Who are these Detroit Tigers? A tale of two series reveals upside on offense, weakness in bullpen

Detroit Free Press

Welcome to the Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson show.

If the Detroit Tigers want to win, it’s clear that they’ll need the former first-round draft picks to keep hitting.

Greene and Torkelson, a 22-year-old center fielder and 23-year-old first baseman, respectively, were the catalysts for the Tigers putting three straight losses against the Tampa Bay Rays in their rear-view mirror and taking two of three games against the Houston Astros.

“They’re the future of the Detroit Tigers,” said 39-year-old Miguel Cabrera, a future Hall of Famer in his final season. “These guys are really good and have great talents. Right now, what they’re doing doesn’t surprise me because I know what they can do. I don’t want to put pressure on Torkelson and Greene, but we want to see more. We want to see more because the future they have is really bright.”

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Against the Rays, the Tigers hit .147 (14-for-95) with one home run, six walks and 30 strikeouts in three games. Against the Astros, the Tigers hit .252 (28-for-111) with three homers, seven walks and 31 strikeouts in three games.

“I liked that our calmness continued,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “Our vibe, our energy, our attention to detail, that’s what I care about the most going series to series, whether you lose or whether you win.”

How should fans evaluate the Tigers after seven games?

They’re somewhere in between really bad and really good, especially considering what they showed in Thursday’s 6-3 loss — dropping them to 2-5 — against the Boston Red Sox in the home opener at Comerica Park.

The offense competed with six hits and five walks but couldn’t find the big hit with runners in scoring position. Starter Spencer Turnbull pitched into the sixth inning, even without his best stuff, but couldn’t complete his outing. The bullpen inherited runners, and without the luxury of reliable power arms, the relievers couldn’t keep runs off the board. For the second time in four days, José Cisnero surrendered a devastating three-run home run.

Positions player with upside? Decent starting pitchers? Inconsistent relievers?

That’s a familiar recipe for the Tigers.

“Our players and our staff are eager to get better,” Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris said Thursday morning. “Everyone is hungry to get better in this organization. Everybody is excited about rewriting the narrative of this organization. … You saw some of the outcomes in the Houston series. We got a lot of work to do, and I’m really excited about the group that we have in our clubhouse.”

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When the Rays punched to open the season, the Tigers never punched back and succumbed to a superior opponent with an elite pitching staff. Aside from two starting pitchers (Eduardo Rodriguez and Joey Wentz), Detroit’s entire operation — built on the “dominate the strike zone” mantra from new leadership in the front office — looked noncompetitive through three games.

A flight halfway across the country flipped the switch.

“It was kind of weird,” outfielder Matt Vierling said. “We thought it would be a positive opening up in Tampa, just going from Lakeland to there. But I almost felt like it still didn’t feel like Opening Day. I don’t know if it was the dome, or still being in Florida, but when we got on the road, we felt ready to play.”

In Houston, the Tigers punched first — and kept punching — in the first two games. Greene and Vierling hit clutch home runs, while Vierling added a game-changing catch in right field, in Monday’s 7-6 win; Torkelson obliterated a 99 mph fastball for a homer in Tuesday’s 6-3 win.

“Same team, played better,” Torkelson said. “Tampa played really good. We need to tip our cap to Tampa. The biggest takeaway is we didn’t panic. We just left that behind us and went to Houston with the same energy of confidence and swagger. It paid off. That’s really refreshing.”

“Oh yeah, we had a lot of energy,” Greene said. “The energy kept coming every day the past three days we were in Houston. It really got the vibes up, and we were locked in and ready to go.”

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The Tigers, counting on sophomore surges from Greene and Torkelson, didn’t sign a position player (or a relief pitcher) to a major-league contract in the offseason. Harris cut a handful of hitters with swing-and-miss tendencies and replaced them with patient hitters Vierling, Nick Maton and prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy.

(The 23-year-old Malloy, by the way, has nine walks across 17 plate appearances in six games for Triple-A Toledo.)

To get those three players, Harris traded two high-leverage relievers in Joe Jiménez and Gregory Soto. He didn’t re-sign Andrew Chafin, who opted out of his contract but later decided he wanted to return, and didn’t try to bring back Michael Fulmer. The two high-leverage options remaining, Cisnero and Alex Lange, oftentimes struggle to throw strikes.

Relievers have inherited 15 runners in the first seven games.

Nine of those runners have scored.

Part of what makes Hinch successful as a manager is his ability to navigate the final 12 outs, which he describes as the path to a win. Simply put, optimizing Hinch means giving him weapons to finish games. This season, he doesn’t have an abundance of talent to work with in the late innings.

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In Thursday’s loss, the Tigers turned to Cisnero — one of their few established back-end relievers — in the sixth inning because of there were two runners on with two outs in a tie game. The Tigers needed to strand those runners above all else. It was a smart move, considering the lack of better options, but the decision backfired due to a poorly located two-strike fastball.

Imagine if the Tigers had Chafin and/or Fulmer.

Maybe they would have won Thursday.

But let’s not forget how the Tigers won Monday and Tuesday against the defending World Series champions. The Tigers delivered quality plate appearances and were driven by two budding stars in Greene and Torkelson. The offense has sneaky upside, and the hitters are capable of getting on base.

It’s too bad the bullpen looks like a problem.

“We’re just trying to beat the opponent that’s in front of us,” Hinch said. “I don’t have time to reflect a ton, and it’s probably a good thing when you come off the Tampa series, but I also told our guys in our hitters meeting, we also have to leave Houston in the rear-view mirror. It’s a new challenge and a new series. We’ve got areas that we can continue to be better in.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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