Tarik Skubal hopes Detroit Tigers got bad injuries out of way, setting up future success

Detroit Free Press

Tarik Skubal is focused on fantasy football.

He participates in a couple of leagues and is locked in, working the waiver wire, negotiating trades and keeping tabs on injury reports, all while trash talking fellow members of the Detroit Tigers. Last year, close friend and teammate Casey Mize won the championship.

“I just gave him a beatdown pretty good,” Skubal said last week in Seattle. “I’m 4-0 in that league, if anyone is wondering.”

For the first time in a long time, Skubal shared playful banter with his teammates about fantasy football in a face-to-face setting. He also played cards, shared insightful conversations and checked in with the Tigers’ athletic training staff.

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It was almost like he never left.

“This is huge,” Skubal said when he was with the Tigers for their final series of the season Oct. 3-5. “I love being here. I love this team. It sucks, not being able to play, but it’s good just to be in the clubhouse and around the guys again. … This is important for me mentally as much as it is physically.”

Skubal was the best player on the Tigers for most of the season. His season-ending 2.9 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs, compiled from Opening Day through early August, ranked first among 33 pitchers who took the mound for the Tigers in 2022. The left-hander has above-average pitches across the board, especially his power fastball and wipeout slider, and when his mechanics are synced up, his arsenal is difficult to hit.

Skubal, who turns 26 in November, posted a 3.52 ERA with 32 walks and 117 strikeouts over 117⅔ innings in 21 starts. In his first 10 starts, he allowed two home runs and had a 2.15 ERA.

“And then the injury happens, and there’s nothing you can do,” Skubal said. “It’s just part of the game. I’m proud of the way I went out there and competed. I gave it everything I had every time I was able to pitch. That’s all I can do at the end of the day.”

Skubal was dominating through his third MLB season before exiting his Aug. 1 start in Minnesota with left arm fatigue. He felt optimistic he would make his next start.

On Aug. 17, Skubal underwent flexor tendon surgery in his left elbow.

“The imagining showed that there was a strain, but when I had the surgery, I didn’t know what I was getting,” Skubal said. “You open it up and you see. … It was weird waking up and not knowing what you had done, and then you ask the questions.”

Skubal traveled to Los Angeles in mid-August for his surgery, delayed while Dr. Neal ElAttrache performed Tommy John surgery on Dodgers star Walker Buehler. It was Buehler’s second Tommy John in his career.

Buehler, like Skubal, had exploratory surgery.

When it was Skubal’s turn, he feared his ulnar collateral ligament was torn again, meaning he would miss the entire 2023 season. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2016 at Seattle University, before the Tigers drafted him in the ninth round in 2018. An anesthesia-juiced Skubal received positive news post-surgery.

“He opened it up and saw the UCL looked great,” Skubal said. “So he just fixed the flexor tendon. My arm feels good. I’m very thankful it’s a shorter rehab process than having to go through the 15-to-17-month Tommy John. It’s the best-case scenario in terms of all the surgery outcomes.”

Skubal is now on the mend, building his strength in physical therapy and looking forward to visiting Dr. ElAttrache in December. They will develop a plan for his throwing program and return to play. He hopes to begin his throwing program in January in Lakeland, Florida, home of the Tigers’ spring training complex.

Skubal has chosen not to set a premature timeline.

A day-by-day approach is better for his mentality, but he expects to join the Tigers at some point in the 2023 season.

“It’s been a weird year,” Skubal said. “It’s not because of a lack of preparation or anything. It’s just the nature of the game. … It’s about learning, adapting and coming back stronger to where those things don’t happen in the future. Hopefully, we got them out of the way this year and don’t have to deal with them the next seven, eight, nine, 10, however many years we’re all going to play together. Those will be the years where we’re going to do a lot of fun things.”

Entering the offseason, the Tigers have three young starting pitchers on the injured list: Skubal, Mize (Tommy John surgery) and Matt Manning (right forearm strain). Mize is likely to miss all of next season; Manning will soon receive a second opinion from Dr. Keith Meister in Dallas.

All three former top prospects could miss the 2023 Opening Day roster. The Tigers constructed their rebuild, under former general manager Al Avila, on the foundation of starting pitching. The trio will be together again this spring, but at least two of them are scheduled for rehab work.

“We missed him, and he misses us,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said of Skubal last week. “He’s such a big part of our culture and our presence. We miss him on the field. Obviously, it’s going to be a while, but it’s good to see a familiar face and get him back in a team environment.”

Until then, Skubal is putting in work on fantasy football.

“That’s kind of where our conversations are at,” Skubal said, when asked about Mize. “He seems to be doing well right now, as far as I know, and we’ll be able to get to spend a lot of time together next year, early in the year, hopefully around the Super Bowl time.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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