Henning: TigerTown’s steady talent uptick shows what’s coming Detroit’s way

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — After a few days checking in on events and new arrivals at the Tigers’ minor-league headquarters, it was clear last week how much can, and will, be changing in seasons ahead for Detroit’s big-league team.

It’s getting there — to a point of regular contention — that will be the hardest part for new Tigers front-office chief Scott Harris.

The plus news for Detroit’s baseball crowd:

Last month’s draft will go down as a watershed talent-haul for the Tigers. Unquestionably. This was an extraordinarily deep crop in terms of overall talent, the 2023 prep/college class, and the Tigers got more than their share.

Max Clark, Kevin McGonigle, Max Anderson, Carson Rucker, Jim Jarvis, Brett Callahan — and others — will lead to a nice shakeout of big-league muscle as the Tigers work to not only deliver a playoff team, but a regular, year-in and year-out group that can leave Florida each spring with a shot at working into October.

They’re getting there:

Colt Keith, Parker Meadows, Justyn-Henry Malloy, Jace Jung, Jackson Jobe — and even the year’s big surprise, outfielder Justice Bigbie — are maturing at sundry levels and will figure as early as next season (Keith and Meadows, for sure) in a steadily rising roster that in 2024 should deliver at the least a .500 record.

The hard part for Harris will be in shoring up soft spots and sorting out an overload of similarly skilled — and similarly deficient — guys at too many positions (specifically, outfield, third base, and second base).

There is the rub, complicated further by a ball-and-chain contract and presence in shortstop Javier Báez. Had the Tigers not spun wheels for so long in developing a shortstop, or had they not traded Willy Adames in 2014, there would have been no need two years ago to risk $140 million in signing a man who had shown, for so long, that he was exactly the free-swinging irritant the Tigers are committed to carrying through (gulp) 2027.

If the Tigers had a shortstop ready to roll now at the big-league level — and they could have if some scouts had won out and Zack Neto had been their first-round choice in 2022 — they might now be ready to digest most or all of Báez’s committed cash and get on with a more productive life at the infield’s most pivotal position.

But that’s not the case. Unloading the Báez contract is all but prohibitive. It leaves the Tigers to carry Báez until a decent replacement arrives who can allow the team to say goodbye to a shortstop and however many tens of millions of dollars they’ll be forced to digest.

It’s really their only solution — unless they want to risk losing games unnecessarily as a means of justifying payroll debt.

Competitiveness should win out over contract remorse, and the bet here is it will, as early as the end of next season.

Wheeling, dealing

Harris has another path toward better times in 2024, regardless of Báez. He will be making offseason trades and signing free agents. Each will bring a stronger team that will arrive six months from now at Lakeland, with a winning record maybe in sight.

Harris needs above all to strengthen that hash of an infield that’s getting nowhere with the constant second-base, third-base rotations.

This is where an offseason trade makes more sense than free agency, which contrary to popular opinion, will not, this autumn, offer a warehouse full of inventory that the Tigers can simply load onto a cart for checkout.

They will have money to spend this offseason. But position pieces aren’t all that plentiful, or practical. More probable are pitchers the Tigers realistically can sign during the fall and winter months.

That will be especially necessary as Eduardo Rodriguez carries through on obvious plans to become a free-agent hotshot and waltz onto the market after gumming up earlier this month what could have been a nice trade with the Dodgers.

Coming attractions

As for the farm and its place in this emerging Tigers picture, return for a moment to the Tigers’ bushes, because it’s helpful to know what’s coming:

Meadows will be part of Detroit’s outfield configuration very soon in 2024. Think later in April, maybe May, at the latest. He will be a defensive force in center field (Riley Greene will be transitioning, very likely, to left field) and will bring left-handed help with his bat.

Keith’s bat also will arrive, probably early in 2024, with plans for now centered on making him an adequate third baseman, or second baseman. It might work. It’s also possible Keith will be a risk at third and join an overall crowd (Matt Vierling, Nick Maton, Zach McKinstry, Andy Ibanez, Malloy, etc.) that can technically be deployed there but who offer little two-way gain, at least as big-league playoff teams are measured.

Think deeper and to a potential jam-up in the outfield: Greene, Kerry Carpenter, Vierling, Akil Baddoo, with Meadows, Malloy, and even the Double-A flash, Bigbie, factoring into 2024 plans.

This gang of similarly skilled, similarly challenged bodies — remember, Jung is moving closer to becoming the Tigers’ answer at second base — calls for a flesh-pruning with the goal of ideally adding a heavyweight hitter to the infield mix.

Now:  Compute the Tigers’ starters who next February will check into Lakeland.

Skubal, Matt Manning, Spencer Turnbull, Alex Faedo, Casey Mize, Reese Olson, Beau Brieske, Joey Wentz. With an inevitable starter or two added during free agency (replacing Michael Lorenzen, and almost certainly, Rodriguez), the Tigers should have bodies sufficient to trade one of their top-shelf starters, which in this view remains Skubal.

Skubal has the talent and cachet to star in a probable multi-player deal the Tigers will hunt. They’ll need to bag a prime-time infielder, or possibly outfielder, Harris will need in his bid to bring a dynamic bat to next year’s lineup.

There isn’t a lot of choice. You have to part with talent to get talent and the Tigers are better-equipped to lose a guy like Skubal and get the solid infielder — or outfielder — they need rather than expect to add an equal piece through free agency. The autumn free-agent crop will be relatively thin, expensive, and probably impractical when billboard free agents prefer signing with billboard teams.

Should trades be the smarter path, losing a talent like Skubal, if it happens, won’t be easy. Not when the farm crop is lighter on starting pitching than it has been in years.

Ty Madden hasn’t come on as anticipated, and neither has Wilmer Flores, his Double-A mate whose delivery got messed up during last year’s offseason and who has been an utter puzzle in 2023.

Sawyer Gipson-Long, on hold at Triple A, should become part of 2024’s cast, as could Keider Montero, who has legit stuff and who looks as if he is close to helping in Detroit.

Otherwise, not a lot stands out, other than Jackson Jobe, who a year from now will be nearing Comerica Park. Same for a talented right-hander in Troy Melton, with Madden also a probable bet to bust loose and offer the Tigers an option they’ll need, same as any season, when MLB teams typically require 10 starters-plus.

As for the horizon:

Last month’s prize, Clark, is as much a certified star as Greene was when he was drafted four years ago.

McGonigle will be hitting and playing an up-the-middle spot for the Tigers in as few as three seasons.

Anderson will bring a bat to AJ Hinch’s order as soon as 2025. Again, the question: Where will Anderson play when he and Jung and Keith and Malloy and new Single A-talent Hao-Yu Lee are all of a similar species?

Having an option at designated hitter helps now that Miguel Cabrera is in his waning weeks with Detroit. But there is an overload of bats and skills — or semi-skills — and it’s a potential problem Harris must solve as the Tigers, at long last, begin collecting bats and position talent after so many decades of foundering.

What matters most as this Tigers’ prospectus goes in August, 2023, is that next year’s draft, even when it won’t be as bountiful as this year’s national crop was, should bring another talent trove to the Tigers farm. And the bet here is that it will.

Fans will see then, finally, definitively, that contending isn’t about payroll. It isn’t about trades. It isn’t about “development.”

Not exclusively.

It’s about flesh and blood — most of all, talent — arriving via the draft. Talent ensures a steady flow of personnel with which a smart MLB team can bolt together steady, competitive rosters and ignore the heyday/drought cycles that have been part of Tigers history the past 40 years.

It doesn’t have to be that way, the highs and lows. The answer to quality continuity was clear and convincing last week on those scorching tracts at Lakeland.

The Tigers have a talent supply that in 2023 is steadily mounting.

The trick at Comerica Park’s third-floor offices is to take an existing, slightly improving, big-league roster, give it some help during the coming offseason, and make the playoffs a goal within reach as early as next year, all as future seasons promise a steadily better brand of baseball in Detroit.

The draft is the answer. And for the Tigers, answers — finally — are showing up.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

Articles You May Like

Tough questions on Detroit Tigers’ .500 level of play
Javier Báez to the 10-day IL, Ryan Kreidler recalled from Toledo
Pennsylvania Lottery Online Plays
GameThread: Tigers vs. Nationals, 1:10 p.m.
Series Preview: Detroit Tigers host Washington Nationals for 3-game weekday set

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *