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Niyo: Tigers believe Casey Mize is worth the wait

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The Tigers are all headed to Ohio this week. But Casey Mize is among the players who’ll make it only as far as Toledo.

It's not because he doesn’t belong on the team’s 30-man Opening Day roster, which will begin this pandemic-shortened Major League Baseball season Friday night in Cincinnati.

No, it's because the team isn’t quite ready to admit it yet, which is their right, obviously. And probably even the right thing to, all things considered. But more on that later.

Right-hander Casey Mize

First, the Tigers had to break the news to their former No. 1 overall pick, the 23-year-old right-hander who began the just-concluded summer camp at Comerica Park by striking out Miguel Cabrera on three pitches in a "filthy" display — to use manager Ron Gardenhire's words — and never once looked out of place as a big-leaguer.

But what could’ve been an awkward conversation Monday when Gardenhire and general manager Al Avila and assistant GM David Chadd sat down with Mize apparently went rather smoothly.

“He obviously handled it well,” Avila said on a video conference call Monday following the team’s final intrasquad scrimmage in Detroit. “He’s a pro. He’ll go down there, work hard, and get himself ready.”

More:Casey Mize, other top Tigers prospects officially moved to the 'taxi' squad

Never mind that he’s pretty close to “ready” as it is, something that seemed readily apparent these last few weeks, as Mize impressed the coaches — “I’d like to have him right now,” Gardenhire said — and his would-be Tigers teammates with both his pitching repertoire and his polished approach. An approach that was on display again when the Tigers’ brass delivered the news he surely knew was coming.

“The greatest thing about the kid is he has questions, things go through his mind, and he talked to us about some of his thoughts,” Gardenhire said. “And that’s what you want from a young man like that. He’s on the right path. This organization said a few years ago, ‘This is the way we were gonna do it,’ and we’re sticking to it.”

And that’s where it gets a bit dicey, of course.

Time is on their side

Teams can’t afford to talk about tanking in explicit terms, even if that’s effectively what the Tigers have done the last couple years while dismantling that $ 200 million payroll that used to fill Comerica Park. Nor is it wise to admit to manipulating service time for a top prospect, even if every MLB team has done it. 

Avila, for his part, insisted Monday that service-time considerations didn’t factor into the Tigers’ decision to send Mize to Toledo, along with 18 others. (“That’s not a thought process for me right now,” he said.)

But there's a cost-control game teams will keep playing, at least until there’s a new collective bargaining agreement in place in a couple of years. And it's one the Tigers absolutely should play if they’re fully-focused on a franchise rebuild that the front office is “cautiously, optimistically, happy” about, as Avila put it Monday.

Keeping Mize off the major-league roster for at least a week to start this shortened season — one where every day counts for nearly three on a prorated scale — effectively keeps him from reaching free-agent eligibility at the end of the 2025 season and extends team control through 2026.

Theoretically, they could even wait until a month into the 2021 season to let Mize make his major-league debut and push his free agency off for another year. But that all assumes a lot that's impossible to know — and even harder to project — right now, particularly at the start of a shortened season no one can guarantee will finish.

There are other factors to consider in those service-time machinations, including arbitration costs and injuries and optional assignments. But for now, a short stint in Toledo for Mize this summer seems both plausible, and reasonable — stretching him out before tossing him into the rotation, for starters — without any real near-term consequences for the Tigers.

Or grievances, for that matter, even from a fanbase that’s clamoring to see some of the supposed stars of the future. It's not like there will be any fans in the stands to boo whoever's starting instead of Mize next week against the Royals, anyway.

With Daniel Norris still waiting for clearance after a positive COVID-19 test last month — “We do feel that he’s close,” Avila said Monday — and Jordan Zimmermann (right forearm) going on the 45-day injured list, there’s obviously room in the rotation right now for Mize. But Avila says the Tigers will “mix and match” to start the season, giving some others an opportunity out of the gate while also keeping an eye on the waiver wire.

After a couple loops through a four- or five-man rotation to start the season, though, it’ll be obvious what’s missing. And the Tigers’ brass will know where they can find it.

Arms in place

The plan for this season was to have Mize — and fellow starters Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, among others — start at the Triple-A level after mowing down hitters in Erie last season. And then, ideally, Mize would be ready for a midseason call-up to gain some major-league experience ahead of a full-time role in Detroit in 2021.

“That’s why we made him (the No. 1 overall pick) — we thought he was a very special pitcher,” Avila said.

One worth protecting, as the Tigers did last season with Mize, shutting him down in mid-August after 21 starts and 128⅓ innings at Lakeland and Erie, where he missed a few weeks with a shoulder strain.

And yes, one worth protecting now as well, even if it’s only for a couple weeks or a month.

“This year, it’s gonna be a shorter year, so he’s got time to build, build, build,” Avila said.

Still, while there’s a plan in place in Toledo for building off what he’s already accomplished in two abbreviated spring-training camps this year — “We’ve got some really good instructors some really good technology and we feel that we can get these guys ready to play,” the GM said, when asked about the Tigers’ prospects — there’s no replacing the game action that Mize and the others will be missing out on with no minor-league seasons in 2020.

“It’d be really tough, honestly,” Mize acknowledged earlier in camp, when asked how that might affect his progress. “I think there’s gonna be a ton of value in facing hitters and trying to be as competitive as possible this season. I think we can get better if that’s not a possibility. It’s just gonna be a little tougher, in all honesty.

“In a perfect scenario, I would love to go compete against big-league hitters and try to get as much experience as I can this season to prepare to make a run in 2021.” 

He’s not the only one saying that, either. As Gardenhire noted last week, when asked about Mize’s progress, “He’s moving really quick. For me, it can’t be quick enough. I like him a lot.”

They all do, obviously. Which is why Monday’s demotion really wasn’t anything to get worked up about in the end.

“We have high expectations of him, he has high expectations of himself, and he’s on the right track,” Avila said. “I know that he will be getting himself ready for when he’s needed, and that’s what he’s doing right now. He’s got the right mindset: That he’s gonna get prepared, he’s gonna keep working, and he’ll be ready when his time comes up.”

And despite Monday’s decision, there’s no reason to think that time won’t come very soon.


Twitter: @JohnNiyo