Cleveland — The tarp had been laid across the infield at Progressive Field Sunday morning and it was starting to sprinkle. Finally, something was about to go right for the Tigers.
After using five pitchers and Harold Castro in a 10-0 loss Saturday, enduring their eighth loss in nine games, their major league-leading 13th shutout and falling to a season-worst 18 games under .500 — with the daunting task of getting through one more game before the break using all relievers to cover nine innings — the Tigers were going to get what they desperately needed, a rainout.
The rough-worn bullpen and injury-depleted rotation will get a few days to reset and refresh and the players at least an extra half day tacked on to an All-Star break abbreviated by that inconvenient makeup doubleheader Thursday in Oakland.
While the players inside the clubhouse celebrated the reprieve and happily adjusted travel plans, manager AJ Hinch sat in the visitor’s dugout. As sprinkles turned to rain, he tried to put a disappointing and almost inexplicable first half of baseball into perspective.
“We’ve had our share of adversity,” he said. “We’ve had our share of injuries. We’ve underperformed. You factor all that in and your record tells you what you are at that moment in time. We need to look at how we can evolve better as an organization, as a team, as a coaching staff.
“We can’t be satisfied that we’re trying hard. This is a results-oriented business, and we are not getting the results that we expect.”
Changes were already made on Sunday. Rookie Spencer Torkelson was optioned to Toledo. More changes are expected before the Tigers get to Oakland Thursday. More changes will be made as the Aug. 2 trade deadline nears.
“I don’t know what it all means moving forward on personnel, but it’s always unlikely when you have a 90-game stretch like this for it to remain the same,” Hinch said. “Otherwise, you’re going to get the same results.”
It’s been a Murphy’s Law season to this point for the Tigers. That’s an unassailable truth. Not once has the roster been what the club had built coming out of spring training. Starting with rookie center fielder Riley Greene breaking his foot late in spring training, to four-fifths of the original starting rotation going down with injuries or other maladies, to losing at various points every starting outfielder to injury or minor-league demotion.
Here are the Tigers’ first-half leaders in innings pitched: Tarik Skubal, Beau Brieske, Alex Faedo, Rony Garcia and Drew Hutchison. Who saw that coming? Garcia and Hutchison started the season in an expanded bullpen. Brieske, who was in Single-A at this time last year, was in Toledo and Faedo, now on the injured list, started the season in Lakeland, his first full year of competition after Tommy John surgery.
How can you predict or plan for lefty starter Eduardo Rodriguez leaving the team to deal with marital issues, being placed on the restricted list and forfeiting more than $70,000 a day? Who could have foreseen what Austin Meadows has had to deal with this season — from vertigo to COVID to Achilles tendon soreness in both legs to general soreness.
How does Victor Reyes spend weeks on the injured list recovering from a strain in his left squad, only to come back and in his first game strain his right quad? Reliever Jose Cisnero spent all of spring training and the first three and a half months recovering from a shoulder injury. On the day he was to be activated, he had to leave the team because of a death in his family.
“We’ve still yet to have the mapped out plan we had at the start of the season,” Hinch said. “But that’s not an excuse because we haven’t won.”
Good players playing poorly
Underperformance has been as big a theme as the injuries, and that’s not a small statement. The injuries aren’t the reason the Tigers have scored the fewest runs in baseball (288) or have the second-lowest slugging percentage (.333) and OPS (.619).
A core group of veteran players, players with legitimate track records, have played well below their own standards.
►Shortstop Javier Báez: At the All-Star break last season, Báez had 21 home runs with 57 RBIs and posted a wRC-plus of 116. This year, even though he’s picked up his pace considerably in July and he leads the team with nine home runs, his wRC-plus is 74.
►Outfielder Robbie Grossman: At the All-Star break last year, Grossman was getting on base at a .354 clip and he’d hit 12 home runs with 42 RBIs. This year, he’s hitting .205 with a .311 on-base percentage, two homers and 19 RBIs. His wRC-plus, 109 at the break last year, is 75.
►Third baseman Jeimer Candelario: His batting average (.191) is roughly 70 points lower than it was at the break last year and his OPS (.570) is down about 150 points. His wRC-plus is down from 102 in the first half last year to 63. He’s all but lost his everyday role and, with Torkelson in Toledo, might get more work at first base in the second half.
►Second baseman Jonathan Schoop: Not to dismiss his defense, which has been Gold Glove worthy, but his offensive production has plummeted. At the break last year, he was hitting .277 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs. This year, he’s batting .212 with six homers and 23 RBIs. His wRC-plus, 112 at the break last year, is 56.
►Catcher Tucker Barnhart: At this time last year Barnhart was hitting .272 with the Reds and he had four home runs. This year, he’s hitting .207 and hasn’t come close to hitting one out. His wRC-plus, 104 at the break last year, is 48.
►Outfielder Akil Baddoo: He doesn’t have much of a track record, of course, but the team has missed the spark he provided as a rookie last season. His wRC-plus at the break last year was 121. He had a .813 OPS and was getting on base and creating mayhem at a .352 clip. This year he’s hitting .138 with an wRC-plus of 14 and he has spent most of the season in Toledo.
“It’s definitely not where we want to be, but we still have half a year of baseball to play,” Grossman said. “It’ll be better in the second half. We have to be.”
That’s the tricky part for Hinch and the coaching staff. How much of the underperformance can be viewed as an outlier? Are these good players having a prolonged bad stretch or does the regression mandate personnel and direction changes?
“We have to look at all of it,” Hinch said. “Obviously, the results are real. What we did is where we are at. We have to be very honest with ourselves in that we are where we’re at and in what we need to do to drive this team in a different direction.
“It’s a tough balance because there are players that will get better just by playing more and getting to normalize their numbers. But there are also questions we have to figure out by the time we get to the end of the season. So you are constantly churning over where you are right now and where you want to be a week or a month from now.”
Sharing the blame
Hinch did not excuse himself or his staff from culpability in this mess, either.
“We’re all responsible for what is going on and as coaches we have to challenge ourselves to continually try to reach these guys in different ways and get the best performance out of them,” he said.
Hinch said, as is the case every season, everything is constantly being evaluated and re-evaluated — methods and staff personnel. But he’s not likely to make a change just for optics or effect.
“The issue of job security is very sensitive,” he said. “It’s easy from the outside to not see the work, not see the dedication, not see the communication and just put it all on the coaches to have to fix it. The move (firing someone) is a 24-hour news cycle. If you don’t have a solution that you know is better immediately, then what?
“That’s not to say we’re immune to any changes or questions about what we’re going to do. But I am going to support my staff. I know the work that they put in. I know the feedback from the players. I know the pressure that’s involved. We are all responsible.”
Is there anything to be salvaged in these next two-plus months? Some of the betting sites have put the Tigers’ odds at making the playoffs at zero. At 18 games under (37-55) with 70 games left, reaching .500 seems unrealistic.
What then? Eleven more weeks of experimentation and development? Another September of giving young players their first taste of the big leagues?
“We just need winning,” Hinch said. “Winning series, winning weeks, winning months. Winning stretches will help steer this in the right direction. We’ve got to gain experience for some of our guys and we have to do it with a group that’s different than we mapped out in April.
“What cures all this is more wins. We know the road ahead, we know the areas we need to strengthen both on the team and in the organization. And it can start in Oakland. It doesn’t have to start in 2023.”
Is there a silver lining?
Going forward, the Tigers hope to have right-hander Matt Manning back in the starting rotation, hopefully by August. Cisnero is expected to join the team in Oakland. Hinch said he was optimistic that Meadows would be back in August, as well.
Of course, by then, the Tigers could also lose some players. With the trade deadline looming, teams have already been scouting some of their bullpen arms (Michael Fulmer, Gregory Soto, Andrew Chafin), as well as players on expiring contracts like Grossman and Candelario and affordable contracts like Schoop.
“I’ve been more brutal about that,” Hinch said. “This is a big-boy business and when you are where we’re at, and you have as strong a bullpen as we have, the contenders are going to come down and look at you. That’s the reality. Whether you are distracted by it, frustrated by it, nervous about it — it’s a big-boy business.
“I want to be realistic with our guys. The reason you are being talked about getting traded away is because we haven’t won enough. We are where we’re at because of how we’ve played and now we have to deal with some of these things that are tough to navigate. But it’s our reality.”
If there is a silver lining to the first half, it’s that the team has stayed together. There’s been no fracturing in the clubhouse.
“Everybody has been normal,” Báez said. “There is frustration, obviously, during the games. But before and after, we’re all the same. We stay together and we try to be normal. I know this is going to be a winning team at some point. We’ve just have to try to keep our mental balance and start playing better.”
Hinch gives full credit to the players for continuing to work and for staying together.
“I don’t see resignation,” Hinch said. “I don’t see players caving in. I see a frustrated group that’s been mired in a lack of winning for a while. Those who have been here the longest have felt it for multiple seasons. That’s what we need to change.
“We have to continue to find different ways to get out of this wash, rinse, repeat that we’re in.”