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2020 preview (finally!): In weirdest baseball season ever, Tigers just want to win some games

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cincinnati — Part of baseball’s enduring brilliance is the perfection of its fundamental measurements — 60 feet, 6 inches from mound to plate, 90 feet between bases, 162-game seasons. Those lengths are time-validated, sacrosanct, never to be altered or adjusted.

Seasons flow along year to year, connected by the events of the previous 162 games and the vision of the next 162 games. Teams are constructed to compete, adapt and survive, over seven months. Baseball’s timeline is linear, its history a study of events that occur within each 162-game segment. Champions are crowned and awards are disbursed to those who prevail in each 162-game segment.   

Until some cataclysmic event occurs throwing the whole thing out of whack. Like a world-wide pandemic.

Tigers' Miguel Cabrera smiles during infield practice at Detroit Tigers Summer Camp at Comerica Park in Detroit on July 14, 2020.

So what exactly do we make of this 2020 Major League Baseball season, which for the Tigers will commence here on Friday against the Cincinnati Reds. After being shut down for three months, quarantined against the COVID-19 virus that remains like a dark rain cloud, a looming, lethal threat, the season will be reduced by 102 games and three and a half months — 60 games in 66 days — against regional opponents only.

Built to run a marathon, teams have had a month to prepare for an 880-meter sprint.

“It’s going to be something different and we’re all going to have to make adjustments,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever been a part of anything like this.”

No. To be sure, this is unprecedented. No fans in the stands. No smell of hot dogs, popcorn or beer. In place of the normal ballpark buzz, artificial crowd noise will be piped in. Players and coaches, tested for the virus every other day, will be masked when they aren’t on the field. There will be no hugs, high-fives or fist-bumps on the field or in the dugout, where players will be spaced at acceptable distances.  

Canopies have been erected over dugouts and bullpens to accommodate the extra spatial requirements. Players have been advised to stay in hotels and avoid taxis and Ubers when they are on the road.

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“Normal is where we are at right now, it’s a new normal,” said lefty Matthew Boyd, the Tigers’ Opening Day starter Friday night. “What used to be was special and fun but if we’re hoping for that to be the same we’re not going to enjoy where we are right now.

“Don’t get me wrong, nobody wants this (pandemic), so many people are suffering and we’re not taking any of that lightly…But baseball-wise, no one knows how it’s going to play out. We’ve never experienced anything like this, but we are looking at it through the lens of this is an exciting opportunity.”

Given all those factors, clearly the 2020 season will stand alone in baseball history, consigned to a bin of outliers that include the strike-shortened 1981 and 1994 seasons and possibly the roster-depleted war years. Its champion, its award-winners, its streaks, its record-breakers will all be framed, not necessarily by an asterisk, but certainly in the context of a 60-game season.

That’s not to say it can’t be a helluva lot of fun.

“I feel like we’re here to entertain, whether it’s for 60 games or 162, we here to give the fans a good show,” Tigers new first baseman C.J. Cron said. “That’s what our job is. It sucks that this situation is here and we don’t get to play 162. I think that will mess with things here and there as far as from a statistics stand-point.

“But anything can happen in 60 games. I know you hear that a lot but it’s true. We’re going to approach this as giving back to the fans. Try to entertain them as much as possible and try to have fun doing it.”

Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire watches live batting practice at Comerica Park.

'A team that's hungry'

In these uncertain and, frankly, disconcerting times, watching a ballgame, even if only on television, seems like a healthy tonic.

“It’s not a cure by any means,” Gardenhire said. “But I think it’s going to help. It’s going to give people something to do. That’s what baseball does very well. It gives you a passion, somewhere you can turn to clear your mind.

“Just sit back and watch a ballgame and root for your team. Baseball has a special place in the hearts of all of us. Just get us back to where we can take our minds off the things that are going on in the world and the hardships people are having.”

Anything can happen. A team like the Tigers can come off a 114-loss season, add some capable veteran players — Cron, second-baseman Jonathan Schoop, catcher Austin Romine, outfielder Cameron Maybin and starting pitcher Ivan Nova — to a mix of young but battle-tested players and feel like they’ve got a fighting chance.

“I see a team that’s hungry,” said Romine, the former Yankee. “I see a team that’s been labeled as rebuilding the last couple of years, but you see guys who are ready to win some ballgames. They’re getting after it. I’m seeing a lot of hard work in the cages and on the field.

“I see a team that wants to compete, play hard and win games.”

Boyd, who has been a part of teams that lost a combined 310 games in three seasons, has an edgier take on that.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen this year, but we do know we’ve learned a lot from these last few years and we’re tired of getting our teeth kicked in,” he said. “It’s happened a lot and it’s not fun. There’s a lot of guys here that teams have given up on, guys who are here now making a name for themselves.

“We’ve got a bunch of junkyard dogs here and we’re ready to go. ... We’ve been on the wrong side of the ball too many times. Collectively, we are ready to go put our best foot forward and we’ll see where the dust settles.”

Tangibly, on paper, the Tigers have vastly improved an offense that was historically bad last season. The addition of Cron and Schoop, who combined for 48 home runs with the Twins last year, is a massive upgrade on the right side of the infield.

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Miguel Cabrera, who played through chronic knee pain and was limited to 12 home runs and 59 RBIs last season, is as fit and healthy as he’s been in years and with a short season could be a productive force again at age 37.

The Tigers also are counting on players like third baseman Jeimer Candelario, shortstop Niko Goodrum, left fielder Christin Stewart and center fielder JaCoby Jones, players with a couple of seasons under their belts now, to play to their talent levels.

As for pitching, with Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and the durable veteran Nova, the Tigers feel confident about the top of their rotation. Veteran Jordan Zimmermann (forearm) is likely lost for the season and lefty Daniel Norris’ start was delayed by the virus, but those setbacks are mitigated somewhat by the addition of a healthy Michael Fulmer, the emergence of lefty Tyler Alexander and, soon, the debut of No. 1 prospect Casey Mize.

Later this summer, three more pitching prospects — Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Tarik Skubal — could make their big-league debuts, as well.

The bullpen, as always, will be in flux for the Tigers. While Joe Jimenez and Buck Farmer are locked as closer and set-up man, respectively, Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson will likely mix and match and seek a hot hand from a batch of strong-armed candidates — Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto and Bryan Garcia foremost among them.

“Sixty games, man,” said veteran Jordy Mercer, back with the Tigers in a utility role. “If you’ve been in this game long enough, 60 games is crazy. All you have to do is get hot for just a little bit and who knows what can happen.

“Knowing we were playing 60, we knew we had to come in prepared from Day One because they all count, every game is important. And a team like this, we’ve got a lot of talent. We can play. People will count us out like that always do, which is good, but we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

Tigers general manager Al Avila makes his way onto the field during Detroit Tigers training camp at Comerica Park.

'The best we can'

Again, regardless of how things turn out in this truncated season, it’s important to preach perspective. Especially for a team like the Tigers who, after three miserable years of deconstructing a $200-million payroll and rebuilding a farm system, are just now ascending into contender status.

This season was supposed to be a bridge year, another year of construction before the top prospects are ready to fully contribute in 2021. Now, suddenly, there’s a 60-game season and yes, for sure anything can happen, but short-term success in a year like this would amount to just fool’s gold in the big picture. 

What would making the playoffs in a 60-game season really mean for the Tigers? It certainly wouldn’t signal the team has arrived as a perennial contender. Nor would it hasten the building plans. Not in a year with no minor-league baseball, where hundreds of players in the system aren’t even playing competitively, and just a handful of top prospects are spending the summer doing drills and taking live batting practice in Toledo.

“We are doing the best we can with the circumstances we’ve been given,” general manager Al Avila said.

For prospects like outfielder Riley Greene, catcher Jake Rogers and infielders Isaac Paredes and Spencer Torkelson, the drill work and batting practices will allow them to hone their baseball skills, but a summer without game competition is detrimental.

“That’s what guys will miss the most,” Avila said. “In saying that, we have some great instructors and some great technology and we feel we can get these guys ready to play this year if and when we need them but also get them enough work that they’re progressing for next year."

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Avila certainly has felt outside pressure from the fan base and from some in the media to throw the prospects into the fire in this shortened season. He’s steadfastly stuck to the plan, knowing a misstep or an overreach now could set the entire plan back another couple of years.

“We have to be very smart about this,” he said. “We can’t be short-sighted. We are looking at this rebuilding process in the long-term. We want whatever success we have to be sustainable. I can’t say I’m going to make a decision that will hurt us in the long run for a short-term fix.”

Whatever collective success or failure the Tigers have in 2020 would best be taken in the same context, with the same grain of salt, as this entire 2020 season — as if it exists in a vacuum. Unlike the flow of normal seasons, nothing that happens in the next two and a half months — other than significant injury, of course — will alter the pace or course of the Tigers’ rebuild.

“You hope we just move forward, get through these ballgames and enjoy baseball again and then go back at it as a group, as a whole organization,” said Gardenhire, who is in the final year of this contract with the Tigers. “We’ll just go about our business and see how it turns out for this year. We will worry about the rest of the stuff later.

“Hopefully, we will get back to the norm and this country will get back to the norm. That’s the most important thing, that people of this country can get back to doing what they want to do and next year we can go back to a full season and we won’t be dealing with it.”

There’s no guarantee of that, of course. There’s no guarantee we’ll even get to the finish line of this 60-game sprint. All the more reason to just sit in front of your television with a beverage and snack of your choice and for two-plus months binge-watch the best reality series ever — Major League Baseball.

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky