Henning: 2015 not over, but start looking ahead to 2016
Detroit — On an evening that tasted faintly of autumn, the Tigers lost Friday to the Texas Rangers, 2-0, at Comerica Park, and the home team would have been excused for winning.
Miguel Cabrera had three doubles. Victor Martinez mashed a ball nearly 430 feet to right-center that would have gone as a two-run home run almost anywhere else in baseball. The Tigers loaded the bases once with one out ahead of a double play. Two more double plays, one of them abetted when Cabrera got crossed-up at second, cut the guts from separate scoring chances.
It was a semi-strange night in front of a nice crowd (34,718). And that seems to fit this season’s storyline.
It’s been a weird year for baseball in Detroit. Now, six weeks before the regular season halts, ‘tweener times have arrived at Comerica Park.
The Tigers aren’t realistically in the playoff picture. But neither have they officially been booted from the group photo.
They aren’t, at least publicly, looking to 2016. But in terms of their pitching rearrangements and auditions, they have one eye on next year’s calendar.
Factor in a new man, Al Avila, running the front office rather than Dave Dombrowski, and it’s a funky final month of summer for Detroit’s baseball team, the most unusual from the past decade.
Which isn’t to say it’s necessarily a bad time.
It could be argued by a person who didn’t necessarily need therapy that the Tigers might, with some berserk brand of baseball during these final 41 games, tunnel their way into a playoff race from which they had all but been scratched.
Injuries derail pitchers
That’s still the smart bet, of course — a scratch. The Tigers have their lineup back in rhythm and, at least until Friday’s somewhat deceiving shutout by Colby Lewis, they had been scoring runs.
But when a pitching rotation is so shredded that Saturday’s starter, 39-year-old Randy Wolf, had to be purchased from the Blue Jays’ farm system during an emergency grocery run Thursday, the offseason looks like a good place to focus.
A shame, perhaps, because intrigue was beginning to creep into Detroit’s rotation. Daniel Norris, the grand prize wheedled from Toronto in Dombrowski’s final hours as GM, has shown that his credentials didn’t arrive in a stamped, self-addressed envelope. The kid can pitch. And when he slammed a home run Wednesday beyond the center-field ivy at Wrigley Field, Tigers Nation all but carried him off the field.
Until, of course, he limped from the mound with another of those evil oblique injuries that could cost him the remainder of 2015.
Anibal Sanchez, too, is gone for at least a couple of weeks with a sore rotator cuff. And when you consider this is a team four weeks removed from the luxury of leaning on David Price every five days, the Tigers need a 1960s time-machine trip, replete with hallucinogens, to think a wild-card or any other brand of postseason pass is in the cards.
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So, what can keep the Tigers in these waning days from being something other than an infringement on football?
A few thoughts …
Justin Verlander: Too many fans thought he was washed up early this season. He wasn’t. He was hurt. And then he was rusty. But he has allowed one earned run or fewer in five of his last six starts and still ranks as the most important pitcher on this staff. The Tigers will add at least one starter during offseason store hours. It will take a good one to knock Verlander from starting Opening Day, 2016.
Tyler Collins: A sharp Twitter observer mentioned the other day that Collins seems to play better in Detroit than he does at Triple A. Agreed. And it’s probably not a mirage. Collins can play baseball. He is not an upper-tier talent. But with that left-handed bat and his relative youth (25 in June) he has a chance to be more than a fourth outfielder and ease some of Avila’s offseason pressure. It all depends how he finishes these final 40-plus days.
Bruce Rondon: He needed time to heal from Tommy John surgery. Seventeen months is not an overly long convalescence for a pitcher when his slider is his second bullet and sliders are notoriously slow to return following TJ repairs. But Rondon looks, steadily, as if he will be next year’s closer. And that can make all the difference in how Avila’s bullpen shapes up for ’16.
Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer: You can’t count on either young starter, each a product of Dombrowski’s nervy deadline deals, being ready when the Tigers break spring camp in March. But say one of them can join Norris in taking a regular turn when the Tigers head north. There’s the gift a team probably requires if it wants to bury 2015’s bad times and pull a surprise in Avila’s rookie year as GM.
Plenty of work remains in the interim. And more of it lay ahead during an offseason that, minus a realistic playoff shot, probably will begin sooner for Avila and Co.
No matter how it shakes out, these final 41 games will be worth watching. And maybe most of all for how they could affect 162 games in 2016.