Henning: Tigers’ troubles have a root cause they simply haven’t confronted

Detroit News

It can be said with authority that this is the most insane season of baseball in Tigers history.

Research it to death. In what other year did a Detroit team lose 80% of its starting pitching — in April and May? In what other season that a rotation was ravaged did the Tigers also lose, at the same time, their starting outfielders?

So, this catastrophic absurdity that is Detroit’s injury-gutted spring of sorrow in 2022 is somewhat — somewhat — explainable. It is baseball’s gods at work, upset with whatever Chris Ilitch or general manager Al Avila did to bring on such vengeance.

Or, it’s perhaps better to sweep aside the calamities behind a 24-38 record entering Thursday and focus instead on what, more directly, got the Tigers into such soup.

It is the team’s lengthy inability to bring everyday players to manager AJ Hinch’s lineup.

That simple. There has been too little talent brought through Comerica Park’s front door. Too few quality players drafted and developed; too few Latin American prodigies signed and groomed for eventual work in Detroit.

Other, more popular, targets for Tigers fans and their ire are misplaced.

It isn’t about payroll. The Tigers have paid enough help to make a team competitive. Moreover, Chris Ilitch, who functions as team owner, spent nearly a quarter-billion bucks during the offseason on fresh talent. You can see what that spending spree has delivered for Hinch and Co. in 2022.

It isn’t about Avila’s perceived incompetence at making trades. He can trade as adequately as any GM, and has — when he has had trade chips. Justin Wilson and Alex Avila for a nice gain from the Cubs. Shane Greene to Atlanta for good future value in Joey Wentz. Justin Upton and his bad contract for Elvin Rodriguez. Daniel Norris to the Brewers for another sharp young pitcher in Reese Olson. Isaac Paredes and a draft pick for Austin Meadows.

That last deal, and others, will be assessed over years, but at the time the Meadows swap was made, in April — after hotshot rookie Riley Greene was lost — it simply proved, again, Avila could trade when trades can be made.

There has been one reality, for sure, big. It wasn’t a GM’s fault that MLB teams beginning in 2017 went into fetal positions, hording their prospects, when a Brinks truck was available in J.D. Martinez. Ahead of 2017, contenders would have been storming the Tigers with offers for a hitter who, no surprise, delivered a playoff ticket to the lone bidder: Arizona. But the market that year did a pivot. And the Tigers paid dearly.

Thoughts that Avila or some other GM could have dealt their way into making the Tigers a contender in 2022 are nonsense. It wasn’t going to happen. Nor was some brand of wild and wooly free-agent binge going to work.

That’s not how good MLB teams, persistent playoff teams, do it.

They do it the way the Tigers’ last two world-championship teams, in 1968 and 1984, fundamentally won a World Series.

They signed and developed core talent: Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup, Dick McAuliffe in ’68. Mickey Lolich, also homegrown, was a pitcher who basically won that year’s World Series, so it’s never an offense-only portrait.

The ’84 colossus was underpinned by Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, and Kirk Gibson, not to mention with help from starters Jack Morris and Dan Petry.

But it was position talent, with big bats, that brought everyday jet-fuel for each of those last two Tigers world champions.

This year’s team?

Almost everybody has either been bought, rented, or scraped up by way of trade or a Rule 5 gamble: Jeimer Candelario, Jonathan Schoop, Robbie Grossman, Meadows, Tucker Barnhart, Willi Castro, Victor Reyes.

Spencer Torkelson is farm-raised, drafted first overall two years ago, and will in time be very, very good. So, too, will Riley Greene, whose broken foot on the eve of a new season was a first, stark sign that 2022 was going to be star-crossed.

Otherwise … who is an original Tigers signee?

Harold Castro.

And people wonder why this team is having such a historically ugly time on offense.

No bats, no chance

The Tigers have steadily failed to bring bats aboard. Rather than assembling a framework of young, dynamic hitters who drive the ball and get on base, the Tigers have marshaled too many cut-and-paste bodies: Candelario, Schoop, Grossman, Barnhart, Willi Castro.

Javier Báez, and his $140 million contract, is what can happen when your system fails to find a starting shortstop the past 20 years. Except, of course, for a good one in Willy Adames who was dealt in 2014 in a last-gasp push to get Mike Ilitch a championship.

Another gold-bar was shipped away, also in 2014, when Dave Dombrowski sent Eugenio Suarez to the Reds in a disaster of a swap for Alfredo Simon.

So, this is not solely an indictment of the current front office and scouting heads.

This has been going on for a while, for decades, through the 1980s, ‘90s, and for the past 22 years of this millennium. So many drafts, so much failure to produce bats, with some noteworthy, spaced-out exceptions: Travis Fryman, Bobby Higginson, Curtis Granderson, Brandon Inge, Alex Avila, Nick Castellanos — spiced by the occasional Matt Joyce or Derek Hill.

Torkelson and Greene, each a product of squalid years that put the Tigers into position to draft eventual All-Stars, are signs of new life that eventually should include other fresh talents and hitters: Ryan Kreidler, Colt Keith, Izaac Pacheco, Cristian Santana, Roberto Campos.

But that talent core is a long way from coalescing. Even with Detroit’s drafts pulling better marks the past three years, it’s possible the younger blue-chippers, even if they do approach star status, won’t be in Detroit until Torkelson and Greene are nearing free agency.

Not sure folks are ready for the specter of yet another rebuild.

Nor is it necessary that the Tigers stick with a bad script. This is something Chris Ilitch will need to confront — assertively — if the second half of 2022 shows no sign of advancement, injuries notwithstanding.

Avila in August will be seven years into a makeover that demanded at least seven years to assess. That’s how ruinous was the over-aged, over-paid roster he inherited in 2015. A standard rebuild wasn’t going to be possible, even less so after the market turned upside-down in 2017.

It’s also right to give Avila a full 2022 when, every day, injuries and lost personnel compound Detroit’s crucible. The list includes this week’s lightning bolt when Eduardo Rodriguez (a solid offseason investment) was tossed onto the restricted list for reasons that, reportedly, are domestic-based.

Before everyone headed for the infirmary or worse, Avila’s work looked as if it were on track, at last, after a long and messy rebuild.

Ilitch had promised to spend when the time was right and came through with $240 million to Báez, Rodriguez, Barnhart (trade and $7.5 million contract), and Andrew Chafin.

Avila was riding a hot horse. He had a 2021 team that had gone 3-15 during one miserable early-spring stretch before closing with a four-month burst and a dalliance with the .500-mark: a 75-87.

It seemed, after the winter shopping wrapped up, as if 2022 would earn another bronze or better medal on an eventual path to the playoffs.

Then, a kid whose raw talent could have changed Detroit’s offense in these early months, Greene, was lost to a broken foot. Torkelson will figure it out and be a force. But he had minimal minor-league time and probably was pushed too early.

Then, all while Hinch’s starters began falling like dominoes, came the death knell:

Báez has been a mess at the plate. Candelario and Schoop, still in their prime years, are batting beneath .200, as is Grossman, who arrived Thursday with a .199 average.

It makes no sense.

Except … These are not the kinds of players with which you can expect playoff runs. Up and down in their careers. Limited ceilings. They are not high-caliber performers of the brand playoff teams feature.

In the outfield, more deadly than any batting blackouts, has been the crew’s collectively bad defense. That, too, has been a constant in too many years at Comerica Park.

What has held up — until this week — has been the pitching. And here is where Avila earns applause. It is unfathomable how Detroit’s pitching held up with starters and relievers disappearing by the day. That’s impressive depth.

More: Tigers once had a stake in talent-rich Venezuela

More: Why the Tigers believe these international kids will make it

More: Why Japanese baseball stars rarely are destined for Detroit

Draft bats early, not arms

It also invites debate, ongoing for some of us:

Why the Tigers have insisted on spending first-round picks on arms when bats are tougher to accrue is difficult to defend.

Pitchers so often can be found deeper in a draft or on the market. Tarik Skubal (ninth round). Beau Brieske (27th round). Willy Peralta — signed twice the past two years by the Tigers as a minor-league free agent.

Meanwhile, other MLB teams find bats, either in the domestic draft, or in Latin America or elsewhere.

The Tigers in 2022 haven’t come close to crafting an offense by way of their own draft-and-signings designs.

This nightmare of a 2022 offers Avila — and Ilitch — a possible path out of this morass, assuming a guy like Báez revives and doesn’t become a front office’s epitaph.

The Tigers will need to trade pitching to get the bats minimally required for a legitimate playoff run.

That means anyone — preferably Gregory Soto, who has stuff other teams could want at the summer trade deadline — be dealt for a proper return. Michael Fulmer will be discussed ahead of autumn free agency. The Tigers might, might, be able to capitalize there.

But the big deal, the mandatory deal as much as fans will scream, will be to part with Skubal this offseason for an essential package of high-end, MLB-ready bats.

Skubal, should he remain healthy (remember, this is 2022) and maintain his ace pace, will have shoppers galore lining up this autumn. He has the mastery and the time before free agency (2027) to draw offers far above retail. That thought’s especially valid when he already has gone through Tommy John surgery.

Fans, again, will shriek. But they can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to get the high-horsepower hitters who can meld with Greene and Torkelson, and maybe within two years Kreidler and Keith and Pacheco, the Tigers need to consider a can’t-refuse return Skubal could draw.

Remember: Spencer Turnbull, who a year ago was about to become the trade chip Skubal now has become, will return from his Tommy John hiatus. There should be adequate pitching — assuming arms aren’t yet under 2022’s spell — to float the Tigers in 2023, especially when more of it is being readied (Olson, Wilmer Flores, Ty Madden, etc.) on the farm.

Flores, like Skubal, could also be high-end freight the Tigers will need to deal this offseason if 2023 has any chance at delivering bats that will keep the Tigers from a repeat rebuild in as few as two years.

Always, of course, there is a counter-point. And in this case a strong one. The Tigers will need an ace — a Skubal to match a past top-gun in the manner of Justin Verlander — if they care to play, and survive, in October. No dispute. Except that minus a lineup capable of winning games the other four days an ace isn’t working a so-called contender is spinning wheels.

And now for a necessary follow-up question: Will the manager be aboard for all of this past 2022?

It’s fair to wonder when neither the Tigers nor Hinch has ever disclosed contract-length.

It is understood Hinch is free to leave for a can’t-refuse job. Curious folk will gaze toward Houston, where 73-year-old Dusty Baker is commander, and wonder if a one-time Astros skipper who still has a home in the radius might be interested in a return bout.

It’s possible, a Hinch move, no question. At least until Hinch or Avila offers an explanation to the contrary.

And while everyone shudders at losing a manager of Hinch’s wiles, it might be remembered that the Tigers on Thursday were 24-38.

Players, rather than managers, still remain the greatest determinant in winning baseball games.

The absence of those players, the stigma of an offense so awful it threatens MLB history, is, however, on the architects.

The Tigers have failed, quite abysmally, at bringing onto a MLB team’s roster the brand of drafted and recruited everyday hitters that would allow a lineup to compete and this front office to continue.

It’s uncomfortable, for him, and for anyone who understands people and passion and commitment. But at long last it’s that simple of a matter for a Tigers owner to recognize.

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

Articles You May Like

Series Preview: Detroit Tigers hit the road to face Minnesota Twins this weekend
Max Clark’s three hit day powers Lakeland
Jaden Hamm dominates again in Whitecaps romp
Whitecaps hold off Great Lakes on a quiet night for the farm system
Injury Notes: Albies, Suzuki, Basabe, Gipson-Long

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *