Detroit Tigers Newsletter: A blueprint for Tigers’ 2023 success is visiting Comerica Park

Detroit Free Press

The last week of July, according to MLB calendar, is not a time for hope.

(In short, it’s the complete opposite of the week for Detroit Lions fans, who may never be more hopeful than this week.)

With nearly 100 games played and the trade deadline looming (or waiting, or creeping up, or however you’d like to anthropomorphize it while we wait for the Aug. 2 push alerts), this week is, annually, a time for judgment on what teams have achieved and what is possible over the next two or three months.

The expectations the Detroit Tigers (and, OK, a few of us in the media) had in March of making a push for a winning record, if not the postseason … well, they were long gone by the All-Star break. (Just ask the Freep’s Evan Petzold, who broke down the Tigers’ first-half, er, breakdowns here.)

And if they weren’t gone, the Tigers’ past three games against the A’s and Twins — all the injuries and bad plays and wasted at-bats — certainly bought those expectations an economy-class ticket out of town. At this point all that’s left for the Tigers is a couple months of Riley Greene learning the bigs, Tarik Skubal rediscovering his spring form and maybe a reunion with Eduardo Rodriguez in late August; basically, a LOT of “wait till next year” talk.

But if you’re willing to squint at the Tigers’ guests at Comerica Park this week, “next year” might not look so far off.

Hello, and welcome to the Cat Days of Summer Newsletter.

So … the San Diego Padres? Let’s catch up with them for a few dozen words, as they visit Detroit for the first time since June 2005. (How long ago was that? At the time, the Pads were developing the No. 1 overall pick from the 2004 draft, shortstop Matt Bush, while the Tigers were a couple weeks away from calling up the No. 2 pick in that draft — right-hander Justin Verlander. They’re the only first-rounders from ’04 in the majors in 2022.)

When the trade deadline hit on July 30, 2021, the Padres were 16 games above .500, 5 ½ games up in the race for the NL’s second wild-card spot and the front-runners to pick up Max Scherzer from the Washington Nationals’ fire sale. Over the final two months, they went 18-37 to plummet to 11 games out of a playoff spot and, oh yeah, watched Scherzer land with the rival Dodgers (for whom he went 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts). To borrow a phrase from Ron Burgundy, San Diego did not stay classy in August and September.

And yet a year later, the Pads are back to 11 games over .500, with a four-game lead in the (now-expanded) NL wild-card hunt. That’s despite zero plate appearances from all-everything slugger Fernando Tatis Jr., who’s still rehabbing a fractured wrist from the offseason, and ERAs above four from former Cy Young winner Blake Snell and April acquisition Sean Manaea.

An expected ace going off the rails and an accomplished slugger beset by injury. We feel like we’ve heard this before …

But the Padres have had a few unexpected success stories, too, to account for their playoff positioning.

Take outfielder Nomar Mazara; his 2021 with the Tigers was about as bad a season as you can have in the majors and still get a shot at another — his slash line of .212/.276/.321 earned him a release on July 21 and he didn’t land another contract until the Pads offered a minor-league deal in mid-March. This season, he has a .728 OPS in 38 games since his June 2 callup. That would rank third among current Tigers, behind only Eric Haase’s .738 and Harold Castro’s .732.

And right-hander Yu Darvish (who appears lined up to start Wednesday’s series finale) is back to his All-Star form at age 35 after his ERA jumped nearly a run, from 3.27 on July 25 to 4.22 on Sept. 28, over his final 10 starts of 2021.

There are less unexpected reasons for the Padres’ recovery, too. They’re getting a lot of production from star third baseman Manny Machado, in Year 4 of his 10-year, $300 million contract. Former Michigan infielder Jake Cronenworth has made the NL All-Star squad twice, plus a Rookie of the Year runner-up finish in 2020. Big right-hander Joe Musgrove, who threw the franchise’s first no-hitter in 2021, has been even better this season.

Can the Tigers duplicate all that? Maybe? A big year from Javier Báez checks off the Machado box. Skubal is still just 25; Musgrove didn’t click until age 27. Rodriguez was living up to his $77 million contract before his injury and subsequent hiatus from the team. (More on him in a little bit.) Greene still has plenty of room to grow. And Spencer Torkelson’s 2022 was about as bad as Mazara’s 2021.

Of course, none of that helps the Tigers — or their fans — now. Waiting till next year is still next year, and there have already been so many next years since the Tigers were last any good. (Well, six or eight, depending on your definition of “any good.”)

There are still plenty of moves needed to get the Tigers back to hoping next April, and they’ll start with the next nine days or so. But for the next three days, maybe the Padres’ rebound from their awful summer can give us some hope right now.

(Re-)Learning to fly

Hope is something Spencer Torkelson hopes to grab again in Triple-A, as his return to the minors began Friday night against Columbus. In three games, he’s 2-for-12 with a walk, two RBIs and four strikeouts. Not the most promising fresh start. But the Freep’s Jeff Seidel was there for Tork’s Toledo debut and, as he opined here, the road back to Detroit goes one hit at a time.

Plugging in with E-Rod

Speaking of the road back to Detroit, the Tigers announced Saturday they’d made contact with long-lost (and long-unpaid) left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, who has been on the restricted list since June 13. He’s working on a team-designed throwing program now, with an eye toward a return in late August. Our Man Petzold has more of the details here.

Stocking the farm

While most of the Tigers were relaxing during their abbreviated All-Star break, the front office was busy with the MLB draft, which started last Sunday with first-rounder Jace Jung and second-rounder Peyton Graham (who we covered in last week’s newsletter). They know each other well from their days in summer league, as Our Man Seidel discovered in talking with the duo’s host family in California. Head here to find out how they learned to drive a stick together.

On Monday, it was Rounds 3-10 (though the Tigers’ picks began in Round 4) — four college hitters, three college pitchers. Our Man Petzold has the breakdown on those picks here, including a 24-year-old relief ace from Oklahoma.

Tuesday wrapped up the draft with Rounds 11-20 and 10 more Tigers picks, including a pitcher who went from the Ivy League to TikTok star in just a few months. Our Man Seidel has Joe Miller’s story here, while Our Man Petzold assessed all the Day 3 picks.

So what was the Tigers’ plan for the draft? Hitters, hitters and more hitters. But don’t take our word for it.

L.A. gears

While the front office was in draft mode Tuesday, two Tigers — Miguel Cabrera and Gregory Soto — took the field at Dodger Stadium for the All-Star Game, though neither got into the game until the later innings. Our Man Petzold has the scoop on their winning night, as the AL took down the NL for the ninth straight game.

Soto mojo

The AL will go for win No. 10 next year in the Seattle neighborhood they call SoDo, for “South of the Dome,” referencing the Mariners’ now-demolished first home, the Kingdome. Gregory Soto will be aiming for his third straight All-Star nod; Our Man Petzold tackled how Soto’s first All-Star nod keeps on giving.

3 to watch

While we’re talking pitchers …

TYLER ALEXANDER: The lefty is back in the rotation, due to Saturday’s injury to right-hander Michael Pineda.

RONY GARCIA: The righty will be shut down for a while after departing Sunday’s start early.

MATT MANNING: Alex Faedo and Kyle Funkhouser are done for 2022, but the young righty’s rehab is progressing in Triple-A.

Mark your calendar (and check your passwords)!

The Tigers’ run of 16 games in 16 days to start the second half continues with a pair of series against playoff contenders. First up, the Padres are at Comerica Park on Monday-Wednesday; the Tigers then head to Toronto for a four-game set at the Rogers Centre (one of about 80 in Canada, last we checked, which is why we still think of the home of Vladimir Guerrero and Blue Jays as the Skydome). That also means we’ll find out this week which Tigers aren’t up to date on their vaccines; the Kansas City Royals had 10 players miss a four-game series before the All-Star break (of which the Royals lost three), while the St. Louis Cardinals will be without stars Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt (and former Tiger Austin Romine!) for their games in the 906 on Tuesday and Wednesday. And speaking of advance notice, here’s yours to dig up (or sign up for) your Apple TV+ “Peacock” credentials ahead of Friday’s and Sunday’s games; Friday will be available only on Apple’s streaming service at 7:07 p.m., while Sunday will be another online-only affair on NBC’s service, starting bright and early (for us, anyway) at 12:05 p.m.

Happy birthday, Mad Max!

How bad has the Tigers’ pitching injury luck been? It’s even affected the hurlers who haven’t, well, hurled for the franchise since 2014 — aka Max Scherzer, who missed seven weeks this season with an oblique injury before returning to the Mets earlier this month. The heterochromatic-eyed righty turns 38 on Wednesday, but — other than the injury — isn’t showing his age; he’s sporting a 2.28 ERA with 98 strikeouts in 75 innings. That includes a 1.78 ERA in his four July starts, with one more lined up on his birthday. Come to think of it, that’s more of a present for Mets fans than for Scherzer.

Other Tigers birthdays this week: Torey Lovullo (57 on Monday), Joaquin Benoit (45 on Tuesday), Ray Boone (would have been 99 on Wednesday; died in 2004), Seth Greisinger (47 on Friday), Gabe Kapler (47 on Sunday).

TL;DR

There are still a few more interleague games on the schedule — five in all for the Tigers, but just two after this week’s series — but we thought we’d note that in the 26th year of MLB’s late-’90s “gimmick,” the Tigers have the 10th-best record in interleague play, with a .519 winning percentage (247-229). The Red Sox clock in at No. 1, at .600 (284-189), while the Reds are last, at .430 (185-245). (The Padres are No. 28, by the way, with a 195-243 record and .445 winning percentage.) It’s not much, but since it’ll be at least another year until the Tigers have a shot at the interleague play that matters — think Kirk Gibson’s homer off the Pads in ’84 — it’s something to fall back on.

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

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