With Casey Mize working his way back on injury rehab and Matt Manning on a mid-summer slowdown, the Erie SeaWolves are without dominant front-line starters for the time being.
Or are they?
Though not equipped with the first-round pedigree of his new teammates, left-hander Tarik Skubal has put up ace-like results in his quick and impressive climb through the Tigers' lower levels.
Just ask the Double-A hitters Skubal has victimized 21 times with swinging strikeouts in just two starts after his July 5 promotion.
“I watch the composure and the heartbeat,” said Tigers roving pitching instructor A.J. Sager, who was in Erie for Skubal’s start Friday. “It seems like he’s competing very well, but he also seems very calm and composed on the mound.”
The 6-foot-3 Skubal continued his strong campaign Friday with 10 strikeouts over five innings, allowing three hits and a solo home run in a 1-0 loss to Altoona. Through 10 Erie innings, Skubal has a 0.90 ERA with three walks, good for a WHIP of 0.700.
Combined with 15 starts at High-A Lakeland, Skubal is 4-6 with a 2.39 ERA this season with 118 strikeouts and 22 walks. He's the only lefty in Detroit's top 12 MLB Pipeline pitching prospects.
Pretty impressive for a player who slid to the ninth round last summer because of command questions. Those lingered around a disappointing second draft year at Seattle University, where he walked 56 batters in 80 innings in his first full season after Tommy John surgery.
“I didn’t picture myself struggling the way I did with command and stuff, I’d never had that problem really before,” said Skubal, who returned to college after getting selected in the 29th round by his home state Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017. "It was good to go through that though in college, with just a little bit different vibe than professional baseball. So it was good to experience that, get that under my belt, get that out of the way.
“Definitely a lot of lessons were learned.”
The problems didn’t carry over after the Tigers drafted him. Skubal walked just four batters in 22 1/3 combined innings last season in the Gulf Coast League, then with the Connecticut Tigers in the New York Penn League, and finally three games with Low-A West Michigan.
Skubal credits his competitiveness -- he won two high school baseball state championships and one in his first love of basketball at Kingman Academy in Arizona, where his No. 25 is retired -- for his bounce back.
“I was being more aggressive in the strike zone,” said Skubal, 22, whose first name rhymes with “Derek.”
“I tried to do everything too perfectly and you get too fine. You get frustrated with yourself. I was getting really frustrated with not executing a pitch exactly how I wanted to instead of just competing in the zone and letting my stuff play.”
And the stuff plays, including a mid-90s fastball, curveball and change. In addition, Erie catcher Joey Morgan has called upon the slider more than Skubal had used it at the lower levels while under the tutelage of pitching coach Jorge Cordova last season at West Michigan and this year in Lakeland.
“All we’ve seen is that he’s been good,” Sager said. “It’s a really exciting time right now to watch him pitch.”
In Erie, Skubal will eventually join Mize, who is in Lakeland rehabbing shoulder inflammation, and Manning, who last pitched for Erie on July 2 and won’t pitch until Tuesday at the earliest. Manning is healthy and threw 22 pitches in the Futures Game on July 7, but is on pace to smash his career high in innings pitched.
The staff is rounded out by a third first-rounder in Alex Faedo, as well as Anthony Castro, Logan Shore and Spenser Watkins.
Named last month by MLB.com as the Tigers “breakout prospect,” Skubal has moved up to No. 17 on the organization’s MLB Pipeline list.
Skubal, who said he enjoyed some time with teammates last week on the Lake Erie beaches during the Eastern League All-Star Break, is proving he belongs.
“Tarik is really doing a nice job this year obviously from result standpoint, but also handling the different levels,” Sager said. “To me that’s the exciting thing. We’re getting him some experience at high levels and he’s handling it all very well.”
Added Skubal: "There’s a lot of talent in the clubhouse. It’s always good to be around talent, just to get that natural competitiveness. Just watching how guys go about their business. It’s my first year in pro ball, so you get to learn a lot from all these guys that have been there a little bit longer than I have.
"They have a lot of talent too, so you just watch how they work, see how they do things, see if you can pick up on any of that, see if you can better yourself."
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.