Detroit Tigers probably won’t be great, but they might not be too terrible

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — There’s an old joke that might apply to the Detroit Tigers this season.

Two guys are walking in the woods when they see a bear. The first guy bends down calmly to fix his shoelaces. The second guy says, “Are you crazy? You can’t outrun a bear!”

“I don’t need to outrun the bear,” the first guy says. “I just need to outrun you.”

Under the guidance of new president of baseball operations Scott Harris, it’s hard to tell how good — or bad — this year’s team is going to be. But the Tigers’ salvation might come down to having the good fortune of playing in the American League Central, which is projected to be the worst division in the AL, and possibly the majors.

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Baseball Prospectus predicts the Tigers will win 65.2 games and finish fourth in the division, 23 games behind the defending champion Cleveland Guardians. Meanwhile, those optimistic fools over at FanGraphs used their “ZiPS” machine to project the Tigers will win 71 games —only 12 measly wins fewer than Cleveland!

If their projections are close to accurate, it means the Lions just have to outrun the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox to have a respectable season and flirt with 80 wins. It would be outlandish to think the Tigers have even a slim chance to win the division, so let’s not even go there. Harris sure isn’t.

“Our goal for this year,” he said at the start of spring training Feb. 20, “is to play competitive baseball as deep into the season as we possibly can.”

OK, so how’s it going? Well, I spent this week catching up with players, coaches, advisers and analysts and I had two big takeaways.

First, the consensus is that there are a lot of smart people in charge trying to implement a new approach to improving.

Second, no one really has any clue how quickly any of this will take hold and make the Tigers a better team.

Harris’ top mandate is to “dominate the strike zone on both sides of the ball,” so I asked manager A.J. Hinch on Friday if that’s something that can take hold right away or whether it’s something that might take a season to bear out.

“I have no idea how fast guys can implement strike-zone judgment,” he said. “But I know if you want to win, you should do it.”

Midway through spring training, Hinch likes the progress the team has made in adopting the new strike-zone philosophy, which boils down to improving the quality of contact for hitters and getting into good pitch counts that result in leverage for pitchers.

“From a messaging standpoint, it’s going great,” he said. “I think the players have bought in. I think they understand what’s expected of them.

“We haven’t played near enough games to draw any conclusions on where the advancements have been. But I think our guys understand the value of getting into good counts.”

They also understand the emphasis on the mandate because Hinch hammers it home every day. Michael Lorenzen, who spent the past eight seasons with the Los Angeles Angels and Cincinnati Reds, said a message matters more when it comes from guys such as Harris and Hinch.

“Yeah, comes from the top down and so the manager expects us to attack the strike zone,” said the right-hander who signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal. “So (he’s) making it an important thing to him, and he expresses that every day.

“So it’s different when it’s coming from the manager rather than just a pitching coach. So, like I said, he expresses it every day so you know that he’s going to hold you accountable.”

On the offensive side, the Tigers replaced hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh with Michael Brdar, a 28-year-old who keeps getting described as “really smart” and seems to relate well to players close to his age. Keith Beauregard also was hired as a hitting coach after working in the farm system for the Dodgers, who had the majors’ lowest chase rate last year. The Tigers, you guessed it, had the highest chase rate.

Infielder Zach Short is having a fantastic spring, hitting .353 with a 1.241 OPS and two home runs in 17 at-bats. He lauded both coaches and gave an interesting example of a simple way Brdar has communicated information on the way pitchers are throwing a sweeper, which is a slider that has more horizontal break than a traditional slider.

“Little things like that,” Short said, “Like that was the first time where I’ve heard, ‘Hey, he’s got a sweeper,’ not just ‘Hey, he’s got a curveball or slider.’

“I don’t know if that’s something that this is where we are in baseball or something that they’ve focused on the last few years where they’ve been.”

Those are the nuts and bolts of how the Tigers are approaching things. But let me take you into the clubhouse, where the players’ hearts and minds reside, for a moment.

The players’ inner sanctum is a close and joyous place where Riley Greene locks up teammates in a bear hug and where Spencer Torkelson, who’s hitting the ball hard but not seeing many results, slides around on his chair to join a coffee klatch on the other side of the room.

Of course, several players weren’t here this week because they were playing in the World Baseball Classic. Chief among them was shortstop Javier Baez, who’s playing for Puerto Rico but would benefit a lot more from working with instructors in TigerTown to cut down on his league-leading 26 errors and improve his awful hitting performance last season.

I’ll give you one last takeaway. No one knows anything. Seriously. I don’t think many professional observers believe the Tigers will make a big leap this year, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see them greatly improve on last year’s 66-win faceplant and be within striking distance of the division lead. After all, they don’t have to outrun the bear. Just some Twins and White Sox.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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