Can Detroit Tigers develop a winning culture before they actually win?

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Think of it in terms of Colt Keith, the youngest player at the Detroit Tigers’ spring training this year.

The haven’t had a winning record since the 21-year-old was a freshman in high school. Four times in the past six years, they have lost at least 96 games.

That’s a whole lot of losing. For nearly a third of Keith’s life.

So how in the world do you build a winning culture before you actually start winning?

How do you learn how to become a winner if you haven’t won?

How do you change it?

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Players. Yes. That would help. A whole bunch of players kicking some serious butt, getting key hits and pitching gems would be a heck of a place to start.

Because if you have a lousy roster, you will have lousy results. That’s one thing we know around Detroit.

But let’s take a step back and try to view this from a different perspective.

How do you build a winning culture?

“I do think you see qualities in each team that wins,” said Matt Vierling, who played in 12 postseason games last year with the Philadelphia Phillies. “You learn a ton from those winning teams. And you also learn a ton from teams that lose a lot. I’ve been lucky to be on both sides and kind of see, OK, this team wasn’t very good, what was wrong?

Any Detroit sports fan knows what losing looks like.

In fact, it’s been so long since we have seen a winner in a Deroit that it’s time for a refresher course on what winning looks like.

What did Vierling learn from the 2022 Phillies, a team that won a lot in August, September and October before finally falling in the World Series in November?

“I learned a lot,” Vierling said. “Everyone hung out. Everyone became super close. Obviously, winning helps. When you’re winning, the vibe is great. But we all genuinely liked each other. We genuinely pulled for the guy next to you. Everyone accepted their role and then just rooting for the guy next to him. There was no jealousy. Nothing divided anybody. Everybody was together. Everybody was one and everybody got behind the manager and really believed.”

What happens on a losing team?

Spoiler alert: See the 2017-22 Tigers, the Lions for the past 65 years and darn near every other team in Detroit for what feels like forever.

“The exact opposite from winning,” Vierling said. “There’s a divide between the guys. A little bit of me first, that type of stuff, that kind of vibe.”

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Hungry like the … Tigers?

Vierling offers a fresh perspective on the Tigers because he just arrived.

“What do you see on this team?” I asked him.

“I see a bunch of young guys who are hungry to win,” Vierling said. “I mean, first and foremost, I can tell everybody loves to work hard. Everybody’s here early. Everybody’s getting their work done and everybody’s crushing it. And then it’s just — it’s a good vibe. Everybody’s friendly. Everybody’s been great.”

He saw similar things last year on the Phillies.

Which is clearly a positive step.

“We’re trying to grow,” shortstop Ryan Kreidler said. “We like each other. We like hanging around each other. We play golf together. We hang out off the field.”

Kreidler was on winning teams at UCLA, in the Cape Cod League and with Triple-A Toledo in 2021.

“I’ve had the luxury of being on a bunch of winning teams coming up,” Kreidler said. “I think there are traits that you see and similarities that you see on winning teams. One of them is showing up early and working hard. That’s like a huge part of it, and that’s why we’re trying to get here early.”

Do you need a team of veterans to win?

Obviously, it wouldn’t hurt.

But you can win with youngsters.

Last year, the Cleveland Guardians proved it, pumping up their 40-man roster with prospects. Despite being MLB’s youngest team, Cleveland won the AL Central.

“Nobody thought the Guardians were going to make the playoffs last year, and we were watching on TV, and we would say, ‘We were playing all these guys in Columbus last year,’” shortstop Zack Short said. “They were all homegrown, and it’s just like: Why can’t we do that?”

Yes, the lesson from the Guardians has swept through the Tigers.

“Well, I think the first thing you notice is that it’s very doable,” Kreidler said. “It’s not like they went out and spent a ton of money on guys. They developed in-house, and I think any good organization is doing that. We’re on the right track as well. I think it’s evidenced by the Colt Keiths, by the Riley Greenes, it’s evidenced by how Tork (Spencer Torkelson) is turning it around this year.

“We have a lot of guys, especially young guys, that are competent players and like, Colt Keith, better be ready. Those guys are going to help us. You’d better be dialed-in, man, because it happens really fast. It happens really fast. And so we’re preparing to be in playoffs.”

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying the Tigers are making the playoffs, considering their track record over the past six seasons, and all the unknowns surrounding this team.

Vegas Insiders has the Tigers at 68.5 wins.

But these young Tigers could care less what the outside world thinks. Could care less what Vegas says. They look at Cleveland and say: Why not us?

Maybe that’s progress.

Maybe that’s the first step: Just believing it’s possible.

AT THE HOT CORNER: Brain and bat have kept Andre Lipcius climbing through Tigers’ system

Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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