For Tigers, work begins to gain foothold on future

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Auditions and evaluations. That’s what it’s about now for the Tigers. The wins and losses are secondary to players trying to establish a foothold within the organization, trying to make themselves a part of the foundation moving forward.

Tigers outfielder Mikie Mahtook, who has already done that with his breakout performance this season, offered some pretty sage advice for the other aspirants after the game Saturday night — it still has to be about playing the game the right way and trying to win.

Tigers outfielder Mike Mahtook is hitting .287 with 10 home runs and 32 RBIs.

“The best thing I can tell them is to go out there every day and try to win a baseball game,” he said. “Don’t worry about trying to get four hits or worry about trying to impress anybody. At the end of the day, if you do all that you can do to win, then the numbers are going to speak for themselves.”

Mahtook pointed to third baseman Jeimer Candelario’s groundout to first base in the seventh inning Saturday night. Nobody was out and Mahtook was on second after hitting a double. Candelario pulled the ball to the right side of the field and got Mahtook to third with less than two outs. A productive out.

“Nobody is going to talk about that, but it led to an RBI,” Mahtook said. “That’s playing the game of baseball; those are the little things that help. If you play the game that way, then the numbers are going to look better and you are going to be where you want to be.

“Don’t put pressure on yourself to get results.”

There is still a month to play, plenty of time for players to carve a niche and earn some status going into spring training. Here are six players who have already done that:

■ OF Mikie Mahtook. Although he’s cooled off some — .152 in 13 games since Aug. 19 — he’s still hitting .279 with a .458 slugging, 10 homers and 32 RBIs. More than that, though, he plays with an edge and an unrelenting energy that this team has lacked in recent years.

The jury is still out on whether he fits as the center fielder of the future. More likely, he will man one of the corner outfield spots next year.

The Tigers aren’t going to soon give up on JaCoby Jones, who is the best defensive center fielder, and one of the best athletes, in the organization.

■ LHP Daniel Stumpf. He’s been a revelation. Even though the Tigers were intrigued enough to take him the Rule 5 draft, he’s outperformed expectations by a lot.

Since June 24, he has pitched in 32 games, allowing only four runs in 23 innings with 23 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .203 off him in that stretch. When he is commanding his fastball — and he has touched 96 mph this season — he can effectively play with the edges of the strike zone with his breaking balls and off-speed pitches.

His gift is the resiliency of his left arm. Although he’s mostly been used situationally, primarily to get left-handers out, he can pitch almost every day it seems and his stuff seems to play against right-handers, as well.

■ OF Alex Presley. He became the second player this season to get four knocks off Indians ace Corey Kluber in one game on Saturday, and he’s hitting .312 in 157 at-bats. He isn’t going to hit for much power, but he gives a competitive and professional at-bat almost every time he steps in the box.

He seems to be a pesky presence at the top of a batting order, even though he rarely walks (11).

His situation is a little tricky, though. He is still eligible for arbitration. Which means it might be more prudent, from a business standpoint, for the Tigers to release him after the season, with the hope of re-signing him to a minor-league deal in the off-season.

That’s what they did last year. But with Presley’s production this season, he may get better offers elsewhere.


■ C-1B John Hicks. When the Tigers signed Bryan Holaday to a minor-league contract earlier this season, they expected that he would end up being the third catcher behind James McCann and Alex Avila.

Then along came Hicks. He got his chance in April and hit .423 in his first seven games. He’s been up and down a couple of times, but he continues to produce. He’s hitting .309 with four home runs and 12 doubles.

He’s more than just the back-up catcher, too. He’s shown he can play first base and, in a pinch, corner outfield. With injury concerns regarding Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez entering next season, Hicks’ flexibility and power bat should be valued assets.

■ C James McCann. Believe it or not, McCann was very much at a crossroads earlier this season. Before Avila was traded to the Cubs, he had taken over as the regular catcher while McCann continue to grind through an offensive slump that had lasted nearly a full year.

But he was convinced to shorten his swing and lay off the pitches in the upper region of the strike zone, and he’s fully re-established himself as the team’s catcher, and one of the team’s leaders, going forward.

McCann has hit safely in 27 of the last 35 games, hitting .333 with a .383 on-base percentage, .871 OPS in that stretch with four home runs, seven doubles and 16 RBIs.

■ RHP Warwick Saupold. He has performed exceptionally well in the thankless job of long relief. When he’s commanding the ball, he is a groundball machine. He’s also, in the mold of Alex Wilson and Shane Greene, a fearless competitor. His ceiling is still to be determined. Could he be effective in higher-leverage situations? At some point, the Tigers need to find out.

Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd is 5-8 with a 5.92 ERA this season.

Here are five players who will go to spring training with something still to prove in terms of solidifying their role in the team’s rebuilding scheme:

■ LHP Matthew Boyd. He seems to already have made the necessary adjustment. He has simplified his mechanics, taken out a lot of the moving parts that were negatively impacting his ability to repeat his delivery. As a result, in his last two starts, his command has been vastly improved. There is no debating his stuff, it’s legit. Consistency has been the issue.

■ LHP Daniel Norris. The Tigers have moved him to the bullpen temporarily. He is still viewed by the organization as a starting pitcher. Injuries and inconsistencies have cost him another season. But the talent is still evident, even when he’s struggling. But he will have to, once again, come to camp in the spring and win a job.

3B Nick Castellanos. He will be entering his second year of arbitration and it seems certain the Tigers will tender him. His bat is unquestionably a big foundation piece, at least for another year or two. The question is, where will he play? The Tigers are going to give prospect Jeimer Candelario every chance to win the third base job while they transition Castellanos to right field. That will be one of the headline stories next spring.

■ RHP Joe Jimenez. So dominant at every step up the ladder, his stuff simply has not translated yet at the big-league level. The Tigers think he can be a back-end reliever, perhaps even a closer one day. Next spring could be pivotal for him in terms of his standing within the organization. There are a lot of promising power arms coming up in the system.

■ CF JaCoby Jones. Such an electrifying athlete. Much like Kirk Gibson did in his prime, Jones has the ability to energize the team by the sheer force of his speed and intensity. But he has to hit. He has to somehow lose the hitch in his swing, become more disciplined at the plate and put more balls in play. The Tigers could live with .240-.250. They can’t live with .160 and a 42 percent strikeout rate.