Detroit – Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson was trying to talk to a reporter Monday afternoon on his cellphone as he was driving his motor home through Tennessee. His wife Rhonda, the navigator, was telling him to head north.
“Hey, do you mind if I call you back in five minutes,” he said. “These roads are brutal.”
Five minutes later, a much calmer Anderson was back on the phone, his motor home cruising on I-40, rolling west through Memphis on the way back to their home in Arizona.
“We hung in Florida for a while,” he said. “Then we went to Georgia for four or five days, then to South Carolina. We thought we’d wait it out and then head to Detroit. But after talking to Dr. (Michael) Workings (Tigers team physician), he said it’s probably best to head home. It’s crazy up there.”
Detroit is not the place to wait out the coronavirus pandemic, for sure.
“Once we get home, we’re just going to get inside and shut doors and lock ourselves in,” he said. “We’re like everyone else, we have no idea how long this is going to go on.”
When baseball shut down March 12, Anderson was in the process of putting together his bullpen for the 2020 season. His starting rotation – Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Ivan Nova, Daniel Norris and Jordan Zimmermann – was healthy and nearly built-up for the start of the season.
There were no major injury issues. The organization’s top pitching prospects – Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo – were still in big league camp. Anderson was going to get one more look at each of them before sending them to the minor-league side.
Now? It’s like being back at Square One, with no map showing a way back to where things stood three weeks ago.
“I’ve talked to more than half of them now,” Anderson said of his pitchers. “Just to see what they’re up to and just to tell them I don’t know anything different than what we knew when we left. Just keep working out, keep your arm in shape and don’t overdo it.”
That’s the tricky part. If Anderson, or anybody, knew for sure when, or if, the season will restart, then he could devise a conditioning plan. He doesn’t. Nobody does.
“The biggest thing is, if we start to see the end of it, where it’s looking like it’s a little on the downhill side, that’s when you want to start getting back up on the mound,” he said. “Right now, it’s more just keeping the arm in shape and maybe throwing off the mound here and there.”
Pitching coaches are masters at prorating innings and pitch counts over the course of six-month season. But there are no guidelines for charting say, 100 games in four and a half months – which would be a very optimistic scenario allowing for the season to start in July.
Then take it further. If the regular season goes, with doubleheaders once a week and limited or no days off, into November, then there would be an abbreviated offseason before gearing back up for the 2021 season.
“It’s going to be like teams that go deep in the playoffs every year and have a short offseason,” Anderson said. “We’ll be in that mode with them.”
Here’s another question that can’t truly be answered: How does this impact the development of the Tigers’ pitching prospects? The big four was expected to start the season at Triple-A Toledo with the hope of one or two perhaps making their big-league debuts later in the 2020 season.
“It’s going to be the same process with those boys,” Anderson said. “When we can go back, they will have to build their stuff back up. They are in the same boat as all of us.”
Their relative youth – Manning, Skubal and Mize range in age from 22-24 – should work in their favor, at least physically. You would expect them to be more resilient and better able to bounce back safely from an extended layoff.
Still, except for maybe a spot start in a doubleheader, it’s harder now to picture any of them making any kind of impact at the big-league level this year.
“I don’t know,” Anderson said. “If you look at the bright side, they won’t run out of innings. Last year we had to shut a few of them down (including Mize) because they ran up their innings. Starting a little later might save them some innings and they’ll have some bullets for the end of the year.”
None of it is optimal, of course, but neither is a global pandemic. Anderson certainly understands where the issues of his pitching staff rank in the whole scheme of things.
“The only thing that would really stink is if we didn’t get to have a season,” he said. “But I’m not going to cry and moan about it because of what all the people in the world are going through with this virus. Our issues are small in comparison.”
Just another 1,500 miles on westbound I-40 and Anderson would be back home – a very odd place for a big-league pitching coach to be on April 7.