Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Two winding paths from 2012 World Series to Tuesday’s rematch

Detroit Free Press

Miguel Cabrera was there, wearing road grays and the Old English D on his cap. In the home whites, meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants had Brandon Belt at first base, and Brandon Crawford at shortstop.

That trio is all that remain on the rosters of their respective teams from the last time the Detroit Tigers took the field in San Francisco: Oct. 25, 2012, as the Giants beat the Tigers, 2-0, to take a 2-0 lead in the World Series. Three days later, the Giants finished off a sweep of the Series at Comerica Park.

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It’s something of an understatement to say the two franchises have taken greatly different paths going into their Bay Area rematch beginning Tuesday. The Giants won another title in 2014, are coming off a 107-win season last year and seem like a lock for the playoffs again, despite being only six games above .500; the Tigers, meanwhile, got within two wins of the Series in 2013, haven’t won a playoff game since then and appear headed for their seventh straight season finishing under .500.

And yet …

We only have to go back five years to find a spot when the franchises weren’t that far apart: Both finished 64-98, worst in the majors in 2017. That year was also the last time the two squads met on the field, with the Tigers taking two of three in July at Comerica Park. So, what happened?

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It would be nice to be able to point to the following draft as the turning point. The Tigers ended up with the No. 1 pick by dint of their worse record the previous year — the Giants had 87 wins in 162 games, while the Tigers won 86 of 161, with a Sept. 29 game in Cleveland rained out and never made up.

Neither team, though, has reaped great rewards from its 2018 first-rounder. The Tigers, of course, took right-hander Casey Mize, and, uh, let’s not re-hash his 2022 saga. The Giants followed with college catcher Joey Bart, foreseeing a day when star Buster Posey would retire (as he did after last season). But Bart has been a bu… well, we won’t say “bust” quite yet, but he has a career .201/.293/.312 slash line in 71 big-league games from 2020-22.

What HAS been the difference? Here are three between the two franchises since 2017:

Money talks: The Giants maintained a top-10 Opening Day payroll from 2011 all the way until 2020, when they dropped to … 11th. They plummeted even further this year … to 12th. The Tigers, meanwhile, saw their Opening Day payroll drop from third in 2016 to 24th last year (aided by trading away J.D. Martinez and Justin Verlander in 2017), before their offseason spending brought them back to 17th this year. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

Veteran bats: Cabrera’s power declined precipitously beginning in 2017, as he went from 38 homers to 16, and it’s only gotten worse; in the five seasons since, he has slugged .396 in 1,529 at-bats with a .734 OPS. Belt and Crawford — who are about four years younger, of course — have had career years over that same span, with Belt posting a .254/.357/.463 slash line from 2018-22. Crawford’s numbers aren’t quite as impressive, but his .298/.373/522 line last season at age 34 landed him fourth in the NL MVP voting. The Tigers have floundered in their search for other productive bats, while the Giants landed one during the 2017-18 offseason: third baseman Evan Longoria stayed at league average well into his 30s, then put up an .833 OPS last season at age 35.

Recycled arms: Just last year, the Giants got career years from Anthony DeSclafani, Kevin Gausman and Alex Wood, who combined for a 3.21 ERA over 498⅓ innings. This season, Gausman is gone, but ex-ChiSox ace Carlos Rodón is in fine form (2.70 ERA over 80 innings) and the Giants have gotten a 2.63 ERA from ex-Royals lefty Jakob Junis — who had a 4.82 ERA over five seasons in Kansas City. Rodón starts Tuesday, by the way. The Tigers, on the other hand … do we need to bring up the past few seasons? Or even the past few months?

Perhaps the smartest thing the Giants and head of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi have done is show faith in their system, keeping the core intact in search of a quick return to form, despite disappointing results from 2018-20. It’s something the Tigers and GM Al Avila would do well to consider with about five weeks before this year’s trade deadline. The Tigers have a few trade chips, but they’ll be looking for players who could produce next season, rather than a few years down the road. So what are the Tigers’ options? The Freep’s Evan Petzold breaks down who could be going — and who could be staying.

If Avila gets it right, maybe the Tigers won’t be waiting another five years for a visit to San Francisco.

Ful speed ahead

Perhaps the Tigers’ most attractive player in trade talks is right-handed reliever Michael Fulmer, a free agent after this season. He’s already been through trade deadline chaos, arriving in Detroit as part of the return from the New York Mets for Yoenis Cespedes in July 2015. That, and some sage advice from former teammates has kept him centered, as Our Man Petzold reports: “”I’m pitching here until I’m not, whenever that day is.” Click here to find out who Fulmer turned to for trade talk perspective.

Rob-bed of power?

One veteran who’s not likely headed out of town? Outfielder Robbie Grossman, who followed his two-homer outburst against the Rangers at Comerica Park with a 5-for-23 cold streak (with one extra-base hit and seven strikeouts) on the road in Boston and Phoenix. Grossman’s overall stats have been, well, gross, man: A .597 OPS with 67 strikeouts over 225 plate appearances. The struggles have prompted Grossman to try and revive his swing from last season, when he launched 23 homers. Our Man Petzold has the report here on why Grossman said, “I realized I had to go back to who I was before.”

Happy, happy Javy

On the other end of the power spectrum this week, we have Javier Báez, whose 0-for-4 performance Sunday vs. the Diamondbacks snapped a nine-game hitting streak dating back to June 16. Still, his other five games against the Red Sox and Diamondbacks last week gave a glimpse of why the Tigers reeled him in during the offseason: 10-for-20 with two doubles, a triple, three homers, seven RBIs and just one strikeout. Did he change his swing, too? Well, not entirely. Click here to find out from Our Man Petzold how a day off on June 15 changed Báez’s approach entirely.

Riding the Haase

Eric Haase picked up where Baez left off Sunday, going 2-for-4 with a mammoth 433-foot home run to give the Tigers the lead in the fifth inning. The blast was just Haase’s fourth this season, though it was his second in six games after mustering just two homers in his first 35 appearances of 2022. Can he keep the sudden power surge going? Haase talked with Our Man Petzold about how he has adjusted to (and struggled with) an undefined role with the Tigers. Click here to find out what had him saying, “If I guess wrong, it’s an ugly day.”

Hinch a cinch?

Speaking of adjustments, will there be one in the Tigers dugout after this season? That’s a question popping up with some fans as A.J. Hinch and Avila have (mostly) declined to discuss the specifics of Hinch’s contract’s length and potential opt-out clause. Our Man Petzold dove into the conflicting reports while looking ahead to the Tigers’ future in 2023 and beyond.

Three to watch

Back to 2022, with three Tigers to keep an eye on against the Giants and Royals:

CHRIS FETTER: The pitching coach pulled out of the Michigan baseball coaching search.

TARIK SKUBAL: The nominal ace hasn’t been quite as sharp lately, including a rough outing against the Red Sox.

GREGORY SOTO: June has brought struggles for last year’s All-Star, as he works on controlling his slider.

Mark your calendar

The Tigers have a pair of off-days surrounding their Tuesday-Wednesday series against the Giants, followed by three games against the Kansas City Royals back at Comerica Park for a three-game set Friday-Sunday. Remember the Royals? It’s been more than two months since the AL Central rivals faced each other, with the Tigers taking two of three in K.C. from April 14-16 (with the series halted by a rainout that’ll be made up next Monday). The Royals are the only team in the Central having a worse season than the Tigers, at 26-45 without the massive injury list of the Tigers. (Though Salvador Perez will miss this series; he had thumb surgery Friday.) Still, their most important player, shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., is having a solid rookie campaign. The No. 2 pick in 2019 leads the majors in triples (five) and has 16 doubles, 11 homers and 11 steals despite hitting just .242.

Tigers birthdays this week: Dizzy Trout (would have been 107 on Wednesday; died in 1972), Jamie Walker (51 on Friday), Sean Casey (48 on Saturday), Steve Sparks (57 on Saturday), Frank Tanana (69 on Sunday).

TL;DR

In addition to Belt, Cabrera and Crawford, six other players from the 2012 World Series have played in 2022: Madison Bumgarner (3.75 ERA with the Diamondbacks), Avisail Garcia (.590 OPS with the Miami Marlins), Sergio Romo (8.16 ERA with the Seattle Mariners), Max Scherzer (2.54 ERA with the New York Mets), Drew Smyly (3.80 ERA with the Chicago Cubs) and Justin Verlander (2.22 ERA with the Houston Astros).

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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