Tigers news, notes and links from the first week of spring training camp

Bless You Boys

The first week of spring training is generally a time of optimism. Players physically feel as good as they will all season long, and best case scenarios briefly all seem possible, if not likely. Still, the next five weeks will put all that to the test and what we see on the field now isn’t particularly relevant yet. Instead, it’s more a time to set a tone and start fleshing out the 2023 season’s early storylines.

Players are getting their workouts in but keeping it light, focusing on form and prepping their bodies for the ramp up in intensity over the next 40 days. The World Baseball Classic will add extra impetus for players like Eduardo Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, Javier Báez, and Jonathan Schoop, but the WBC will also function as part of their season preparation. Still, the early days of spring camp are the one time in the season where talk can take precedence over action as we wait for Grapefruit League play to begin next Saturday, February 25 against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Thanks to various interviews with the Tigers’ beat writers, there are plenty of interesting notes to discuss.

Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson

No pressure fellas, but whatever the Detroit Tigers record is this season, it won’t matter much compared to the success or failure of outfielder Riley Greene and first baseman Spencer Torkelson. Of course, those two things are also inextricably linked. If they hit as expected, the whole team is going to be in a much better place immediately.

Early on, both have articulated their issues pretty well. Put simply, each needs to keep the ball off the ground much more and capitalize on the serious raw power they possess. Some thought Torkelson might be due for a bit of a swing overhaul this offseason, but both he and Greene’s lack of power had much more to do with poor pitch selection last year.

“The fastest way to improve that is to pick better pitches to hit,” manager AJ Hinch said. “You can’t create an optimal angle on the bat on every pitch. It’s hard, but you have to pick better pitches to hit.”

Torkelson showed superb control of the strike zone, but just looked locked up on very hittable pitches. If he can get out of his head and back to being aggressive, it’s hard to believe the hitter we saw in the minor leagues is going to continue to be vulnerable to middle-middle fastballs. Early reports have Tork putting on a real show in batting practice, which he didn’t really manage much of in 2022. Of course, it’s BP so we’ll see…

Mike Trout was part of an informal survey Torkelson conducted this offseason about what length and weight bat top hitters were using. Apparently Tork has switched from a 34 inch bat to a 33 12 incher that is also a half ounce lighter. We’ll see if it helps, but either way taking Trout’s recommendation is okay by us.

It’s worth remembering that neither has more than 1200 plate appearances in pro ball at any level. Greene and Torkelson are still very wet behind the ears. A tough sophomore season would change perceptions, but for now they’re the same talented young hitters the baseball world agreed were among the best prospects in the game just a year ago. If there’s a reason to be optimistic about the 2023 season, they’re the Tigers best bet.

Miguel Cabrera prepares for his final season

No presence represents the Detroit Tigers more than that of Miguel Cabrera. The big man reported to camp on Thursday and immediately provided his spark of energy to the proceedings. Entering the final season in a Hall of Fame career, we know his impact in the lineup won’t be very substantial, but it’s hard to predict what overall effect, if any, his farewell tour will have on the team.

Cabrera has never particularly liked being the center of attention. He endures the questions rather than enjoying expressing himself to the media, and even in his greatest moments has inevitably re-directed praise into comments on team success. That’s going to be a lot more difficult this year. Cabrera’s career deserves a big sendoff but his low key tone suggests he’d like to focus on the team and take a business as usual approach. We’ll see how he handles it and whether the team can take any energy from being part of the farewell tour.

Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal

Casey Mize has already dropped a little bit of a bombshell this spring, revealing that he’d had back surgery as well as UCL reconstruction in his elbow last season. I guess we could look at the bright side and say he got it all out of the way. Interesting to know that he’s been dealing with it a long time, at least. Perhaps that bodes well when he returns next season. I’ve never been a big Casey Mize guy, but there’s certainly a good mid-rotation starter in there, and that would be plenty going forward.

As for Skubal, he’s been throwing for a while now and has a far better chance of returning to action this summer. He also led the way in getting a bunch of guys, including Matt Manning and Jake Rogers, to take Pilates this offseason and work on their core strength and range of motion. Seems like a good idea.

Scott Harris wants a versatile team that controls the strike zone

In early interviews, the new Tigers showrunner has continued to emphasize controlling the strike zone on both sides of the ball as his guiding mantra in building a team. That begs an interesting question as to how he really feels about Javier Báez, who has had a pretty good career swinging wildly and managing to do a lot of damage, as a player and the odds of him turning down his opt-out at season’s end. I doubt we’ll get a very in-depth answer there, and rightly so.

Also thought it was interesting that Jon Morosi asked him specifically about Wilmer Flores, and Harris lit up talking about his ability to control the strike zone and pitch aggressively to different parts. He noted that the Tigers think there are a couple things they can do to improve his pitch shapes, which would really take him to the top tier of pitching prospects in the game. Our top-ranked Tigers’ prospect will be making his final approach to the big leagues at Toledo this year, and we expect he’ll get his first look at the show if things are going well.

Harris has been taking the time in Lakeland to introduce himself and get to know his players. Reports indicated he had short sitdowns with most of the roster already. He and Hinch also made it plain that they’ve been in constant communication as expected this offseason. Team leadership seems really in sync. We’ll see if that helps. The vibe in Lakeland certainly feels different from afar, with a lot of new faces both on the coaching, front office, and player side all getting to know each other.

Harris went into a little more depth on Thursday in discussing his philosophy. Controlling the strike zone is the key, but diversity in the lineup is also something he keeps returning to. Some of that refers to positional flexibility, and Harris clearly believes in that strongly, as does Hinch, particularly for a team with mediocre offensive projections. Acquiring guys like Nick Maton and Matt Vierling is clearly designed to leave no holes in the lineup, even if the injury bug bites hard once again. Still, people may take this to mean he wants a roster of part-time platoon players and I highly doubt that’s his ideal. He’s just working with the situation he inherited, though not necessarily fast enough for our liking.

When Harris discusses wanting a diverse lineup, it’s important to understand that he doesn’t just mean a simple balance between left and right-handed hitters. They need not just good hitters, but hitters to deal with any type of pitcher or pitch mix. It’s not enough to just have solid hitters who don’t chase out of the zone. Harris is going to want a mix of hitters who handle high fastballs well, or crush sinkers, or feast on breaking balls and offspeed. He wants some guys who can really run. And yes, he’s going to want to left-right balance on the roster, giving AJ Hinch the ability to stack his lineups. Building a roster of good hitters with different strengths and weaknesses helps mitigate a pitcher’s ability to matchup against them, avoiding some of those games where they get dominated by a single pitching plan from the opposition. Even some of the really good lineups in the early 2010’s were vulnerable that way.

Spencer Turnbull returns

Spencer Turnbull’s return to action is still going a bit under the radar. That probably won’t last as sleeper pick fantasy baseball articles proliferate over the next few weeks. The right-hander was notably touching 94 mph on his fastball on Friday and that is a good sign. It was likely for the best that the Tigers didn’t pitch him late last summer. Instead of coming back some 14 months from UCL reconstruction, he’s now put 20 months distance between himself and the surgery. Will he be rusty? You’d expect so, but things have gone as well as possible to this point, giving him the best chance for a strong return to action.

We won’t oversell the no-hitter he threw on May 18, 2021 against the Seattle Mariners. Turnbull’s bane has always been his command, and even if the velo returns, he’s no guarantee to return to form immediately. On the other hand, I think what he learned in 2020 and 2021, was that he can just let it eat without trying to be too fine with everything.

Spencer Turnbull has one of the strangest, filthiest pairs of fastballs in the game. One can be deceived by the modest whiff rates, but he breaks a lot of bats and gets plenty of weak contact as well. The fourseamer is practically unliftable, an odd high spin, low movement creature that acts like a true cut fastball at 94 mph to his glove side. And if you’re leaning as a right-handed hitter, the sinker has erratic but at times incredible horizontal action. Add a plus slider and an above average curveball, and Turnbull is well equipped to dominate even without above average strikeout rates. He doesn’t give up home runs. Through 271.1 innings, he holds a superb 0.63 home runs per nine (HR/9) rate. In 2020-2021, he averaged 0.34 HR/9, while the league average was 1.26.

Suffice it to say there’s a lot going on here, but Turnbull is really a fascinating case for a deep dive. I’ll do that shortly.

Meanwhile, our friends at Pinstripe Alley are pondering the idea of trading for Turnbull now that Frankie Montas is out with a long-term injury. Considering Turnbull’s long injury history and the fact that he’s 30 years old with two years of team control left before free agency, the idea doesn’t seem implausible. There’s no point unless the Tigers can get a pretty good prospect that Harris and the new scouting and analytics staff really like, but if Turnbull looks good this spring and the Tigers are relatively healthy, it wouldn’t be shocking to hear of actual team interest in a deal.

Something like that becomes a lot more likely if he gets off to a good start and proves he’s 100 percent by the summer months. Tigers fans would probably prefer to offer Eduardo Rodriguez right now. Either way the possibility of dealing a starter, whether Turnbull, Rodriguez, or someone else, is going to loom throughout the season.

The Meadows boys are back in town

After an injury plagued first season in Detroit, outfielder Austin Meadows showed up to camp on Saturday looking leaner, while his brother, top outfield prospect Parker Meadows, has added muscle once again. The elder Meadows was trying to get back into best shape of his life territory after the injuries kept him on the couch most of the last season. The younger just continues to focus on adding muscle and batspeed to get the most out of his formerly lanky 6’5” frame. The brothers could both be a big factor in the outfield this season, though Parker will be in reserve at Triple-A Toledo early on, looking to build on his 2022 breakout campaign.

Tigers still adding relief help to tryout this spring

Multiple times over the past week I’ve started work on an article about the collection of pitchers Scott Harris has assembled on minor league deals. Every day there’s another. In the past week, the Tigers signed a pretty good veteran right-hander in Matt Wisler, and then added two more left-handers to the mix. Wisler’s deal could be worth $1.5 million with the incentives should he make the team and he could easily be a late innings option for A.J. Hinch if last season’s injury trouble is behind him. Jace Fry and Tyler Holton ran out of time as prospects and might stick around at the Triple-A level even if they don’t break with the team. With Soto and Chafin gone, the Tigers could really use one of these southpaws to have a good season

Harris took a chance trading Joe Jiménez and Gregory Soto this offseason. With Michael Fulmer gone and Andrew Chafin signing with the Diamondbacks, the health of the bullpen is going to depend on finding some help from their extra young starting pitchers, and from their minor league free agent signings and a smattering of interesting relief prospects in the farm system already.

The Tigers have added a lot of talented arms on minor league deals overall, far more than in any single season under Al Avila. That speaks a bit to Harris and the new coaches ability to do some recruiting and sell the organization as a place to improve and where there is playing time to be had. Any of the group consisting of Matt Wisler, Trey Wingenter, Chasen Shreve, Edwin Uceta, Kervin Castro, among numerous others, would each be as good or better than any minor league pickup the prior front office ever made. Obviously they’re flawed or they wouldn’t be available on a minor league deal, but each has the stuff to succeed and many of them have already had a bit of success and gotten derailed by injuries. It’s a really good group relative to their signing status. That’s a very positive sign, but now they actually have to tune some of these guys up to keep the bullpen in good shape this season.

More links and social media

Erik Bakich, who turned the University of Michigan baseball program into a powerhouse and helped develop both Chris Fetter and new hitting coach Michael Brdar, starts his tenure as Clemson’s head baseball coach this week. Grace Raynor has the story of his road home to his alma mater for the Athletic.

New Tigers catcher Donny Sands has had a long road to the major leagues. After his father died suddenly while Sands was still in high school, he was forced to live out of his car for a time. His determination to succeed in baseball and take care of his mother is a pretty amazing story. Cody Stavenhagen wrote about it for the Athletic Detroit.

We’ve talked about Wilmer Flores, but right-hander Reese Olson is the other highly rated right-handed pitching prospect in the system who will be at the Triple-A level this season. Armed with a deep mix of good secondary pitches, Olson just needs to put it all together a little more to start pitching in at the major league level. He’s a key name to watch in the upper minors this season, along with Flores and fellow right-hander Ty Madden.

Now we’ll get into baseball ASMR territory to close this out.

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