Wojo: Unproven Tigers need to take a step, ready or not

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

You’ll see the empty seats and hear the piped-in noise and read the daily routine of testing and distancing, and you’ll realize just how weird and arduous this will be. And maybe you’ll wonder, as some have, what’s the point?

Just don’t ask the players that. Don’t ask the Tigers, beaten down for three years and trying to scramble to their feet. Many thought baseball wouldn’t get here, as the virus raged and negotiations sputtered, but nobody goes through this if it doesn’t mean something. Yes, something even more than money.

The Tigers have an imperfect roster, obviously, but in an unprecedented 60-game schedule, they have a practical roster for uncertain times. They have players of all ages and stages of development with plenty to prove. Ballparks across America will be mostly vacant, with cardboard cutouts and overflow players scattered behind the dugout, and you can suggest it’s a risky gimmick. Just don’t say it to the veteran players on short contracts auditioning for their next jobs, or the prized youngsters auditioning for their first jobs.

Matthew Boyd

The Tigers don’t have anywhere near the talent of powerhouses like the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros and Nationals. When they open tonight in Cincinnati, they’ll have nothing to lose and yet so much to gain, as the rebuild gathers steam.

Ask starting pitcher Matthew Boyd, 29, who has grown from a college relief pitcher to a solid mainstay to the Tigers’ opening-day starter. This is a pivotal year for him, and he’s embracing it with wide-mouthed wonderment.

 “It’s an honor to take the ball on the first day,” said Boyd, making his first opening-day start. “I know it’s gonna look different without the fans, but I know it’ll be special on TV. I get chills thinking about it, the flyover, the pageantry, the bunting everywhere. I know what opening day means in Detroit, it’s something I don’t take lightly. I’m very grateful.”

Something to prove

Grateful just to be playing, too. The Tigers’ home opener is Monday against Kansas City, and while the celebration will be muted by the pandemic, internal emotions will stir. Cincinnati also has a rich opening-day tradition, and the Reds are expected to be a playoff contender.

The Tigers, coming off a 114-loss season, are a long, long shot to contend. If something crazy happens and they get off to a hot start and suddenly it’s late August and they’re hanging around, OK, we can talk. After all, MLB just expanded the playoff field from 10 to 16 teams, boosting odds for everyone. But for now, for this team, the games will serve as a platform for the once-proven and the unproven.

Miguel Cabrera, 37, is healthy, fit and playful again, and if his body holds up for the shortened stretch, he could return to star status. Tigers GM Al Avila signed five experienced free agents — C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Ivan Nova, Austin Romine, Cameron Maybin — all to one-year contracts, building a bridge to the next era while trying to fortify a moribund offense. And don’t discount the importance of having motivated, experienced players in a 60-game season, with little time for growing pains.

This is what baseball is in its starkest form, a collection of one-on-one battles in a team game, where winning is the goal but individual numbers are scrutinized more than any other sport. Manager Ron Gardenhire also is in the final year of his contract, and at 62 and a cancer survivor, is assuming more risk than most.

Ron Gardenhire

“Everybody feels safe, and now we have to keep it that way,” Gardenhire said. “It’s taking care of yourself off the field, being safe and respecting your teammates, because if you screw around and run to bars or whatever, it can hurt a whole ballclub. … I don’t think anyone really knows what it’s gonna be like, because we got players all over the place that haven’t done a lot. But we’ve got some good veteran leaders, along with young guys, and that’s how it starts.”

Where it ends, no one can be sure. Once again, COVID-19 sets the schedule, which is supposed to conclude with the World Series in late October. It’ll be an asterisked season, with barely one-third of the normal 162 games. A champion will be crowned but not celebrated as others have.

Rebuild resumes

For a team like the Tigers, success more likely will be defined individually, with internal expectations far greater than external expectations. For instance, Tigers’ right-hander Michael Fulmer is back after missing most of two seasons with injuries. Now 27, still with a thick beard but a thinner body, he’s a prime example of baseball’s mercurial nature. Since the Tigers acquired him in 2015, he has made the trek from prime prospect to legitimate piece to legitimate puzzle.

He pitched well in his exhibition outing earlier this week, and with two expected starters — Jordan Zimmermann (arm) and Daniel Norris (COVID-19) — out of the mix right now, Fulmer will vie for the fourth spot in the rotation, behind Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Ivan Nova.

“It’s been a very long road, and I’m really just ecstatic to be back,” Fulmer said. “It feels good to be 100% again. … It’s almost a little added pressure for the veteran guys here because we got a lot of talent, especially in the starting pitching, right on our heels. Everybody’s trying to find a spot — Casey (Mize), (Matt) Manning, (Tarik) Skubal, (Alex) Faedo — and it’s great to see those guys compete and learn. We know where this team can be in the future, but we’re very optimistic right now where we’re at.”

The Tigers are steadily priming, loading up on high draft picks and stocking the farm system. It’s a delicate issue, whether to push prospects or preserve them during this strange season. Avila and Gardenhire haven’t strayed from the plan, so you won’t see recent No. 1 pick Spencer Torkelson or 2019 No. 1 pick Riley Greene, although both impressed in camp.

You almost assuredly will see Mize, the 2018 No. 1 overall pick, who’s 23 and clearly ready. The Tigers will wait a week or two before bringing him up, wise considering baseball’s service-time rules. They won’t say that’s the reason, but it makes no sense to keep him in Toledo with the minor-league season canceled.

While fans anxiously wait for Mize, Manning, Greene, Torkelson and others, the Tigers have less-touted players trying to cement their own spots. Shortstop Niko Goodrum, third baseman Jeimer Candelario and left fielder Christin Stewart are all on the cusp. Avila says he is “cautiously, optimistically happy” about the pace of the rebuild, with so much yet to be seen.

Which brings us back to Boyd. His career numbers are unremarkable — 31-47 record, 4.92 ERA — and he led the league in home runs surrendered last season. But his strikeout totals (11.6 per nine innings) are terrific, and through the first 60 or so games last season, he was excellent. At times, he’s an all-or-nothing kind of guy, heading into an all-or-nothing kind of season.

“Nothing is guaranteed, no amount of success, my career is a testament to that,” Boyd said. “I’ve seen every end of the spectrum, and that’s OK. We don’t know what’s gonna happen this year. We do know we’re tired of getting our teeth kicked in. We’ve got a lot of guys that people have given up on, here making a name for themselves. We got a bunch of guys that are junkyard dogs.”

Teams always talk about hunger and motivation, but a long baseball season generally rewards the most-talented. A shortened campaign could be different, and the patchwork Tigers, with their wide range of potential — some untapped, some closer to tapping out — have as much to prove as anyone, in a patchwork season unlike any other.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski