Among Tigers' batch of budding stars, Tarik Skubal could end up shining brightest

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — These were the Boston Red Sox. These were serious hitters Tarik Skubal was staring down Monday at a Grapefruit League hangout known as Publix Field at Marchant Stadium.

Kevin Pillar: Disrobed on four pitches: 94-mph fastball, another at 95, a change-up at 85, and another change-up at 86 that Pillar missed for strike three.

Jackie Bradley Jr.: Two fastballs at 96, the last of which Bradley swung at and topped for a put-out at first base.

Tarik Skubal, a 6-foot-3 left-handed starter, could be the first top pitching prospect to play for the Tigers.

Michael Chavis: fastball at 95, change at 84, another heater at 96 that Chavis fouled off, all before he wheeled and missed on an 88-mph slider that nearly sawed Chavis in two.

One inning. Ten pitches. No hits. Two strikeouts. Spring-training games are best treated like some of your 4-year-old's antics. Most should be ignored. They tend not to be true indicators of what’s ahead.

But in Skubal the Tigers are fairly certain that a 23-year-old, 6-foot-3, left-handed starter’s future is very much their future.

He is the brand of pitcher who, much like freshly poured cement, can be foundational. You can build a roster on guys like Skubal, and fellow farm-handers Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo, and – should he have finally found health he’s flashing this spring – Franklin Perez.

“I’d heard it all last summer,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said after Monday’s game, which saw Skubal throw one more inning that included a walk, a strikeout, no hits, and a fastball that checked in at 98. “Wait till you see this kid.”

Gardenhire was quoting not only Tigers insiders but trusted bird-dogs who worked for other teams.

Skubal by now is known as the Tigers’ biggest potential steal since … well, steals haven’t been in great supply of late at Comerica Park.

That word “potential” is underscored. Pitching careers can expire as rapidly as tonight’s sunset. But with one Tommy John surgery in his rearview mirror (2016), and with that same surgery causing teams to back off, Skubal’s status as stolen goods is due to him slipping to the ninth-round in 2018’s draft.

The Tigers gambled. They paid him $350,000, more than twice the slot-ceiling of $154,700, which can only be done if you trim draft-day pay for another selected player or two.

They since have seen a native Californian reared in Arizona and schooled at Seattle University put together two summers of minor-league numbers, some of which came during last year’s rocket-ride from Single A to Double A:

Thirty-three games, 2.11 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 145 innings, 102 hits, 212 strikeouts, and 41 walks. The batting average against Skubal has been .195.

This is how you win a ticket to big-league camp. And this is how you begin, in earnest, a pathway to Detroit.

Skubal likely will head again to Double A Erie once he leaves Florida in three weeks. He needs to wax his breaking pitches and buff his change-up. But there is every chance, as there is for Manning, Mize, or Faedo, that Comerica Park could be in 2020’s stars.

“It’s exciting, it’s fast, but I feel I’m in a good spot,” Skubal said this week as he alternatingly peeled a banana and took a swig of Dasani during a break outside the Tigers’ clubhouse at Marchant Stadium. “I don’t feel I’m doing anything (out of the ordinary).”

It takes about 10 seconds to appreciate Skubal’s style. He is serious, tight at the outset, but in a way that makes one suspect he will ease quickly.

And, in fact, he does. His old coach at Seattle University, Donny Harrel, notes, with affection, how Skubal in an instant can turn from military-rigid to a “smart(aleck).”

'He had all the traits' 

You learn about his background. About his four brothers: Trey, Tyler, and Trent, with Will the exception to all that family alliteration.

Tarik got his name from a character his folks had read about in a magazine article.

“They thought it was cool,” Tarik says of his unique moniker.

You discover that he was born in Hayward, Calif., then moved in sixth grade to Kingman, Ariz., a desert town an hour from Las Vegas.

His father, Russ, is a middle-school science teacher and basketball coach. In that vein, Tarik was a kid who loved sports, basketball maybe most of all. He also played football. And, of course, baseball.

Tarik Skubal

The reason he was at various times a center and point guard in basketball is why he also was a center and defensive tackle in football, as well as a pitcher, outfielder, first baseman, and, as he remembers, also a catcher, in baseball.

It’s because Kingman Academy had all of 400 students, 90 of which were in Skubal’s class.

Playing in a region where Gila monsters outnumbered people, it was easy for schools to miss or look askance at Skubal. He got one Division 1 offer: from Seattle, which was turning serious about baseball and hunted hard for players who might grow with the Redhawks.

Skubal shook the dust from his sandals, visited Seattle, and said yes.

“He took a chance on us,” said Elliott Cribby, who was an assistant at Seattle and who now is pitching coach at the University of Washington.

“But what I saw was a very determined kid, with a big body, and a very fast arm. Genetically, he had all the traits.

“But he was raw.”

Amen, says Harrel, Seattle’s head coach who noticed in Skubal as a teen all that has been on display since Detroit grabbed him.

“He showed up here at 17, as an early graduate, but his maturity level was 25,” Harrel said during a Thursday conversation.

“There never was a moment, mentally-wise, when he didn’t think he was going to have success.

“He prepares unbelievably. And he showed that at a very early age.

“His stuff was there, but not developed, and yet there was such attention to detail.”

Harrel says, in words totally understood: “This guy has always been older than he is.”

Skubal’s approach leans toward cerebral. It is the product of a mind blessed with math skills so comfortable that he first thought about being an engineer.

When deeper diving suggested engineering was “way too hard,” he shifted to finance, which is listed on his undergrad degree from Seattle.

“I like numbers,” Skubal said. “I like when things actually make sense. When you’re not leaving things to doubt.

“I like when things add up.”

Trainers and doctors were adding up by spring of his sophomore year. Seattle was playing a game at Chicago State in March of 2016 when the usual Tommy John story unfolded: tightness in his elbow, a “pop” that Skubal tried to pitch through, a later MRI, and then surgery that knocked him out for much of the next two years.

Strong conviction

The resolve, the conviction, that Skubal’s college coaches speak about could be seen, in the stands at Rainier Field, in Tacoma, a couple of weeks later when Seattle played Portland State.

“The day I had surgery, I made sure I was watching the guys play,” Skubal said.

“I wasn’t allowed in the dugout. And I was pretty out of it because I was on drugs from the surgery.

“But it was just kind of what I wanted. It was tough, at first, because your arm’s in a brace, and you’re just there, watching the guys play. I don’t know -- it was what I wanted to do. Nobody was going to tell me different.”

Tarik Skubal

Skubal returned in 2018, a year after the Diamondbacks had taken a flyer on him in the 29th round, even as he was still healing from his TJ surgery.

It was a tribute to what scouts already had seen. It also explained why Scott Boras had become his “adviser” ahead of the 2018 draft that ultimately paired him with Detroit.

One reason Skubal fell to the ninth round in 2018 was Boras. A billboard agent’s customary price-tag (high) was dangling from a college redshirt junior, which didn’t please every team that had been scouting him that spring, his first since surgery. The guys with radar guns and laptops had seen him walk a few too many batters.

The low-point – or, in the Tigers’ case, their big break – came during a March tournament in Orlando when Seattle played Seton Hall.

Cribby guesses there were “35 or 40” scouts in the stands that day. They saw Skubal pitch three innings of one-hit baseball. The problem was five walks. Control glitches were what scouts would remember more than a single hit or Skubal’s four strikeouts.

“He had arguably the worst start you could have,” Cribby recalls. “And then he had the best second half imaginable.”

Skubal agrees.

“If you look at the second half,” he said, “I’d be curious, numerically, to see what the numbers were.”

In fact, they were … OK.

Skubal’s second half featured a 4.14 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 41 2/3 innings, with 40 hits, 15 walks, and 59 strikeouts. There were a couple of outliers in that string of games, enough that scouts weren’t turned off by Skubal as much as they simply resisted Boras’ typically rigid dollars demand.

Pitching arsenal

The Tigers were old dance-partners with Boras and agreed a 21-year-old's arm, physique, and pitch arsenal were worth a dice-roll.

What they came to understand as Skubal settled into a Tigers uniform was what Skubal and his coaches had all along believed.

The path back from Tommy John is, like a Grapefruit League game, not helped by one-day evaluations.

“Coming off surgery, there’s a ‘feel’ factor,” said Harrel, who suspected the Tigers were going to see precisely what Skubal has since shown. “Everyone’s timeline after Tommy John is different.”

Skubal wasn’t buying into timelines as 2018 treated him to the occasional Seton Hall spin-out.

“I didn’t want to believe that,” he said. “I expect more out of myself.”

It gets back to make-up his Seattle coaches saw from the get-go. There was something rough-hewn and appealing about a then-teenager.

Then they watched him blossom. Athletically, competitively, physically, intellectually

“We tracked a lot of things at Seattle,” Cribby said. “And what I can tell you is that kid’s always been able to evolve. He’s always wanted to grow with the game.

“What I noticed was, he was always the first to ask a question. What you see is that he could be just as good of a coach as a pitch.

“But, I’ll tell you, when he gets on that mound, he’s an animal.”

Cribby paused.

“And man, what an athlete. You should see him on a basketball court.”

Harrel likes the thought of Skubal arriving with that fleet of young Tigers starters.

He knows Manning and Skubal have worked during off-seasons at the high-tech Driveline training center in Seattle, where Manning tightened his curveball.

He says also that another Pacific Coast favorite of theirs, Matthew Boyd, who pitched at Oregon State, will offer Skubal counsel only a left-hander with Boyd’s insight and scholarship can share.

But mostly, his coaches are interested in what their friend from the desert next will unveil. And not only on a baseball mound.

A young man raised alongside four brothers and cactus plants seems always to fascinate. As much, they agree, by his persona as by his pitching.