McCosky: 100 losses (and counting), and still not rock-bottom for Tigers rebuild?

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — A historic losing season is still in play for the 2019 Detroit Tigers.

Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd once again could find himself as a possible trade chip next season.

On Sunday in Oakland, they became the first team to lose 100 games this season. With 20 still to go, they need one more win to avoid the ignominy of breaking their own American League futility record of 119 losses set in 2003 (though they could still match it), and the Mets' major-league record of 120 losses set in 1962.

And, with 13 games left at Comerica Park, starting Tuesday with a three-game set against the Yankees, they still need to win four to avoid becoming the first team in the modern era to lose 60 games at home.

“No one wants to lose 100 ballgames,” manager Ron Gardenhire told reporters after the 3-1 loss Sunday. “But when you’re with a young ball team like this, I understand this. We’ve had some really bad streaks, and that’s how you wind up losing 100. We’ve had too many of those bad streaks.

“But if you look at our team out there, there are a lot of rookies, a lot of young people playing and a lot of injuries to our pitchers. We don’t try to use any excuses; people have to step up. As long as they are playing the game like they are playing and trying hard and giving everything they have, then you know what? The 100 losses mean nothing to me. I know that these guys give a flip, they are trying, and that’s all I can ask for as a manager.”

Striking a balance

Here’s the worrisome part of this, though: There isn’t convincing evidence, as bad as this season has been, that this will be rock-bottom in the rebuild cycle. After losing 98, 98, and now 100-plus games, there still aren’t enough bona fide foundation pieces to build on.

Young pitchers such as Alex Faedo aren't likely expected to help the Tigers until 2021.

Most of those players — Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Tarik Skubal, Isaac Parades, Riley Greene, etc. — finished the season at Double-A or lower. They aren’t going to be ready to make an impact at the big-league level, most likely, until 2021.

So, next season could be much like this season — another audition year for younger players, another offseason of trying to acquire bargain-priced veterans to fill holes, particularly starting pitching.

Except, it absolutely cannot be as bad as this season. The fan base — which has been for the most part phenomenally understanding, if not completely patient, through this process — rightfully shouldn’t accept another triple-digit losing season.

You can’t keep charging people big-league prices to watch a minor league-level brand of baseball.  

General manager Al Avila is mindful of that. His task this offseason will be to strike a balance between putting a more competitive team on the field while not setting the rebuild process back. He may need to spend a little more on veteran free agents, particularly hitters, without retarding the development of some of the younger players who got their feet wet this season.

It’s tough duty. Avila, his staff, the analytics department, as well as Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson, are expected to meet soon to hash out some of these issues relative to the 2020 big-league roster.

Avila almost certainly will have to add another veteran starting pitcher or two, just as he has with mixed results the last two seasons. The Tigers did reasonably well by signing Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano for 2018, but they only got nine starts total out of Matt Moore and Tyson Ross this year.  

Jordan Zimmermann, Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Drew VerHagen and Daniel Norris will be returning. But Boyd will be on the trade market again this offseason, and Turnbull and Norris both have minor-league options left.

Avila paid a little more than $8 million for Moore and Ross. With Michael Fulmer due back from Tommy John surgery after the All-Star break, Avila could choose to spend a little more on one higher-grade starter.

Bolstering the bats

The more difficult decisions will be with position players. The Tigers offense has been the worst in baseball this season. The quickest path to improvement in 2020 will be to add proven bats. But where?

Tigers outfielder Christin Stewart, 25, is hitting just .239 this season.

Of the players who were auditioning for a spot in the club’s future plans, Niko Goodrum, Harold Castro, Victor Reyes and JaCoby Jones all made strong arguments for inclusion. Others like Christin Stewart, Dawel Lugo, Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, Travis Demeritte, Brandon Dixon and Jake Rogers are still under discussion.

So, do you bring in a veteran outfielder and restrict Stewart’s playing time in 2020? Avila and Gardenhire have said they’re not ready to give up on him. You could bring in a veteran hitter to play right field and platoon Stewart and Reyes in left.

That would give Demeritte, who has minor-league options left, more time to develop at Triple-A.

The Tigers easily could upgrade offensively at the corner infield spots, but at the expense of Lugo, who has made huge gains both in the field and at the plate the last month or so?

What about Candelario? It seems unlikely the Tigers would bring him back as the everyday first baseman or as a back-up corner infielder. If they signed a power-hitting first baseman — there are typically an abundance of them available every winter — that would probably signal the end of Candelario’s future with the Tigers.

Keep in mind, too, that Miguel Cabrera has made it known he wants to play first base next season. He expects a full offseason to treat and work on his chronically ailing left knee will put him in position to at least split time between first base and DH.  

As for the middle of the diamond, the Tigers aren’t likely to spend on both a shortstop and second baseman again. Maybe just one. It’s doubtful they’ve seen enough of Willi Castro to determine whether he is ready to play every day at shortstop. But do they envision platooning him and Goodrum? Or, with Harold Castro’s emergence as an everyday utility player, would the Tigers give the second base job to Goodrum?

Castro also could figure in to the center field plans, whereas the Tigers coaching staff believes Goodrum, while capable of playing outfield, is best-suited to play on the infield.

The Tigers also will have to consider spending on a veteran catcher. Rogers’ struggles at the plate likely will have to be worked out with a little more time at Triple-A next season. They could start the season with Grayson Greiner and John Hicks sharing the load, as they did this season.

But that duo has combined to hit .197 with 16 home runs (11 by Hicks) and 42 RBIs.  

Avila has been steadfast about sticking to the plan, so he’s not going blow up the budget this offseason. He’s not going to recreate the 2004 signing of Pudge Rodriguez. But he knows, and Christopher Ilitch knows, he needs to put a much more competitive baseball team on the field in 2020.

And he needs to do it while maintaining the forward progress, however slight it may be, of the rebuild.

If ever there was a time for creativity, for thinking outside the box, for finding another J.D. Martinez on the scrap heap — this is it. 

On deck: Yankees at Tigers

Series: Three-game series, Tuesday-Thursday, at Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday — 6:40 p.m.; Thursday — 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: All games on Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM

Probables: Tuesday — TBA vs. RHP Edwin Jackson (3-9, 9.16); Wednesday — TBA vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (8-10, 4.57); Thursday — TBA vs. Spencer Turnbull (3-14, 4.68).

Scouting report

TBA, Yankees: The Yankees have not set their rotation for this series.

Jackson, Tigers: He’s lost his last four starts with the Tigers, but he is closing in on a milestone. He is two strikeouts away from 1,500 in his career. He will become the 21st active pitcher to hit that mark.

Twitter: @cmccosky