During shutdown, Tigers' Casey Mize keeps sights set on making big league debut this year

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — They get together frequently. Casey Mize, Matthew Boyd, Alex Faedo, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal. Not in person, obviously, but in a group chat. These starting pitchers — cornerstones of the Tigers’ present and future — are scattered across the country, quarantined like everybody else during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chats, organized by Boyd, the elder of the group, are a mixture of therapy, information gathering and socializing.

Tigers top prospect Casey Mize throws during a spring training game against the New York Yankees on March 5, 2020, in Lakeland, Fla.

“It’s just trying to find out what everyone is doing to prepare,” said Mize, the first overall pick in 2018 and the Tigers' No. 1 prospect. “What have you been able to do? What aren’t you able to do? We all have different resources and we all have different lack of resources. But we are all doing everything we can with what we’ve got.”

Mize has been hunkered down in Nashville. He’s been able to throw five days a week, with a 40-pitch bullpen every Wednesday. Through connections, he’s had access to a facility where he can throw, workout and get physical therapy, while still observing proper social distancing.

He’s been luckier than most.

Detroit Tigers pitching prospect Casey Mize, center, does warmup drills at the Tigers' spring training complex in Lakeland, Fla., on Feb. 11, 2020.

“It’s been frustrating, but I’m not going to feel sorry for myself,” he said. “I’m going to keep it in perspective. A lot of people have it way worse than not being able to play ball. I’m not going to sit here and pout or be really sad about my situation when other people have it way worse.”

True. But in a baseball sense, specifically from the Tigers’ point of view, this shutdown has thrown a wrench into an integral facet of this reconstruction plan. This was going to be the year Mize, Manning, Skubal and Faedo advance to Triple-A.

And if things progressed properly, Mize would be making his Major League debut sometime this season.

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Now, having not thrown a competitive pitch in a month and a half and still no clue when, or if, the season will resume, who knows? The timetables have been thrown out of whack.

“It is very frustrating,” Mize said. “This is the year I’d hoped to spend a lot of quality time in the big leagues and make my debut. And if there is a season, that is still my goal. That is still something I want to accomplish.

“I want to be a Major League baseball player this year, if there is baseball to be played.”

Casey Mize

Here’s what’s working against him: In his first full year of pro ball last year, Mize threw 109.1 innings. He was shut down a couple of times with shoulder issues. He’s faced 485 hitters in 113 minor-league innings, none against hitters above Double-A level.

He needs to pitch in a more competitive environment.

Instead of throwing one 40-pitch bullpen a week in an empty facility these past six weeks, Mize was supposed to be honing his chops and building his innings against older, smarter Triple-A hitters.

Those competitive innings are invaluable and it’s hard to see how they can be salvaged, regardless of when baseball resumes. Especially if, as many reports have suggested, there will be no minor league season.

“Everything is speculation right now,” Mize said. “But if that were to happen, I still want to get innings. I want to be in a competitive environment to prepare for the future of the Detroit Tigers. That’s really what matters — being able to prepare for what is to come.

“That’s what the rebuild is about.”

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Mize is doing all he can to be ready to hit the ground running when he’s called back to work. He feels relatively confident about maintaining his arm health and pitch repertoire.

“At this level, guys have enough feel,” he said. “I haven’t thrown competitive in a month and a half, but I am keeping my body in shape and staying prepared physically. I think we have enough feel to get that back quickly.

“Actually, I would be inclined to think that whenever we do get back on the mound, pitchers will look pretty good because we will all be rested up and prepared. Hitters have it worse. I can go play catch against a net. Hitters need more.”

What Mize can’t do, though, in an empty facility and no hitter in the box, is simulate game speed and game intensity.

Tigers pitching prospect Casey Mize likely will front a star-studded rotation at Triple-A Toledo.

“It’s a focus thing,” he said. “You try to have focus and execute. But, it’s one bullpen a week so I’m just trying to stay as sharp as possible. I try to mentally lock in, but it’s pretty difficult to do. You don’t really know what to prepare for, you know? I’m throwing a bullpen on April 23 and I am not sure when I am going to report.

“I’ve just been approaching it as I am preparing to be a Major League baseball player this year and I’m going to do everything I can – not just so I don’t get behind, but to possibly get ahead.”

Either way, Mize said, 2020 is likely to go down in baseball history as one big anomaly.

“It’s definitely going to be different transition, a different feel, when we return,” he said. “I just hope to be able to compete this year and prepare for what’s to come in the future. Even if the season is played and there is a World Series, it’s going to be viewed differently. People will say, ‘Yeah, they won that year, but…’

“I just want to be able to be productive somehow and get some competitive innings.”

The governor of Tennessee is expected to lift the stay-at-home edict on May 1. Mize will be able to go back to train at the baseball facility run by his agency (The Bledsoe Agency) and will maybe finally get to throw to hitters again.

And who knows, maybe soon after that he will be able to rejoin his teammates in person.

“There will be some challenges, for sure,” he said. “But it makes you appreciate what you have on a consistent basis. There’s a lot perspective to be gained from this situation and I hope it positively affects me in the future.

“I hope I will appreciate things a lot more.”

Twitter @cmccosky