Detroit — A cruel summer keeps getting crueler for the Tigers, with no remedies in sight. One thing you figured you could count on was the promise of young arms, but one prized pitcher, Casey Mize, is gone for a year-plus with Tommy John surgery. Another, Matt Manning, has an ailing shoulder that’s progressing slowly.
The big free-agent pickup, Javier Báez, is hitting .197 with a gazillion strikeouts. One rookie slugging hope, Spencer Torkelson, is hitting .186 with four home runs. Another, Riley Greene, is working his way back from foot surgery and you’ll probably see him in July. But Torkelson’s struggles serve as a warning about heaping pressure.
It’s almost incomprehensible how horribly things have gone, with a half-dozen starting pitchers injured and hitters swinging awkwardly from the batter’s box to the injured list. This day provided a confluence of what was, what is, and what was supposed to be. On the afternoon the Tigers celebrated Miguel Cabrera’s 3,000-hit, 500-home run milestones, Tarik Skubal, easily the brightest light on the team, had a rare rocky outing, knocked out after four innings of a 6-0 loss to the Blue Jays. Skubal (5-3, 2.71 ERA) is allowed a misstep. It’s just more glaring when he’s one of the few who has consistently avoided it.
It’s staggering how awful the offense is, more than a third of the way through the season (24-35). The Tigers are last in the majors in runs and home runs (30) by a wide margin. And even when there’s a glimmer – such as seven wins in nine games – it’s a vapor, gone before you realize it. In the Tigers’ victory the day before, the free-swinging Báez showed discipline and collected three walks and a base hit. This time against Toronto’s Ross Stripling, the Tigers had precisely one hit in six innings. You see enough pathetic performances like this, you’re forced to believe this is who they are.
Test of patience
The Tigers are in no position to contend for anything, but the rest of this season will test the professionalism and patience of Hinch, Báez, owner Chris Ilitch and GM Al Avila. There are no saviors coming now. Let Greene progress at his own pace. Same for Torkelson and Skubal. Professional hitters with decent track records – Jonathan Schoop, Austin Meadows, Robbie Grossman, Jeimer Candelario – haven’t approached their standards, and there’s no logical theory.
Well, there is one possible theory — maybe they’re just finding their levels. It’s not a coincidence that the greatest hitter in franchise history, Cabrera, is the only one approaching benchmark numbers, if not power numbers.
Hinch was asked if this is what the Tigers offense is, and simply isn’t capable of much more.
“No, no, no,” Hinch said. “I don’t think you ever accept mediocrity. These guys have track records. I believe in the track records, and that’s what gives us optimism. The mechanism to doing it is harder than just saying it, or believing in it.”
The Tigers have to find answers from within because they’ve pretty much tapped out the farm system. Trade for somebody? OK, who you giving up – one of your injured prized prospects, or an underperforming veteran?
You see the conundrum? Baez has shown he can adjust his hitting approach, but he has to be more diligent, more focused. Fans can boo Báez and Avila, but major changes aren’t in the immediate future. Options are limited.
The funny thing is — not haha funny – is that for a decade or more, the Tigers rarely put together a solid bullpen. Now, it’s amazing how good the bullpen has been, and how well the patched starting rotation has held up. The Tigers have missed, or are missing, starters Eduardo Rodriguez, Michael Pineda, Mize, Manning and Tyler Alexander. In the process, they’ve found nuggets such as Alex Faedo and Beau Brieske. Their team ERA is 3.72, 10th in the majors, with Gregory Soto, Michael Fulmer and Alex Lange controlling the bullpen. Pitching coach Chris Fetter might be their MVP.
Skubal struggled with his execution but struck out five. It wouldn’t have mattered what he did Sunday, as Stripling completely befuddled the Tigers. Before they began meekly flailing, there was a heartfelt pregame celebration. Former teammates, manager Jim Leyland and family members returned to honor Cabrera for his historic accomplishments. It was touching, and Cabrera had to don sunglasses to hide his watering eyes.
But the dismal reality always intrudes. During the pregame ceremony, Ilitch was introduced and the crowd booed. Avila was introduced and the crowd booed louder. Tigers fans are weary of playing the nostalgia game, and I can’t blame them.
This franchise has been peddling hope for nearly a decade, with very little return on the fans’ investment. The White Sox come to town next and that usually stirs things up a bit. (It should be fun when Tony La Russa walks Cabrera with an 0-2 count.) The best thing Hinch has done in a year-and-a-half here is juggle his roster and manage expectations, without destroying them.
“I don’t think there’s any experience that helps you navigate the volume of injuries we’ve had, the one step forward, one step back from a health and performance standpoint,” Hinch said. “We can cash in the rest of the season and just take the numbers as they are. But that’s a horrible way to play professional sports, very reactionary and not how we’re gonna operate. We’re not just gonna accept this.”
Tigers players and management can’t just accept it. Sadly, before summer even officially arrives, fans might have no choice.