The next frontier for Tigers' development — tighten up the defense across the board

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — There was a lot to like about the progress the Tigers made the first three-plus months of the season. After a putrid start, they posted back-to-back winning months and in general played a pretty exciting and entertaining brand of baseball leading up to the All-Star break.

They had gone 4-0-1 in their last five series. But these last four games against the Twins exposed the one facet of the game that has and will continue to hinder any true progress going forward — poor defensive play.

“When you take a step back and look at it, we have to improve our defense,” manager AJ Hinch said before the finale against the Twins Sunday. “That’s the thing we are going to continue to harp on.”

Tigers second baseman Willi Castro

Defensive runs saved isn’t the only way to measure defensive efficiency, but it is probably the best overall gauge. And the Tigers went into the game ranked dead last in baseball with a minus-38 defensive runs saved.

They’ve ranked last or next to last all season.

“We can be a good defensive club,” Hinch said. “We can get better in certain areas, like the double-play turns, and we can play a cleaner game of baseball. What we have learned, when we do that we’re pretty tough and we can put together some good stretches and winning months.

“When we don’t, the game implodes on us.”

The Tigers are a minus-14 collectively at shortstop, which is the worst in baseball, and a minus-7 at second base. Willi Castro is a minus-10 at second base and a minus-12 overall. That’s the second-worst defensive run saved number in baseball.

“I don’t like to single out one area,” Hinch said. “It’s a little unfair. We’ve got guys moving around the field. Willi has gotten better at second base as we’ve allowed him to hang out there. Clearly we’ve tried to address the shortstop position.

“We’ve shuffled guys through there and played guys there who aren’t really shortstops.”

Willi Castro, Harold Castro, Isaac Paredes, Niko Goodrum and Zack Short have all played shortstop so far this season. Short has been by far the best defender there.

“It’s a combination of things,” Hinch said. “I don’t think it’s one position. A team identity is more what I’m talking about. Not, ‘Hey, we’re improving this one spot, we’re going to be better.’ You can go across the board, we can get better.”

Improving the defense, particularly the infield defense, takes on a greater urgency with the Tigers developing young, elite starting pitchers like Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning in real time against big-league hitters.

“We have to address the defense if we’re going to carry these young pitchers and develop the young pitchers at this level,” Hinch said. “The tighter our defense can be the better. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it. We’ve done it.

“We just have to keep harping on it because that’s the next step forward for our club.”

The pitching plan

The Tigers should enjoy the break to the fullest, because they will be jumping right back into the fire immediately, starting with a doubleheader on the first day back on Friday. They will play 18 games in 17 days.

Which begs the question: How in the world is the pitching going to hold up? Veterans Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull aren’t expected back until August. Neither is reliever Michael Fulmer. Mize has at least two more short-inning starts. Skubal will have his innings rationed again at some point, presumably in August.

“I don’t worry about coming out of the break into those first five to 10 days,” Hinch said. “We’ll be hitting that topic probably right in the middle of that Kansas City series on the road or the series back here in Minnesota.

“We will have a moment of truth where we’re going to have a bullpen day or bring guys back on regular rest or insert somebody from Toledo. For now it’s TBA. We have to find out how we come out of this break in those first seven to 10 games.”

Jose Urena will start the first game of the doubleheader Friday against the Twins and Game 2 will be a bullpen start. Wily Peralta and Casey Mize will start Saturday and Sunday. Manning is expected to be called up and added to the rotation in the next series against Texas.

Around the horn

Niko Goodrum was in the original starting lineup Sunday in left field. But as he was doing his pre-game routine he felt tightness in his left calf. He was scratched just as Hinch was taking the lineup cards out to the umpires. 

... Rookie Akil Baddoo belted his sixth home run of the season Sunday. He got an 0-2 breaking ball from Twins ace Jose Berrios and hit it 415 feet over the big wall in right field. It was one of three hits the Tigers got off Berrios. 

...Outfielder Nomar Mazara was ill and spent Saturday night in his hotel room. He was back and available to play Sunday. “He said he sweat through the night and feels better today,” Hinch said. “There’s no fever and no issue moving forward.”

Twitter: @cmccosky