Tigers’ finale in Seattle a taste of what could have been and ultimately wasn’t in 2022

Detroit Free Press

SEATTLE — Tucker Barnhart, a nine-year veteran catcher traded to the Detroit Tigers last November, received a simple question in front of his locker in the visitor’s clubhouse at T-Mobile Park, just hours before Game 162.

“What was this year like for you?”

Barnhart cracked a smile, then laughed.

“How much time do you got?” he said.

The Tigers’ 2022 season, overall, has its origins in several spots: Blame the historically bad offense, the underperforming veterans, the numerous injuries to key pitchers, the inconsistent defense, the lack of noticeable leadership among the players, the general manager fired in his seventh season or the manager who refused to fire his hitting coach and failed to recapture a magic touch that had fans amped up about the future at this time last year.

But ultimately the 2022 Tigers were, simply, a major disappointment.

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The Tigers went 66-96 overall for a fourth-place finish in the American League Central and the sixth-worst record in the major leagues.

“I don’t love losing,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “I’m not good at it. I don’t respond all that well to it. But I am the leader. I have to stand up and defend what we’ve done right and challenge us on the things we’ve done wrong. Everybody is looking forward to this weekend, and there are going to be a number of teams that are playing. In my stomach, I hate it that we’re not one of them.”

In spring training, the Tigers couldn’t stop talking about the postseason, a place the franchise hasn’t ventured to since 2014. This year, dubbed as the end of the rebuild, was supposed to be different. Instead, the Tigers didn’t sniff a winning product and now — after the Seattle Mariners snapped a 21-year skid and the Philadelphia Phillies snapped an 11-year skid — they are tied with the Los Angeles Angels for the longest active playoff drought in baseball (though the Tigers’ drought is approximately 230 minutes longer, thanks to MLB’s postseason schedule eight years ago).

The Opening Day rotation featured Eduardo Rodriguez, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, while the starting lineup anticipated in spring training had Javier Báez, Austin Meadows, Jonathan Schoop, Jeimer Candelario, Robbie Grossman, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson. In a weak AL Central, the Tigers were poised to play competitive and meaningful baseball into September. And maybe, just maybe, celebration would ensue during the first week of October.

Instead, Detroit was all but eliminated by May.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” Barnhart said. “It was just one of those years. I wish I could give you a better answer, but I don’t know. We struggled to get hits in big situations, especially early on, but with that said, I think we finished strong as a team. That’s a positive for this organization moving forward into next year and building toward the future and winning.”

A trip to Seattle for four games in three days against the Mariners wrapped up the Tigers’ miserable campaign. The Mariners, who clinched their first AL playoff spot since 2001 on Sept. 30, won three of four games in front of their home crowd.

The Tigers finished the season with wins in 11 of their final 16 games, all since hiring new president of baseball operations Scott Harris to replace general manager Al Avila as the leader of the front office. Harris is tasked with improving the Tigers’ organizational process.

The players, perhaps feeling a sense of urgency with their jobs on the line, finally stepped up after Harris made it clear that dominating the strike zone would be an organizational emphasis throughout his reign. From Sept. 19 on, the Tigers ranked fourth in baseball with a 78.3% contact rate but 27th with a 6.2% walk rate.

For some, it’s too late for salvation.

“It’s fun that that’s the identity he wants to create,” catcher Eric Haase said of Harris’ edict. “That’s what we obviously want to create for ourselves. It’s hard being in a locker room where there’s not a very clean plan going forward for our offense as a whole and as an identity.”

As the Mariners took care of the Tigers, even in meaningless games with the postseason picture set in stone, the atmosphere at T-Mobile Park was a reminder of what could have been at Comerica Park. The fans were juiced, from their Julio Rodriguez-inspired chants to jeers sent the Tigers’ way. A groin injury to Sam Haggerty on Monday night delivered a silenced hush. In Game 1 of Tuesday’s doubleheader, Eduardo Rodriguez plunked Jarred Kelenic with a first-pitch fastball in the sixth inning. A fan in front of the press box stood up, tossed his right arm in the air and screamed, “Get him outta here.” The Seattle crowd appeared locked into every pitch of every at-bat for most of the four-game set.

The Tigers felt the energy.

“It was definitely huge for the young guys to get out there and feel this kind of environment,” left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin said. “I can’t think of very many games this year where it had that time of intensity. In the air, you could feel the excitement around the stadium. I think it’s good for them to experience that kind of stuff and see what baseball really can be like in that regard. So next year, when we’re in the playoff situation, we’ve been here before.”

Despite the myriad problems in 2022, the Tigers’ failure can be pinned primarily on the pitiful offense. Seventeen starting pitchers — tying a franchise record set in 1912 — combined for a 4.49 ERA (23rd in MLB), a testament to pitching coach Chris Fetter’s work amid significant injuries to Mize, Skubal and Manning and an extended absence from Rodriguez, while the bullpen chipped in a 3.47 ERA (eighth in MLB).

The offense, though, chased more than any team in baseball, struggled to control the strike zone and didn’t pack a power punch.

The Tigers were shut out 22 times — breaking the AL mark during the DH era (since 1973) — and held to an MLB-worst 3.44 runs per game, ranking either last or next-to-last in several offensive categories.

Not surprisingly, hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh isn’t expected to return in 2023.

“They’ve been awesome,” Torkelson said of the coaching staff. “Cooley, Hess (assistant hitting coach Mike Hessman), A.J., everyone has been really supportive. I’m really thankful for, through the ups and downs, everyone having my back.”

In 2021, the Tigers’ 68-61 record from May 8 onward promised a leap forward. They tackled teams with winning records, finished third in the AL Central and appeared on the cusp of a big-league breakthrough.

The Tigers flirted with 100 losses and finished with 96, the franchise’s fourth season with that many in the past five 162-game schedules.

“We just got a lot of work to do,” Hinch said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to think about the season, investigate the season, look at the season, look at all individual parts, collectively what we did right, what we did wrong. There’s a lot of fight in this organization, and there’s a lot of work to be done. You may not hear a ton from us about it in the coming weeks and coming months, but by the time we get back to Lakeland, we’re going to be on the right track.”

The 2021 performance wasn’t the only reason to believe 2022 would be better, as the Tigers were active in free agency. Even those reasons for hope — Báez and Rodriguez, primarily — proved disappointing.

Rodriguez, who signed a five-year, $77 million contract in November, posted a 4.05 ERA with 34 walks and 72 strikeouts across 91 innings in 17 starts. He spent 67 days on the restricted list in the middle of the season for a personal reason. Báez, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract in December, hit .238 with 17 home runs and a career-worst .671 OPS in 144 games.

Likewise, the franchise’s biggest prospects at the plate in nearly two decades mostly failed to deliver.

Torkelson had a .604 OPS in 110 games; Greene, a .683 OPS in 93 games.

“Losing sucks,” Greene said. “You learn a lot when you lose. You learn a lot when you win, but you learn a lot when you lose. The past couple weeks, we’ve been playing really well. That’s just the potential that this team has. I’m excited for next year.”

The Tigers, both as individuals and a group, fell short of their main goal.

They weren’t even close.

“I take it personal,” Hinch said. “I don’t take it lightly.”

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