Detroit Tigers Newsletter: 4 players who need to step up, and 4 we’d like to see called up

Detroit Free Press

Head just a few blocks northeast of the Freep’s home office, over to the corner — but not The Corner, of course — of Brush and Madison streets. If you look to the north (uh, away from Canada), just past the Gem Theatre, the Elwood Bar and the 36th District Court building, you’ll get an in-real-life example of the metaphorical decision Detroit sports fans face every August and September.

On the left side of Brush, there’s Comerica Park, where once again our hopes for a late summer and early fall of respectability (to say nothing of playoffs) from the Detroit Tigers lay withering on the vine. On the right, there’s Ford Field, where said hope is set to bloom once again as the Detroit Lions open their exhibition season this Friday.

Drift left, and spend another two months dealing with heat, humidity, humbling losses, and the hint of a Tarik Skubal gem every six days or so? Or shuffle off to the right for climate-controlled potential once a week and the still-living dream that THIS YEAR IS THE YEAR, as though folks haven’t been saying that since the Tigers and Lions shared their grounds at, yes, The Corner, over at Michigan and Trumbull?

Of course, this is the Tigers Newsletter, so you can probably guess what our call is.

Then again, as the Tigers face their eighth season without postseason plans, and the MLB draft and trade deadline have gone zooming by once again, it’s getting tougher and tougher to not at least hum along with the stray refrains of “Forward Down the Field” echoing from that Honolulu Blue-hosting behemoth looming over left field at the CoPa.

Hello, and welcome to the Step Up or Shut Up Newsletter (though we, admittedly, rarely shut up).

Still … putting stock in the Lions? Is that what we’ve been reduced to?

The season’s not over yet, even if we might be looking ahead to next year a bit (and not just because a 38-degree day with a 15 mph wind blowing from right to left field seems appealing as the temps hit 90 this month). There are still 51 games left this season — 31.5% of the schedule, give or take another rainout — and there are still a few Tigers who need to, well, step up if they want a shot at wearing the Old English “D” again next spring. Among them:

C Eric Haase

Two years ago, the Dearborn Divine Child product was arguably the Tigers’ best power hitter, slugging .459 en route to a .745 OPS. This year, his slugging is down to .270, with his fly-ball rate dropping from 32.5% to 23.6% and his barrel rate dropping from 13.7% to 5.1%. That’s a lot of concerning drop-offs — Haase’s Baseball Savant page has more blue than the Lions’ scrimmages out in Allen Park — but the worst might be his performance against fastballs: In 2021, he hit .290 and slugged .545 on heaters; this season, he’s at .202 and .266, respectively. He’s not exactly making the Tigers’ decision tough as he approaches salary arbitration for the first time.

UTIL Zach McKinstry

As good as the CMU alumnus was over the first two months of 2023 — an .832 OPS, 31 strikeouts and 24 walks over 47 games, with 10 steals in 11 attempts, made him a sleeper All-Star candidate — he’s been equally bad since the start of June. In 55 games since June 1, McKinstry has a .520 OPS with 43 strikeouts and eight walks (and two steals in three tries). Altogether, McKinstry has a .656 OPS in 355 plate appearances — basically what he put up in over 324 PAs with the Dodgers and Cubs in 2021-22: .651. McKinstry is still a year of service time from arbitration — but he’s out of minor-league options, so it’s MLB or waivers for him next season, too.

RHP Matt Manning

To borrow a turn of phrase from a certain Detroit rapper, would the real Manning please stand up, please stand up? Admittedly, we’re working with some small sample sizes due to injury, but … in his first four starts after returning from a broken foot in late June, Manning posted a 2.74 ERA with 16 strikeouts over 23 innings, with 12 hits and seven walks allowed, albeit with four hit-by-pitches. (That includes his 6⅔ innings of no-hit work in the Tigers’ combined no-hitter July 8.) In his three most recent starts, however Manning has a 9.18 ERA with 14 strikeouts over 16⅔  innings, allowing 24 hits but just two walks, and only one hit-by-pitch. One thing working in Manning’s favor? He still has another year till he’s eligible for arbitration.

UTIL Nick Maton

We love the nickname (“Wolfie”) and we love the energy. The results at the plate? Not so much. His slash line since returning from his Triple-A sojurn on July 14 is passable — .258/.351/.419 — but if you leave out that July 14 game, in which he had a homer and a walk in four plate appearances, the line drops to .250/.333/.321. That’s still far, far better than the .163/.289/.287 line that earned him the demotion to Toledo … but it’s probably not enough to pencil him into a roster spot next spring without some improvement, even with another season before arbitration as well.

Those are the Tigers who need to pick it up. But which prospects arriving at Brush and Adams streets might tear us away from obsessing over a certain blue-and-silver squad? “Colt Keith” is the easiest answer, but we’re assuming the Tigers would like to give him more than 50 or so games in Triple-A. Here are four others (with their MLB Pipeline prospect ranks in parentheses), though:

RHP Wilmer Flores (4)

One of two Tigers reps in last year’s All-Star Futures Game, as well as the organization’s 2022 Pitcher of the Year in the minors, the 22-year-old got off to a rough start with Double-A Erie in April, allowing 13 earned runs in four innings combined in back-to-back starts April 12-18. Since then? Flores has 65 strikeouts, 24 walks, three homers allowed and a 2.67 ERA in 67⅓ innings. Still, the Tigers aren’t likely to rush the Venezuelan righty up for a spot start; he was placed on the seven-day IL on July 24 (retroactive to July 22) with an undisclosed injury and hasn’t appeared in a game since.

RHP Ty Madden (5)

Flores’ rotation-mate in Erie was posting encouraging numbers over the first three months of the season, but nothing demanding a promotion — a 4.31 ERA with 58 hits, 67 strikeouts and 24 walks over 56⅓ innings and 14 starts. Then, in July, something clicked for the Tigers’ second first-rounder (No. 32 overall) from 2021: Madden struck out 23 and walked nine over 19⅔ innings — but with only 11 hits allowed — en route to a 0.92 ERA. Though perhaps we shouldn’t be calling for the 23-year-old just yet; he gave up eight hits and three walks, with six strikeouts, over five innings in his first start of August.

OF Justyn-Henry Malloy (8)

The 23-year-old has arguably exceeded expectations in his first season in the Tigers’ organization after the offseason trade (Joe Jiménez) that brought him from Atlanta, with an overall .286/.415/.476 slash line for Toledo. That was dragged down by a May in which he hit just .205, with a .716 OPS. Since then? A .920 OPS despite missing time with injuries last month, and a spot in last month’s Futures Game — he walked twice — while moving from third base to the outfield.

OF Parker Meadows (11)

Perhaps no Tigers prospect is hotter at the moment than the 2018 second-rounder (who’s also just 23) — Meadows hit three homers — tape-measure shots, no less — a double and a triple over the past week for Toledo, albeit with nine strikeouts and three walks in 37 plate appearances. In 54 games since June 1, Meadows has 12 homers and 10 steals (in 11 tries) en route to a .282/.352/.551 slash line. He hasn’t been perfect — Meadows also has 62 strikeouts over that span, a 186-strikeout pace over a full season — but he seems to have found his vibe (as the Freep’s Jeff Seidel learned in June) while living up to the promise he showed in spring training, when he tied for the Tigers lead in homers, with five (in 21 games).

No Gold rush

One prospect we won’t be seeing in Detroit before the end of the season — and probably not before the end of next season, either — is infielder Luke Gold. The Tigers’ fifth-round pick last year (out of Boston College) went through an adjustment period in his first pro outings last summer, then clicked in Class-A Lakeland this summer. Promoted to High-A West Michigan last month, Gold is slashing .300/.417/.467 for the Whitecaps in nine games. But as Our Man Seidel discovered, he may not even be the best hitter in his family; head here to find out how he — and his sister — developed their skills at the plate.

Hao-Yu doing?

Also in West Michigan? The Tigers’ lone prospect acquired at last week’s trade deadline: infielder Hao-Yu Lee, picked up from Philly (and ex-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski) for right-hander Michael Lorenzen. So far, so good for Lee, who had a .273/.333/.455 slash line in 12 plate appearances for the Whitecaps last week. Head here to find out from the Freep’s Evan Petzold what Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris thinks of the organization’s new No. 6 prospect.

E-Rod unplugged

The reason the Tigers only have one prospect joining the organization? Well, you may have heard about Harris’ inability to get a deal involving top trade chip Eduardo Rodriguez done with the Los Angeles Dodgers. To recap, oh so quickly: Harris thought he had a deal … to one of the 10 teams on E-Rod’s no-trade list, and the two front offices were unable to persuade the lefty to revise said list. So what does it all mean? Sigh. It was a failure! (According to Our Man Seidel, at least.) But not a disaster! (According to the Freep’s Shawn Windsor, who has a positively Dombrowski-ian outlook on the viability of prospects.) Maybe it’s even a chance to grow! (According to the Freep’s Carlos Monarrez, who, like anyone used to covering the Lions knows how to do, is already looking ahead to next season.)

Sticking around

Also not traded for prospects? Relievers José Cisnero and Chasen Shreve, despite their impending free agency this November. That doesn’t bother the duo too much, as the vets are both enjoying their time as Tigers, according to Our Man Petzold. Head here to find out what their plans are for the rest of the season.

Boom-a-Lange

OK, maybe you guessed the plans for Cisnero and Shreve: Pitch well. That’s also what the Tigers are hoping for from, ahem, de facto closer Alex Lange. The American League Reliever of the Month in May has been anything but since then, with a 6.97 ERA and 23 walks in 22 appearances since the start of June. That includes three-walk outings in both of his August appearances. What’s manager A.J. Hinch to do? “We’ll continue to push him,” Hinch told Our Man Petzold (among others). Head here to find out what that means for the end of Tigers games.

Tarik Terrific

Lange’s most recent three-walk outing — in which he was pulled for Beau Brieske — came Saturday at the end of a start by Tarik Skubal. The left-hander owns a 3.67 ERA over six starts in his return from last season’s flexor tendon surgery — though it hasn’t been quite that linear: all 11 of his earned runs have come in three innings. Skubal allowed two runs to the Royals in the third inning July 18, five more the next inning and then four in the fifth inning July 30 against the Marlins; he has one unearned run allowed in the other 24 innings this season. So what’s the deal? Head here to find out from Our Man Petzold how Skubal became “laser-focused” on avoiding another blown-up inning.

Mark your calendar

Skubal will get an extra day of rest, with his next outing set for Friday. The rest of the Tigers? It’s a busy week, as they host light-hitting shortstop Carlos Correa and the Minnesota Twins in their final visit to Detroit of 2023 on Monday-Thursday — the Twinkies lead the season series, 4-3 — then head to Boston for a three-gamer Friday-Sunday in hopes — there’s that word again — of at least one win in the series, after getting swept by the Sox in April. Just in case you’ve got other plans tonight, head here to get the scoop, and live updates, on the matchup against the Twins.

Tigers birthdays this week: Edgar Renteria (47 on Monday), Steve Kemp (69 on Monday), Frank Howard (87 on Tuesday), Steven Moya (32 on Wednesday), Troy Percival (54 on Wednesday), Anthony Gose (33 on Thursday), Tom Brookens (70 on Thursday), Rocky Colavito (90 on Thursday), Bobo Newsom (would have been 116 on Friday; died in 1962).

TL;DR

Of course, the annual choice between the Lions and Tigers is a bit easier this year: The seven days the Tigers’ and Lions’ seasons overlap feature one team in Detroit and the other on the road. In fact, their games only overlap on TV (or your streaming service of choice) three times: Friday, with the Lions hosting the N.Y. Giants at 7 and the Tigers visiting the BoSox at 7; Aug. 25, when the Tigers host the Houston Astros — and the Tigers’ 2004 first-round draft pick — at 6:40 p.m. and the Lions play the Carolina Panthers in an 8 p.m. exhibition; and Sept. 7, when the Tigers visit the Yankees in New York at 7 p.m. and the Lions visit the Chiefs — and the Tigers’ 2014 34th-round draft pick — in Kansas City on the NFL’s opening night.

At least the Tigers found one successful closer.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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