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How Top Tigers prospects are faring with 'unconventional' baseball on Toledo taxi squad

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

On a downtown Toledo baseball field, you can see – as if deep into a crazy dream – how 2020 and a pandemic have so contorted lives. And sports.

The Tigers are trying to keep 30 players either ready for a trip to Detroit this summer, or in future seasons. It’s a mixed bag when an outfielder like Jorge Bonifacio, who three years ago hit 17 home runs for the Royals, is playing intra-squad games against a guy 14 months out of high school: Riley Greene.

Casey Mize

Or when Dillon Dingler, who began the spring playing for Ohio State, is working at catcher against more seasoned souls when he should be playing at Single A Connecticut or West Michigan.

This is life as the Tigers try to keep their 30-man taxi squad rolling during a world’s coronavirus crucible.

And yet, the early August report from Fifth Third Field is firm and for the most part upbeat:

No injuries. No tender elbows. Young pitchers are building arms and innings. Hitters are getting their cuts against high-caliber fire.

In random order come observations from Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ head of development, who has been monitoring workouts:

►Isaac Paredes, infielder: He might be hitting the ball harder and more often than any of the Toledo cast. Although no Tigers execs are hinting at anything, fans who foresee Paredes starting at third base for the Tigers next season – whenever “next season” convenes – are probably on terra firma.

Spencer Torkelson

►Spencer Torkelson, infielder: “Really an impressive bat,” said Littlefield, who knows Torkelson would be apprenticing someplace other than Toledo had COVID-19 not clobbered baseball’s minor leagues. The Tigers view him now as they saw him in June when they grabbed Torkelson with the MLB Draft’s first pick: on track to crash Comerica Park, maybe soon.

►Casey Mize, right-handed starter: He is getting in five innings, or maybe a tad more, in his intra-squad starts. There have been no hitches. Mize is dress-rehearsing for what figures to be a long ride in Detroit. He is pumping up an arm that during this cobbled-together baseball year that needs to fling as many pitches as possible. His repertoire and command will put him into 2021’s rotation – probably immediately.

►Matt Manning, right-handed starter: Same story as Mize. He is green enough to need more time tweaking his power-armed arsenal. But you can expect him in Detroit once a more customary regular-season schedule replaces 2020’s delirium. So far, Manning’s power is on full display at Fifth Third. Command has a chance to sharpen against the Toledo corps’ better-grade hitters.

►Tarik Skubal, left-handed starter: No bumps here, either. He is left-handed lightning. Skubal soon should be one-fifth of a rotation’s reason why the Tigers will be viewed as unfriendly in any series against any team.

►Alex Faedo, right-handed starter: Repeat tale, three months before Faedo turns 25: The slider is there. And quite the slider it is. Faedo has enough crust and enough savvy to factor into that rotation re-design that is slowly – make that quickly – about to re-shape Comerica’s pitching cast.

►Greene, outfielder: “Everybody talks about his bat, but I’ve seen some stuff on defense – he’s a ballplayer,” said Littlefield, who mentions one plus, anyway, from this Twilight Zone of a year. Greene is working with Toledo’s grayer beards and learning the facts of life about off-speed pitches he now sees more often than if he were going through conventional farm-team grooming. It should prepare him for life in Detroit even a year ahead of schedule.

Franklin Perez

►Franklin Perez, right-handed starter: Forgive those who might consider Perez as Toledo’s top early-weeks story. After two seasons of sadistic ills, Perez has had zero health issues and is throwing the ball, well, like Perez can heave it. The Tigers are being careful. Perez is being eased into regular shifts. But at long last he could be on track to being the prime-time pitcher the Tigers thought they were getting from the Astros three summers ago.

►Jake Rogers, catcher: Littlefield summarizes Rogers’ progress with in one word: “Improving.” Doesn’t mean all the hitting kinks have been flattened, but he is closer to being a steady big-league batter than a year ago when his swing and confidence crash-landed at Comerica Park.

►Dingler: If the Tigers see that their 2020 haul does for a rebuild what their mid-1970s drafts did in setting up their big 1980s teams, Dingler probably figures – integrally. Littlefield’s early assessment: “Physical, athletic guy who has caught and thrown very well – and received well. He’s strong, physically, and can really impact the ball.” Which means he has the extra-base crunch the Tigers believed they were drafting in June.

Life in Toledo 

All of Littlefield’s appraisals belie one gnarly fact about Toledo’s taxi squad, which was set up as a kind of warehouse for big-league rosters once a pared-down schedule began last month.

There are weird rhythms to a week’s schedule.

Players are tested for coronavirus every other day. Workouts and intra-squad games can be staggered, or they might begin at irregular hours, in part so everyone can watch that day’s or that night’s Tigers game. Keeping an eye on what’s happening in Detroit is imperative when the Tigers' lineup can change in an instant. In the Tigers’ case, Toledo is an hour drive from Comerica Park, which is handy when COVID-19 already is known for putting choke-holds on big-league active rosters.

Toledo isn’t exempt here. Intra-squad lineups are so stressed for position players that coaches typically fill in. Mike Hessman, who would have been working this season as a Triple A Toledo’s batting instructor, was playing second base during Wednesday’s game. Littlefield half-chuckled when Hessman, 42, sprinted toward a slow-rolling ground ball that Littlefield was afraid would turn Hessman’s hamstring into confetti.

“It’s certainly unconventional,” Littlefield said of the taxi-team’s ways. “It is different, for sure. There’s kind of a spring-training feel to it, in that guys are trying to make the club in Detroit. But it’s still different.”

The culture at Toledo can look more like a training ground for bank-robbers, what with all the masks being worn. Players wear their protective face-cloths in the clubhouse and in the dugout, as well as in the weight room and training room. Essentially, masks are required anywhere where players aren’t swinging a bat or throwing a ball. But there also are close-quarters moments on the field when masks are donned.

“We’re trying to emphasize social-distancing, wearing our masks, and hygiene,” Littlefield said. “It’s a team effort. You hate to be the parent telling players to make their bed and clean their room, because they get tired of it. But we’re all in this together. It’s natural to lapse a little bit when you’ve been a ballplayer all your life and you’ve had such freedom. But the guys understand and everyone’s been on the same page.”

There is a limit to how much bosses can control. And beyond that limit is where baseball, unlike the NBA’s more hermetically sealed start-up, is threatened. Nothing poses as much threat to the supposed 60-game MLB schedule, or to the taxi squads, as players’ housing and way of life away from the ballpark.

“It’s kind of like a normal season,” Littlefield said, explaining where players live. “Along with the Toledo Mud Hens (executives), we try to find them options for housing. Some guys live here the way they would during spring training. A few guys are living close to Detroit. Some have been here (Toledo) in the past and have choices.”

It’s the intersection with public life and COVID-19’s infectious ways that can make so many moments risky.

“Yeah, you still need to go to the grocery store, to the drug store, and that area’s a major challenge, from the time everyone leaves the ballpark till they return the next morning,” Littlefield said. “We talk about it with them a lot. We try and educate and inform.

“You’ve got to be careful with all those things. Every link in the chain is important. We tell them: Whether you’re going to the grocery store or to Starbucks, whatever you’re doing, keep all of those things (advisories) in mind. Because they’re representing all of us.”

Hall of Fame help

It has helped, Littlefield said, having the likes of Alan Trammell around. Nothing quite matches a Hall of Fame player, who happens also to be an assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila, sharing thoughts or suggestions during workouts and games.

Trammell has been a regular in Toledo. Coaching, counseling, appraising. Trammell has built even during his front-office stint a reputation as one of the key people in the Tigers galaxy. It’s all due to skills so versatile and to status unmatched. And it has left an imprint.

Alan Trammell

“Early on, at one of our introductory meetings, we were talking about different things – masks, social distancing, everything,” Littlefield said. “Tram was the one who brought up to the players that they had to develop in this environment a competitiveness, a focus. They had to concentrate, because the next step – to Detroit – was going to be different. They would be competing against major-league pitchers and hitters.

“And that was important, because it can feel at some moments a little lax here,” Littlefield said. “There are, for example, no umpires at these games. But, internally, you’ve got to take on that personal challenge.”

Toward that mission there are coaches. More than a half-dozen coaches work with players and pitchers before games and afterward. Individual attention is heightened. Pitchers are monitored by multiple eyes during bullpen sessions.

Along with Trammell, the instructional corps includes: Tom Prince, Triple A manager; Mud Hens pitching coach Juan Nieves; Hessman, Toledo’s batting guru; Kenny Graham, director of player development; Dan Hubbs, director of pitcher development; A.J. Sager, Tigers bullpen coach and roving pitching instructor; Gene Roof, the team’s roving outfield and baserunning professor; and Jeff Branson, who is the touring minor-league hitting teacher.

“There’s constant communication with Detroit – reporting on what’s happening on the pitching and position fronts, their health and performance levels,” Littlefield said. “And there’s a lot of individual-skill work. A variety of things there, which is helped by all the technology.

“You get a lot of work in here. And that’s helped because, obviously, we’re able to have greater numbers of coaches than normal.”

Nor does it hurt when a player with a heavy big-league dossier arrives for some injury-rehab at Fifth Third Field. He becomes one more counselor during a baseball summer unlike any before.

“I just had a conversation with Cameron Maybin,” Littlefield said, speaking of the Tigers outfielder who is healing from a strained quadriceps. “He was wearing a mask. And he was adamant about us being in this together.

“We’ve got to take care of each other, he said. And it helps to have a guy, with some experience, saying that.

“It’s great to have players lead the charge.”