.

But this is baseball. The team’s pitching depth remains nearly as surprising as these early casualties that have been a stunning, almost twisted, event in this team’s modern era.

Get the rookies going once Greene returns, and two of those established hitters hitting. Pray that those lost starters can, in coming weeks, begin to offer Hinch options other than called-up minor-leaguers.

It’s a lot to ask. A lot to pray for. At this stage, it’s about all a manager and his boss can do.

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

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