Detroit – Almost everyone says it, in some form, every year. Sometimes they mean it. Usually they’re delusional.
You know how it goes. Anything can happen! Why not us? We like our squad, we got a chance!
Generally, you don’t. The Tigers lost 114 games last season and dropped 98 each of the previous two seasons. None of that was a surprise, as they’re deep into a massive rebuild. And nothing much will change the franchise’s forward-looking plan during the pandemic-truncated season that opens July 24.
But I dug deep and found a clause in the MLB agreement that requires all teams to emphasize, in a 60-game schedule, anything truly could happen. And there’s nothing wrong with that notion, even if I made up the clause, even if harbored by the reigning worst team in baseball.
“Who knows what can come from this?” Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd said. “We have pitching, we’re gonna be good. We’ve always been on the cusp of it, and more experience pushes us even closer to that. We’re all excited. We know what we’re capable of, individually and collectively. Have we even reached close to our potential? Absolutely not. But I think our margin is slim, a lot closer than people perceive.”
All the margins are slimmer now and every victory will matter more. I’m not daffy enough to suggest the surprise team will be the Tigers. I am suggesting they have elements that give them a back seat on the anything-can-happen train.
It's OK to dream
Statistically, it’s almost certain someone will be a surprise contender after a hot start, and someone will be a surprise disappointment. Last year, the Nationals were 27-33 after 60 games and won the World Series. Two years ago, the Tigers were 28-32 and riding the Rally Goose and finished 64-98.
These Tigers have a mix of promising pitching and capable experienced players. They still have Miguel Cabrera, who again looks fit and ready for a bounce-back, but at 37, can’t be fully counted on to stay healthy. Not for 162 games, no. For 60? Hmm. See how these thoughts can stir?
No. 1 pick Casey Mize has wowed since real spring training in Florida and could find a spot in the rotation. Al Avila and Ron Gardenhire won’t rush anything, but if Mize is as good as expected, a couple extra wins could make a difference. Would the Tigers be more tempted to use Mize if they’re in contention in September? I doubt it, unless he’s ready.
You can’t lose sight of what’s happening here. No one is certain the season will start on time or end at all. Because owners and players couldn’t agree on much, they stuck with a 10-team playoff instead of 16, so it won’t necessarily be more wide-open. Timetables shouldn’t be accelerated, no matter how badly you want to see swings from No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson or recent first-rounder Riley Greene.
But the Tigers at least have moved past the stage of a glorified minor-league team. Avila signed several everyday veterans – first baseman C.J. Cron, 30, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, 28, catcher Austin Romine, 31, outfielder Cameron Maybin, 33 – who should upgrade an historically awful offense. Cron and Schoop slugged 25 and 23 home runs, respectively, for the Twins last season, while Brandon Dixon led the Tigers with 15.
Maybin hit .285 with the Yankees and is back for his third stint with the Tigers. He’s versatile and jovial, a classic clubhouse unifier who admits one of the toughest parts of the pandemic is socially distancing.
“I’m all about hug season, but right now I’ve been giving everybody the two-finger (peace) salute,” Maybin said with a laugh. “It’s a tremendous difference since the last time I was here (in 2016). Now we have a lot of youth, and at least in a short season I think youth could play to our advantage. A lot of young guys are ready to get out there, roaring to go. Young guys used to get ragged and hazed a lot, but now we’re trying to let them know, it’s OK to be yourself, do what you need to do to get ready.”
Anything can happen – THEORETICALLY – when you have a combination of hope for the future and incentive for the present. The Tigers’ prized arms – Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal – aren’t way down the line anymore. Other prospects that have gotten chances have more to prove. Outfielder Christin Stewart, infielder Jeimer Candelario, shortstop Niko Goodrum and closer Joe Jimenez have variously been touted, then doubted.
This is not a roster of kids and has-beens. It’s a roster of kids, one-time prospects and one-more-shot veterans, with 60 games to determine their immediate futures. What the Tigers lack in talent, perhaps they compensate with urgency, as all the newcomers signed one-year deals.
“It kind of reminded me when I got traded to the Rays (in 2018), a super super young team that didn’t really have that veteran leadership,” Cron said. “And myself, Schoop, Romine and Maybin are kind of the old presence you need to show a good young group how to go about the business, and honestly have some fun.”
This is one of those odd situations in sports where the young guys are projected to be the best players, but the older guys are more likely to be productive now. It can be a good dynamic but also a tricky one, with the inexperienced players not always sure when to defer and when to demand.
“Kids are just trying to be seen a lot and not be heard, they want to get unscathed through this,” Gardenhire said. “But it’s not about keeping them in place. I think we’ve got some pretty good (experienced) guys that want to help them out. These young guys should learn, and really listen.”
Cabrera might not say as much as others, but Torkelson and Greene watch him closely during workouts and marvel at his presence and plate discipline. There are enough older guys – Jordan Zimmermann, 34, Ivan Nova, 33, Cron – to buy time for the youngsters. The possible rotation of Boyd, Zimmermann, Nova, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris has plenty to prove, and don’t forget about Michael Fulmer, 27, who missed almost two full years and now straddles the line between still-growing and well-grizzled.
Sort of like the Tigers themselves. Before everything went viral, they were lining up one more 90-loss season before the precocious talent began popping in 2021. Now I can guarantee they won’t lose 98 games, and I might even suggest they won’t lose 38, although Vegas pegs them with about a 22-38 record.
This will be a weird season but doesn’t have be a wasted season, and could even be a whimsical one. The Tigers are loaded with the unproven and once-proven, and no matter what happens, you won’t be able to say you saw it coming.