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Tigers feeling frisky about 2019 season but red flags are numerous

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Josh Harrison

Toronto – Rebuilding is a front-office concept, a business construct, a macro policy.

Baseball players and coaches, they don’t live in that world. So, as manager Ron Gardenhire and the Tigers embark on another 162-game journey, starting Thursday against the Blue Jays, forgive them if they aren’t looking ahead to 2021 or 2022.

“Inside this clubhouse, we believe we’re going to win,” Gardenhire said early in camp. “We don’t do anything other than come to the park every day trying to put together a team that’s going to win games. We’ve seen a lot of teams go worst to first.”

It’s not just lip service. It’s belief. It’s conviction. When the Tigers reported to spring training, there was a picture of the championship trophy on every door of the clubhouse, with the caption, “Believe this is gonna belong to us!! Don’t walk through this door until you do.”

Whether it proves to be delusional is not the point. If you don’t believe it, you can’t achieve it.

“That’s the attitude we’re going to take here,” Gardenhire said. “That’s the attitude we’re going to play with. These guys are all professional baseball players. They’ve all won and been successful their whole careers.

“Yes, it’s a rebuild. Yes, we have some young people. But we have some veterans, too, who know how to play. You never know what can happen in a baseball season.”

This sign greeted the Tigers when they reported to spring training: “Believe this is gonna belong to us!! Don’t walk through this door until you do.”

Tigers starting pitcher Matthew Boyd refuses to confirm that he was the person who put up the pictures of the trophy. But, he has not been shy about his expectations for this season.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We don’t have a crystal ball. But we look around the diamond, we look in this locker room, we know what we’re capable of. We know it’s a marathon and we know we have to stay focused on every game, every pitch, every at-bat. Gardy has instilled that in us.

“But we believe in the guys around us, and that’s a big thing. Special things can happen when you do that. So, don’t put a ceiling on us. We know we’re capable.”

The Tigers have won 64 games the last two seasons. The 2017 season was an unmitigated disaster with very few redeeming aspects. But last season, there was a brief glimmer. They were a game under .500 on June 17.

But by then Miguel Cabrera had torn his biceps and was out for the year and the ship gradually started taking on water. Still, though they lost 98 games, 47 of them were by two runs or less. For the most part, they played competitive baseball.

“I think we all know how close to clicking we were as a team last year,” Boyd said. “We got a taste of it those first few months. We were on that threshold and we believe that. At the same time, we all know individually how we can all get better and we have put in the work to take that next step.

“I am excited to reap the rewards of that.”

On the bright side

So, let’s first frame this through an optimistic lens. What makes anybody believe this team will be markedly better than last year?

► Cabrera is healthy, for starters. He’s had no issues with the biceps post-surgery and he hit the ball this spring very much like his healthy self. He had four home runs, two to the opposite and two long blasts on mid-90s fastballs that he turned on and hit out to left and left-center.

Miguel Cabrera

“Not too long ago, people were saying, ‘What happened to his power?’” general manager Al Avila said last week. “Well, you saw it. He still has it.”

Cabrera fully believes he can fully return to form. He even intimated to national baseball writer Jayson Stark last week that he believes he can put up batting title and Triple Crown type numbers. He is, in fact, somewhat bothered that anybody would question that if he is healthy.

“I feel like I have a good idea of what I’m doing at home plate, and I have a good idea of what I am doing in the field,” Cabrera said. “Hopefully I can do that the whole year.”

Gardenhire plans to have Cabrera hitting third behind Nick Castellanos, this year. Just his presence in the lineup, and in the clubhouse, changes the dynamic of the team.

“We’ve got to keep him healthy,” Avila said. “Right now he is focused and happy. I talked to him early in spring when we had a lot of young guys here and he sat with them and talked and kind of mentored them.

“When we started this rebuilding process he said, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’ Obviously, the main this is we want him healthy and producing. But I told him, ‘I want you to lead these young guys and help them out.’ And he does it. He’s been great.”

The Tigers, not unwittingly, put rookie catcher Grayson Greiner in Cabrera’s hitting group this spring.

“That’s been amazing for me,” Greiner said. “He’s very helpful with all the hitters. I am just picking his brain as much as I can. He came up to me on the first day and gave me some tips, and that gave me the confidence to go up to him and ask what he sees.

“He’s an amazing teammate and an amazing person.”

Of course, as Castellanos pointed out, you don’t need to talk to Cabrera to learn from him.

“Miggy does what Miggy does,” he said. “He’s not really a vocal teammate. He’s just somebody you watch.”

► The Tigers are way more stable up the middle now that they have co-opted the Pirates middle infield from the last three season, signing free agents Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison.

“It’s like night and day,” Gardenhire said of the difference they make.

Jordy Mercer

The Tigers had a revolving door at second base last year, starting with Dixon Machado and ending with Dawel Lugo. Shortstop Jose Iglesias, who was in a contract year, played solidly defensively but chafed against some of the club’s defensive and shifting philosophies and never truly bought in to the system.

With Mercer and Harrison, the execution, communication and leadership – it’s covered.

“This is a group now,” Gardenhire said. “They’re communicating, they’re talking – this is how I envisioned this was supposed to go.”

And in Harrison, Gardenhire has a legitimate, prototypical lead-off hitter.

► If it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then expect big years from third baseman Jeimer Candelario, utility man Niko Goodrum and outfielder Mikie Mahtook. All three endured bi-polar runs last year and all three have taken steps to level a season out.

Goodrum and Candelario, just going by their productivity this spring, seem especially comfortable and confident. Both are vital support pieces to this puzzle, too. Both capable of being big run producers.

Mahtook, with the late camp injury to JaCoby Jones, will be starting the season in center field, most likely. He has refined his hitting mechanics and his approach, after struggling to find them most of last season.

Matthew Boyd

►  Boyd, who is now the No. 2 starter in the rotation, has made significant progress in each of his two previous seasons. The way he looked physically this spring, the way he was commanding his fastball with increased velocity, he seems on the verge of either being All-Star worthy, or a valuable trade chip – or both.

►  The bullpen was good last season, for the most part, and it looks even better, certainly deeper, this year. The Tigers can now build a bridge to closer Shane Greene with five right-handers with mid- to upper-90s capability: Victor Alcantara, Buck Farmer, Reed Garrett, Drew VerHagen (when he’s off IR) and Joe Jimenez.

They also have lefties Blaine Hardy, Daniel Stumpf and to start the season, Daniel Norris. Starting the year at Toledo are two other power pitchers – lefty Jose Fernandez and right-hander Jose Cisnero. There is also a chance Bryan Garcia, who is expected to start pitching again in May after Tommy John surgery, could be in the mix later this summer, too.

On the dark side 

Viewed though a less bright prism, though, you can see there plenty of concerns, plenty of reasons to believe it could be another long season.

►  The starting pitching overall is sketchy. Start with losing Michael Fulmer for the year after Tommy John surgery. That’s a blow. Even if he was going to start on the injured list still strengthening his knee, the Tigers still figured to get back strong for three or four months.

Jordan Zimmermann, Boyd and Spencer Turnbull had superb springs. Zimmermann is healthy and committed to using four pitches, but his margin for error is still relatively small. Turnbull has some of the best pure stuff on the staff. But he’s a rookie and he’s going to ride the rapids at times.

 At the back of the rotation are two veterans who are essentially reclamation projects – Tyson Ross and Matt Moore. The double-edged sword here is, if they do revert to their previous form, the Tigers will try to flip them for prospects, so they wouldn’t be here for the final two months of the season.

Of the two, Ross seems at this point more viable. But regardless, by the end of the year, the rotation may look vastly different than it does now – with perhaps Norris, Kyle Funkhouser, Ryan Carpenter, Matt Hall and perhaps even prospect Beau Burrows getting looks.

Grayson Greiner

► The inexperience behind the plate could be an issue. All reports have been positive on Greiner. He’s handling the pitching staff well, he’s catching the ball well, framing it well and throwing well. But like all young players, he’s going to have his struggles. And there is no way to know how he will hold up offensively over the long haul.

His backup, John Hicks, is also relatively inexperienced behind the plate. On top of that, he could end up playing a lot at first base to spell Cabrera. Ultimately, you get the sense that veteran Bobby Wilson, who will start the year at Toledo, is going to play a big role later in the summer.

►  Losing Jones is a killer. Forget about his offense – though a guy who scores half the time he gets on base is significant – the Tigers can not afford to have his glove and legs out of the lineup for a prolonged period of time.

Not with Christin Stewart in left and Castellanos in right, not in spacious Comerica Park. Jones’ range is an invaluable asset to the Tigers’ defense. Mahtook is solid and capable. Goodrum hasn’t played much in center field, but he’s athletic enough and fast enough to handle it competently for a bit.

Neither, though, makes the impact defensively that Jones does.

Initial reports indicate Jones could miss two to three weeks. With an AC joint, though, you never know.

Christin Stewart

► Will there be enough offense? Even if Harrison, Castellanos and Cabrera stay intact at the top, the rest of the lineup is, if not suspect, then certainly unproven. Goodrum, Stewart, Candelario and Hicks are all capable of hitting 18-25 home runs, but they are also capable of long droughts and a lot of strikeouts.

►  Will the team look in August anything like the team that takes the field on Thursday? And that takes it all the way back around to the top, and that front office construct known as a rebuild.

What happens if the Tigers are in contention in July? What happens if Cabrera stays healthy and the pitching holds up and Castellanos is still here and producing? For sure, Avila won’t start shopping for expensive, long-term contracts at the trade deadline. He won’t do anything at this point to jeopardize the plan.

And that’s prudent.

But, what about adding a veteran player or two with an expiring contract after 2019? What if a team that thought they could contend falls out and starts selling off players? Would Avila at least make a tactical run at a wild card spot?

That would be a fascinating and revealing scenario.

"We're just going to compete, that's it," Cabrera said. "We know we don't take anything for granted. When the season starts, we're going to try to win some games."

Twitter @cmccosky