Tigers Newsletter: 2022’s final games a springboard to future or time to fall off a cliff?

Detroit Free Press

We want to believe.

The structure of the MLB season makes it so easy, after all, with 162 three-hour sprints (give or take a few extra minutes for a Gregory Soto relief appearance) comprising one six-month marathon toward the promise of the future. One good game begets another, and another, and pretty soon, PLAYOFFS!

Of course, it hasn’t worked that way for the Detroit Tigers in 2022, when even the “one good game” happenings have been few and far between. Still, even after they were mathematically eliminated (for the eighth straight season) from postseason contention Tuesday, we wanted to believe.

We wanted to believe, as the Freep’s Carlos Monarrez pointed out here, that at least the ignominy of 100 losses was avoidable.

And so after the Tigers gut out a 10-inning comeback win over the semi-mighty Chicago White Sox on a pleasant Friday night at Comerica Park, we wanted to believe reliever Alex Lange when he told the Freep’s Evan Petzold, “We’re going to continue to work, and we got a lot to prove. We’re going to finish strong and ride the momentum into next year.”

Hello, and welcome to the Bittersweet 16 Newsletter.

Turns out, the Tigers had momentum over the weekend the same way Wile E. Coyote had momentum when chasing the Roadrunner toward a tunnel in the desert.

Meep meep! Two more losses! (Though Saturday’s at least took 11 innings — the Wile E. Coyote equivalent of having just enough time to read the “Meep meep!” tag on the bomb just delivered by the Roadrunner.)

The tunnel is fast approaching: With just 16 games to play, the Tigers need eight wins to finish at 63-99. (Don’t hope for many more than that, though; the Tigers’ best 16-game stretches this season topped out at 10 wins, and those were back in July.)

Ol’ Wile always believed he was going to catch that bird, and so we’re left to believe in momentum once again.

Of course, momentum was also the buzzword for last season’s 16-game finish, during which the Tigers raised everyone’s hopes with a 7-9 surge that was, well, not great, but far, far better than the matching 4-12 marks put up in 2019 and 2020. (And light years ahead of the 9-24 mark the Tigers opened 2021 with.)

Momentum! Meep meep! Right into another 9-24 start this season.

But we want to believe, so we’ll crunch some numbers in hopes of finding out, anecdotally, what these final 16 games could tell us about the Tigers’ chances for next season. Let’s take a look at some select Tigers squads that made playoff runs and see how they finished the prior season:

2011: We’ll skip the 2012 squad that made the World Series; they were expected to be good after making the playoffs in 2011. But the 2011 squad that won the franchise’s first division title since 1987? Its run was somewhat unexpected, even after the end of May, when the Tigers sat just two games above .500. But maybe 2010’s finish was a harbinger of competitiveness; those Tigers went 9-7 over their final 16.

2006: Ah, the magic of the “Roar Restored” season, in which the Tigers improved 24 wins compared to the previous season, backed into a wild-card berth then stormed to the World Series. But the final 16 games of 2005? Barely a “meow,” as the Tigers went just 4-12 to finish the season in Alan Trammell’s final season as manager.

1984:  The core of this team had been together for seemingly forever, from the minors in the late 70s to putting together a 92-70 record in ’83 to finish second in the American League East. Still, not much about the Tigers’ final 16 games of ’83, in which they went 8-8, presaged their legendary 35-5 start to the 1984 season, followed by a World Series title.

Not a lot of track record there, is there? And so we come to the truth of it: That while the final three weeks of the season for playoff-eliminated teams aren’t quite the equivalent of a substitute teacher rolling the TV cart to the front of the room, they’re also not the prime time to cram a season’s worth of lessons in.

No, the time for improvement will come this offseason, when whoever is hired as general manager plugs the many, many holes in the roster. Those 1984 Tigers added 30-homer hitter Darrell Evans in December 1983. The 2006 Tigers added three-time All-Star pitcher Kenny Rogers in December 2005. And the 2011 Tigers added four-time All-Star catcher/DH Victor Martinez in November 2010.

Admittedly, after the Tigers’ work in free agency the past few offseasons, that’ll probably take another Wile E. Coyote-level of belief, too. We just need to take one last lesson from that self-proclaimed super-genius: When you’re running toward the cliff, don’t look down.

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Miggy returns

Speaking of falling off a cliff, the Tigers activated Miguel Cabrera from the 10-day injured list late on Sunday. Cabrera headed to the IL with a biceps strain, but the second half was rough on him before that; pain from his chronically bad right knee had him slashing just .135/.238/.203 in limited DH action since the All-Star break. But as manager A. J. Hinch told Our Man Petzold, Cabrera is feeling better: “He was more interested in what his swing looked like than how he felt, so all signs that are really good.” Head here to find out what the Tigers’ playing time plans are for the 39-year-old (who, yes, has one more year on his contract).

Getting a jump, Part I

On the other end of the age spectrum, there’s 21-year-old Riley Greene, who has been showing off his glove in field for most of the season. (Alas, age comes for us all: Greene’s odometer kicks over to 22 a week from Tuesday.) How has Greene gone from a high-school slugger barely considered a corner outfielder to a fixture in the wide-open center-field ranges of Comerica “National” Park? Head here to get the report from Our Man Petzold on the training that started in Florida in February.

Getting a jump, Part II

The next wave of Tigers prospects — and no, Spencer Torkelson does not count — will get some time in the Arizona Fall League spotlight in October and November, as the team announced it was sending eight minor leaguers , including 2020 fifth-round pick Colt Keith, to play for the Salt River Rafters. Head here to get the breakdown of the Tigers’ portion of the squad.

3 to watch

As noted earlier, there are still 16 games left for the Tigers. Here are three players to keep an eye on this week:

GARRETT HILL: The former 26th-round pick is learning at the big-league level, including new mechanics that have spiked his velocity.

RYAN KREIDLER: The rookie’s defense is earning him more playing time — at the expense of Jeimer Candelario.

JOEY WENTZ: Before he heads to the AFL next month, the rookie lefty has a simple goal in Detroit.

Happy birthday, Big Daddy!

If the Tigers’ anemic offense this season — don’t worry, we’re not going to break it down again — has you longing for the days of big boppers at The Corner, Wednesday is the time to celebrate: The linchpin of the Tigers’ early 1990s offensive juggernauts, Cecil Fielder (aka “Big Daddy”), turns 59 on Wednesday. Fielder finished his Tigers tenure with 245 homers over parts of seven seasons, but the highlights were the 1990-91 seasons, in which he led the majors with 51 and 44 homers, respectively. He came close to another milestone those years, as well: He nearly outhomered an entire franchise in both, falling 22 short of the St. Louis Cardinals in ’90 and 24 short of the Cards in ’91. (We bring that up because the Tigers are themselves in a closer-than-you’d-expect race with a mighty slugger, sitting just 34 up on the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge. Head here to get the lowdown on that race, Fielder’s run against the Cards and the post-WWII Tigers slugger who actually DID outhomer an entire team.)

Other Tigers birthdays this week: Aurelio Lopez (would have been 74 on Wednesday, died in 1992), Hooks Dauss (would have been 133 on Thursday; died in 1963), Joba Chamberlain (37 on Friday), Nate Cornejo (43 on Saturday).

Mark your calendar

This week marks the Tigers’ next-to-last road trip of the season, with three-game sets against the Orioles in Baltimore (Monday-Wednesday) and the White Sox in Chicago (Friday-Sunday). If the Tigers’ season had gone according to plan — or perhaps according to wishful thinking — this trip might have been a virtual week of playoff games. The O’s, who lost 110 games last season, are 76-69 and four games out of the final wild-card spot; the ChiSox, themselves dealing with some disappointment, are a game behind the O’s (five back in the wild-card hunt) and 3½ games back in the AL Central. Instead, the Tigers’ greatest urgency is winning, again, eight of their final 16 games to avoid losing 100 games for the second time in four seasons. Get the scoop on tonight’s opener, featuring Detroit lefty Tyler Alexander and Baltimore righty Tyler Wells, straight from the Freep’s Tyler J. Davis. (We forgot to ask which hand he throws with.)

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