Henning: Long Tigers rebuild begins to show life at Double-A Erie
Erie, Pa. — There were dogs in the stands, but few dogs on the field Tuesday night at UPMC Park, where the Erie SeaWolves play.
It was Bark in the Park night. Baseball can take a bow for a being the only sport where people can bring their canines through the turnstiles and into the seats, and didn’t those barks and howls make for an interesting combined chorus during Tuesday’s National Anthem.
On the ball field, Erie this season has a new roster filled with better flesh, a lot of which might legitimately migrate to Comerica Park. This contrasts to what the dogs would have seen from their box seats only a year ago.
Yes, there was Christin Stewart and Grayson Greiner and Mike Gerber, but that pretty much was it. There otherwise were too many Gabriel Quintanas, Steven Moyas, and Zack Coxes.
Tuesday night’s lineup flashed a new infield courtesy of the past year’s trades: Isaac Paredes at third, Sergio Alcantara and his marvelous arm at short, with last week’s newcomer, Willi Castro, snagged in the trade that sent Leonys Martin to Cleveland, starting at second base.
Jake Rogers was catching and hit a screaming liner to left that looked as if it was just about to rise another 10 feet when it crashed into the adjacent Erie Insurance Arena’s wall for a game-winning, three-run homer.
In center field was Daz Cameron. In right, Danny Woodrow. In the rotation are Beau Burrows, Alex Faedo and Spencer Turnbull. Among the bullpen corps was last night’s closer, John Schreiber, a side-arm marvel from Rockwood who got the save with a one-hit, one-strikeout ninth. On the bench was Cam Gibson.
Paredes has cooled off but was still a tick beneath .300 in his 17 games since being bumped from Single A. Cameron, who arrived courtesy of last August's swap that sent Justin Verlander to Houston, was batting .304 on Wednesday with an .884 OPS. Burrows, the Tigers’ first-round prize in 2015, has had a tough mid-summer stretch but still has struck out 97 in 103.1 innings.
“A lot of Detroit Tigers prospects, for sure,” said Andrew Graham, the SeaWolves manager and native Australian who was a Tigers minor-league catcher before, in the same way as a man named Jim Leyland, turning to managing.
The Sea Wolves followed Wednesday with an 18-1 mashing of Portland, which came with the help of 21 hits, including eight doubles, and home runs from Rogers and Gibson. It moved them to 54-60 on the season and within reach of .500, which in the minor leagues takes on more sheen because of the constant flow of players from one level to another.
To gauge how deeply the Tigers farm system must, and will, change in depth and potential, it might be better to check out the SeaWolves in another year. By then, the royalties from another trade or two (Monday’s deal for Mike Fiers will bring two A’s players to the bushes) could be clearer.
By then, it’s possible Kody Clemens might have zoomed to Double A and will be within a phone call from flying to Detroit. It’s probable that Matt Manning will be starting games for the SeaWolves, maybe alongside Franklin Perez, whose 2018 season has been an injuries washout.
By then, the Tigers might also have figured out how to add another big bat or two to a prospects lineup still hurting for game-changing offense at every stop in their farm chain. How they pull off that magic trick isn't yet clear.
But this ground-up blueprint is the only way a team now slogging through a winless West Coast trek and headed for another top-five pick in next year’s draft can expect to restock, reconstruct, and resurrect life at Comerica Park.
The process will last five to seven years. Baseball doesn’t often allow for shortcuts, even if fans like to seize on the 2003 to 2006 reverse Detroit pulled in rising from 43-119 to a World Series.
That was a historic piece of planet alignment made possible by some quirky good luck: Pudge Rodriguez signing with the Tigers after being in free-agent exile because of a bad back, Magglio Ordonez in similar straits with a knee, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya arriving as rookie saviors, Curtis Granderson busting loose, etc.
Most rebuilds — consider the Cubs and Astros as modern examples — are more in line with the Tigers’ last championship construct, which came in 1984 and took a full nine years after their 1975 cratering.
This more conventional makeover is what’s ahead in Detroit, mostly because the team got so old and then was life-extended in a quest to get late owner Mike Ilitch his World Series party.
No half-baked rebuild
Free agency isn’t yet an answer. Not for a few years, at least on a grand scale. Paying to get game-breaking free agents in 2018 or 2019 will backfire in two ways.
Celebrity free agents aren’t signing with a rebuilding team unless you overpay (see: Dean Palmer, 1998), or unless, as was the case with those freaky signings of Pudge and Ordonez, billboard hitters happen to be ignored and happen later to stay healthy, two strokes of luck the Tigers bagged in 2005 and 2006.
Those star free agents, the guys who can deliver 5-plus WAR during a single season, are better added once bruising seasons and early draft picks have combined to reshape a team’s farm and, eventually, its competitive core.
That’s the process now in place. It’s the only route to take. Try and cut corners and fans will end up with a half-baked rebuild, with oversized payrolls, deeper and less effective draft picks, and an extra decade tacked onto a remodeling job that is better attacked methodically – now.
How many of those guys on the field Tuesday will make it Detroit, let alone will make a difference, is hard to project. But it was interesting walking through the concourse Tuesday night, seeing pictures of then-kid players who earlier were playing here: Granderson, a good prospect but with no absolute guarantees. Verlander, a hotshot pitcher, a year out of college, who, cynics warned, was no sure-shot to pitch well in Detroit.
Paredes, Castro, Alcantara, Cameron, Rogers, Burrows, Faedo. They all won’t make it, some of this current cast. But some will. Some will be pieces in a re-assembled club that will steadily add freight along a timeline that’s just now beginning to show progress where it most matters. On the farm.