Lakeland, Florida — Getting to Lakeland for spring training was particularly important this year.
Much has changed with the Tigers. On a big-league baseball level, you might say it’s akin to a new White House administration, the Tigers now being run by Scott Harris and his front-office team.
Impressions that have been building since Harris checked in last October are firmer a month into spring camp — and five weeks after colleague Chris McCosky arrived to devote 35 days of 24/7 duty reporting on every facet of Tigers 2023. (Thanks, amigo, for the early briefings.)
But on this sunny, breezy day at Publix Field/Marchant Stadium, with Boston in town, what seems safe — at least here — to say is that the Tigers are on an upward arc.
Harris has a chance to build a very good MLB team in Detroit. Playoffs are a couple of seasons away, probably, but the product is turning respectable, and should, through 2023, get better.
Does that mean the Tigers win 75 games this year?
That would seem to be a reasonable goal. And for those who say, ‘Sorry, not interested in a sub-.500 team,’ the snorts are appreciated.
But, stay abreast of what’s likely to happen in 2023. And beyond. Because this baseball team by mid-season should be deepening in interest and in performance.
And all because of one reason: There is more talent on the field, even here on March 14. There is more flesh in the farm system, with some of it likely to arrive in Detroit later this year. Some of that talent will be very good (watch out for Parker Meadows) and should put verve into the Tigers’ second half.
This is why baseball at Lakeland feels different this spring. The team finally, discernibly, is turning a corner.
Some critics argue this is a Rebuild Repeat. That the first reconstruction job under Al Avila failed and now Harris has arrived to begin his own Tigers tear-down and build-up.
In fact, it’s because Avila and Co. brought aboard a reasonable number of bricks and built something of a roster edifice that Harris has been able to put his own imprint quickly on a rising cast of personnel.
What impressed about Harris during the offseason was not that he made dramatic deals. In fact, he didn’t. Mostly because he couldn’t.
What was persuasive were the smaller moves: waiver-wire pluckings, minor-league free agents, guys who were on the MLB fringe but who maybe had track records, or injury recoveries that, added in bulk, could perhaps pay off with a couple of genuine finds.
Equally convincing were the trades he did make.
He invested two bullpen pieces — Joe Jimenez and Gregory Soto — as main bait in getting multiple players, and important young position help, from the Braves and Phillies. He did this by dishing off a pitcher, Jimenez, who was headed for free agency this autumn, and another, Soto, who had market value Harris saw as necessary capital in swinging his biggest deal, with the Phillies.
There were no big free-agent purchases. And, really, given the market and where the Tigers are right now, there were no Hollywood-grade free agents who would have made great sense for the Tigers. That time will come — perhaps this offseason, more likely in late 2024 — but Tigers CEO Chris Ilitch and Harris will be able to spend lavish cash when the right players and roster needs combine to make the Tigers a more practical free-agent fit.
It’s hard to tell fans that now isn’t the time to be writing $300-million checks. But, that’s the truth. Make those moves when a team with young core talent has finally been erected and difference-making celebrity free agents can realistically be courted and added.
So, why has Harris sold someone so thoroughly?
Smarts — displayed smarts — the kind of baseball intelligence that was articulated at his introductory press conference and has been acted upon even in his peripheral personnel moves.
Notice the follow-through on hitters and strike-zone judgment. It’s one thing to preach about on-base percentage. It’s another to confirm it in the players you’re adding.
Harris is following the same script with pitchers. Strikes-throwing is a big, if not primary, reason Soto no longer is with this team. In fact, Soto and Harris were due for a divorce the moment Harris stepped onto the dais at Comerica Park and revealed his commandments for building a team in Detroit.
There are perils in this approach, for sure. Some of them will blow up on Harris in the early weeks and months of the season, when the Tigers’ bullpen comes apart, as you can absolutely bet it will.
But, Harris knew this was a risk he could absorb in the earliest stages of his roster architecture. He knew by mid-season there would be other bullpen arms emerging, that things would eventually settle down, and that he could worry about re-armored relievers after he got more basic needs, like hitters, at least taking root.
So, pay attention, because the Tigers had terrific choices during their hunt for a new front-office chief and settled on Harris for reasons upon which Ilitch has banked no less than a 122-year-old MLB franchise.
What he inherited is both basis for knowing Harris can put something competitive in place fairly soon, and a reminder that Avila wasn’t the incompetent generally portrayed.
Riley Greene will be an All-Star. Spencer Torkelson is headed for a big, big season. The Tigers’ outfield should be fine, particularly if Austin Meadows is healthy. The infield has gotten a boost from Harris’ offseason deals. The catching should be sturdy.
On the pitching side, a year after the Tigers had so many shutdowns they had to use 17 different starters, a manager named AJ Hinch will not be counseled by crisis-line operators.
The Tigers will have better luck on the ailment end and a deeper supply of arms in the system.
They will struggle, particularly early. But by mid-season, and especially in the second half, when this roster will be markedly different due to DFA departures (Jonathan Schoop, perhaps) and the likelihood of a July trade or two, a team will be closer to lift-off. Closer to playoff conversation that, a year from now, won’t be laughed at.
Factor in also July’s draft, when the Tigers pick No. 3 overall with new draft gurus doing the scouting and choosing, and this is an MLB team finally headed for better times.
You can see as much today in the sunshine at Lakeland. You’ll see it more clearly in the months and seasons ahead.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.