Developing players at big-league level a rocky, but ultimately rewarding ride for Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit —  Baseball people have forever argued about the pros and cons of developing young players at the major-league level, as opposed giving them extended time in Triple-A.

You kind of get the feeling this current edition of Tigers baseball is a clinical study on that topic.

Willi Castro has struggled at the plate and in the field.

Whether it’s Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo playing in the big leagues without the benefit of Double-A or Triple-A training, Willi Castro, slightly more seasoned but only two years older than Baddoo, or Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize, elite prospects neither of whom has thrown a pitch in Triple-A — the Tigers are serving as a big-league incubator for young talent.

It can be both exasperating and encouraging to follow and for the player, it can walk the line between rewarding and ruin.  

“There is a part of this that’s just, let the kids play, let them learn,” manager AJ Hinch said. “There are great processes being developed on how to get these guys where they’re going to be. But the key is not to concede failure. Don’t concede it.

“You can’t just allow mistake after mistake and assume it’s going to get better through experience. It’s encouraging the positives and it’s also acknowledging the mistakes. If you stay consistent as a coach or manager, the players will appreciate it and respond to you.”

But it’s a whitewater ride, to be sure.  

More: What was Goodrum doing there? Tigers' shift defense was perfect in 1-0 victory

Castro hit .349 in a short 36-game test last season, but this year he’s not only struggling to stay above .200, he’s also struggled defensively to the point of being moved to second base and deleted off the depth chart at shortstop.

He had a double and a home run on Monday, but he followed it up with a 0-for-4 Tuesday, taking a called third strike with the bases loaded in the ninth, then another 0-for-4 Thursday.

“With Willi it’s kind of been one step forward and one step back,” Hinch said. “But as long as you are making a little bit of progress, we like it.”

Baddoo set baseball on fire in early April then went into a 4-for-46 skid. Look up now and he’s hitting .263 with a .431 on-base percentage in May, with 12 walks in 51 plate appearances. Though he was overmatched by Indians ace Shane Bieber and not in the lineup Friday against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.

“We took him out of the everyday grind and adjusted his program a little and just had him watch for a while,” Hinch said. “If you looked in our dugout, you would have noticed him sitting with me or with George (Lombard, bench coach and outfield coach). He’s a sponge. He wants to learn and grow.

“We don’t want to overwhelm him. But we need to ease off the gas pedal at times with him when it looked to be headed down a path of failure.”

Hinch saw that Baddoo was starting to press, starting to change the way he played the game —  over swinging, going up without a concrete plan.

“Just youthful things that you kind of anticipate,” Hinch said. “We started riding him again because his at-bats have been incredible.”

But, as we are seeing, the waters don’t typically stay calm for long and it take a trained and vigilant eye to know when the failure might be doing permanent damage. Catcher Jake Rogers is the object lesson for that. The Tigers admittedly rushed him to the big leagues in 2019 and it’s taken nearly two years to break up the scar tissue that formed on his game and psyche from that negative experience.

“Each guy is different,” Hinch said. “One of the things we try to focus on is to individualize where everybody is at mentally and physically and emotionally across the board. And then never stop encouraging. Our coaching staff is upbeat and positive and it’s a good environment.

“We set high expectations for ourselves and there are always teaching moments.”

Rule 5 selection Akil Baddoo has had his share of dramatic moments.

And there are tough conversations to be had and sometimes hearts get broken. The game sped up on reliever Alex Lange to the point where the Tigers decided to send him back to Triple-A to regather himself. 

Now they are keeping a wary eye on Castro, debating whether it would be best to let him continue to grind it out against big-league pitching or try to recapture his confidence at Toledo —  especially since he’s lost his regular playing time in Detroit.

“It’s a delicate step,” Hinch said. “I don’t want him to lose his confidence. I haven’t lost confidence in him. But we also want to play guys who are playing a tick better. It’s individual. What can he handle, how much can he handle?

“If it was up to me, I’d cut the scoreboard electrical and not show him what he’s hitting or all the different stats we put up there. It’s counterproductive.”

Both Mize and Skubal got off to shaky starts, but Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter rode it out with them and both have settled in. Mize took a string of five straight quality starts into the game Friday and Skubal has posted nine strikeouts in back-to-back starts.

“It’s person to person, player to player, day by day,” Hinch said. “But if you are negative or pessimistic, or you are only looking at the bad things, then the environment is going to go south. It’s just so hard at this level to develop if you are not an encourager.

“It’s not accepting failure. It’s not accepting losses. It’s a style where we are dedicated to getting these players better.”

This is how it works. In more normal, non-pandemic times, a lot of these hot and cold flashes would be suffered in the relative anonymity of the minor leagues. But developing at the major-league level means making your mistakes against the best players in the game and on the biggest stage with the most at stake.

Tarik Skubal has been bitten by the longball.

It’s not for the weak of mind, body or spirit.

“This is a tough league,” Hinch said. “It’s not a league for trying hard. It’s a league to produce results. You know, I’m not happy with our win-loss record, but I am very proud of how our players are going about it.

“There is a sling-shot effect that can happen where as soon as it starts to click as a group, we can start winning more consistently.”