Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Is the World Baseball Classic a curse for the Tigers?

Detroit Free Press

All things considered, Eduardo Rodriguez probably would have liked to have been somewhere else this weekend.

Oh, it’s not that he pitched poorly in his second start of the spring with the Detroit Tigers — just the opposite, as he threw 4⅓ scoreless innings Sunday afternoon in West Palm Beach, Florida (about an hour before the Washington Nationals’ minor leaguers beat the Tigers’ minor leaguers in the ninth inning).

(If you were focused on that OTHER tournament this weekend, you can catch up on E-Rod’s performance report from the Freep’s Evan Petzold here.)

But Rodriguez’s start was about 18 hours and 70 miles removed from that of his teammates from the previous week — Team Venezuela, which lost to Team USA, 9-7, in the quarterfinals of the World Baseball Classic in Miami on Saturday night. He was allowed to make just one start for Venezuela, taking the mound on Tuesday against Nicaragua.

EL MAGO:Javier Báez was electric in WBC. Can that translate into bounce back with Tigers?

After that, it was back to the Tigers, in what might have turned out to be a prescient organizational mandate. After all, the week’s WBC elimination rounds proved costly for a pair of MLB teams, as Mets closer Edwin Diaz suffered a season-ending knee injury celebrating Puerto Rico’s victory on Wednesday night, and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve suffered a broken thumb in Venezuela’s loss.

Is the WBC cursed, or simply a bane for MLB teams hoping to make deep playoff runs this season? (In which case the Tigers should be safe, ’cause, well, y’know…)

Hello, and welcome to the World Baseball Curse Newsletter!

Really, the effects of the WBC on players’ health and performances may not be known in full for a while. After all, this is the first WBC in six seasons, and the first time a full 20 teams were involved. You know it’s a full field when the call goes out for Tigers to compete, after all.

In this year’s iteration of the WBC, the Tigers organization sent eight players to play in the 20-team field, though only four — Rodriguez, Javier Báez (Puerto Rico), Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela) and Jonathan Schoop (Netherlands) — were on major-league contracts.

So how might we expect those four to fare this season, considering their prep time has been mostly different than the players who spent the past three weeks in camp? Let’s look back to the previous WBC, in which the Tigers had eight major-leaguers competing (plus seven minor-leaguers), to see how they fared in the 2017 season:

1B Miguel Cabrera, Venezuela: The then-34-year-old was coming off a season in which he’d hit 38 home runs, made the AL All-Star squad and finished ninth in AL MVP voting. Cabrera’s 2017 was nothing short of disastrous, starting with a back injury he suffered during the WBC. He also missed time in May with a groin strain and then in September after the back issues became herniated discs; in all, he played just 130 games while slashing .249/.329/.399 — only the second sub-.500 slugging percentage of his career, and the first since his rookie season.

RHP Michael Fulmer, U.S.: Just 24, Fulmer was coming off winning AL Rookie of the Year in 2016 with a 3.06 ERA and 132 strikeouts over 159 innings. His 2017 wasn’t nearly as good — though his first half of the season, in which he had a 3.19 ERA with 84 strikeouts in 115⅔ innings was enough to earn him an All-Star nod — as he cratered in the second half: A 5.33 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 49 innings over his final eight starts of the season. He was shut down after Aug. 29 with an elbow issue that later required surgery (though not Tommy John surgery — that wasn’t needed until 2019).

2B Ian Kinsler, U.S.: Over his first three seasons (2014-16) with the Tigers, the veteran hit .286 while averaging 19 homers, 104 runs, 83 RBIs and 13 steals a season. His 2017 wasn’t quite a disaster — he still clubbed 22 homers — but he slashed .236/.313/.412, dropping his value so precipitously that GM Al Avila wasn’t able to trade the 35-year-old until after the season.

DH/C Victor Martinez, Venezuela: Coming off a renaissance 2016 in which he popped 27 homers and hit .289 with just 90 strikeouts in 553 at-bats, V-Mart broke bad from his bounce-back season — a .697 OPS campaign in which his home-run rate dropped nearly in half, from 4.4% to 2.3% — at age 38.

P Francisco Rodriguez, Venezuela: In 2016, a resurgent “K-Rod” had 44 saves in 49 opportunities with 52 strikeouts and a 3.24 ERA in 58 1/3 innings. In 2017, he had Tigers fans breaking out another letter for him, as he picked up his fifth blown save before the end of May and was eventually released before the end of June with seven saves, six blown saves, 23 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings and a 7.82 ERA.

RHP Bruce Rondon, Venezuela: A career year at age 25 — a 2.97 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings after his late-June 2016 call-up — landed him a spot in the Venezuelan bullpen and suggested he was the Tigers’ “closer of the future”. The future, however, never really arrived: He struck out 22, but walked 10 and gave up 21 hits en route to a 10.91 ERA — that’s 19 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings. He made just three appearances in April and 18 from June 25-Aug. 13 before finally being demoted for good. (And, well, for actual good: He posted a 1.80 ERA in 10 Triple-A innings after heading to Toledo.)

RHP Warwick Saupold, Australia: A rookie in 2016 at 26, Saupold wasn’t actually good, with a 7.45 ERA over 9 2/3 innings. But he was Australian, so off to the WBC it was. Upon his return, Saupold earned a late-May call-up with a 2.90 ERA in Triple-A. He wasn’t that sharp for the Tigers in 2017 — a 4.88 ERA over 62 2/3 innings — but he was far from the worst Tiger in that 98-loss season.

RHP Alex Wilson, U.S.: A throw-in as part of the 2014 Yoenis Cespedes/Rick Porcello deal, Wilson was a trusty middle-innings eater by 2016, producing a 2.96 ERA over 62 appearances. His 2017 started similarly — just five earned runs over 24 innings in April and May — before derailing in June with a 9.31 ERA in 11 games. The 30-year-old finished the season with a 5.18 ERA after the All-Star break.

There we have it: Of the eight big-league Tigers who went off to the WBC in 2017, seven returned to have terrible seasons. Of course, it may not have been entirely the WBC’s fault; the group’s average age was 31.1 years old, meaning they were probably due for declines (especially in the cases of the 35-year-old Kinsler and the 38-year old Martinez). Still, their combined performances hardly bodes well for the Tigers’ quartet of WBC’ers this season. (Then again, their 2022 performances didn’t exactly bode well for 2023, either.)

Going Dutch

Like, say, a certain Tigers infielder who hit just .202 with 11 home runs last season, the first of a two-year contract extension in Detroit. Then again, the turn of the calendar hasn’t exactly been fortuitous for Jonathan Schoop with a batting average just over .100 in about 15 games. Still, the Team Netherlands second baseman isn’t worried about his slow start, according to Our Man Petzold: “You can wake me up in December, and I’m ready to play baseball.” Head here to get the scoop on the ribbing Schoop is getting from his teammates in Tigers camp.

It’s good to be the Duque

It’s not all bad news from the WBC, either. The Tigers added Duque Hebbert, a promising young right-hander who whiffed three of the biggest young stars in baseball — Juan Soto, Julio Rodríguez and Rafael Devers — in mop-up duty for Nicaragua last Monday. Head here to find out from Our Man Petzold how the dominating performance went down.

The trial of Jobe

And, of course, players participating in the WBC are hardly the only ones suffering injuries. The Tigers’ rotation of the future — admittedly the far future, as we’re talking their top pick in 2021 — took a hit when the team announced that right-hander Jackson Jobe, who dominated the end of last season in Lakeland and West Michigan, could be out as long as six months. Get the full report on Jobe’s prognosis from Our Man Petzold here.

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Roster revue

Jobe wasn’t a candidate to make the Tigers’ roster this season, even had he stayed healthy. But with just 10 days remaining before Opening Day, it’s time to start thinking seriously about who is. Our Man Petzold took a deep dive on the likely 26-man roster and concluded that this season, more than ever, versatility and platoon splits will play a huge role in manager A.J. Hinch’s selections. You can check out Petzold’s picks to stick with the club here.

Mr. Smith goes to … Detroit?

Just 71 picks after Jobe was selected at No. 3 overall in July 2021, the Tigers went for another pitcher: right-hander Dylan Smith. The standout at Alabama struggled at times last season in Lakeland and West Michigan — a 4.00 ERA in High-A belies his solid 86 strikeouts and 21 walks in 83 1/3 innings — but he’s confident he’ll be in the majors before too long, as he told the Freep’s Jeff Seidel last week. Head here to find out why he says he’ll be a Tiger — in 2023.

Standing tall

Smith isn’t the only 2021 pick drawing attention in TigerTown this month. The team’s seventh-round pick — No. 195 overall — was 6-foot-6, 250-pound Brant Hurter, out of Georgia Tech. Already the lefty has progressed to Double-A Erie, thanks to 136 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings. Our Man Seidel chatted with the former Yellow Jacket to find out where he got his strike-throwing ability from — and where his height comes from. (Hint: It’s not his dad.)

Philadelphia freedom

There are at least two hitters new to the organization who are locks to make the 26-man roster to open the season: Nick Maton and Matt Vierling — aka “Wolfie” and “Sherman,” as they were known to their teammates with the Philadelphia Phillies last season. Our Man Petzold checked in with the defending NL champs to find out what the youngsters (who were picked up in the deal that sent Gregory Soto to Philly) bring to the Tigers, on and off the field.

Mark your calendar!

Welcome to the final week of spring training. The Tigers wrap up their spring slate on Sunday with a game in Lakeland against the Rays before opening the season on March 30 … against the Rays, albeit under the Tropicana Field dome in St. Petersburg. Between now (Monday morning) and then, we’ve got just two more chances to watch the Tigers on Bally Sports Detroit: Monday afternoon, when the Toronto Blue Jays visit Lakeland at 1:05 p.m. and Wednesday when the Atlanta Braves visit Lakeland at 1:05 p.m. (Though we’ll note that every day’s game is on WXYT-AM or -FM, save for Thursday’s split-squad road action against the Orioles and Phillies.)

Tigers’ birthdays this week: Jose Valverde (45 on Friday), Travis Fryman (54 on Saturday).


But what about the seven Tigers farmhands who played in the 2017 WBC? Well, of those seven, only one went on to have a decent career: Right-hander Joe Jiménez, who was downright awful (26 earned runs in 19 innings) for the Tigers in 2017, before developing enough to get traded to the Braves this offseason. But there are no hard feelings, according to Our Man Petzold, who checked in with the fireballer in Braves camp: “Detroit is on the way to being one of the teams,” Jiménez said, “and hopefully, they do a lot better this year.” Head here to read the rest of the nice things Jiménez said about Detroit. 

Contact Ryan Ford at Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers here.

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