Those within the Detroit Tigers organization think the team is closer to contention than the average pundit.
An MLB rebuild takes time. Unlike, say, the NBA, where one top-ranked prospect can change the course of a team’s history, the best up-and-comers in baseball take years to develop in MiLB’s system. The Tigers are a classic example of this. Detroit last made the playoffs in 2014, and hasn’t been competitive since 2017, when they sent Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros at the MLB Waiver Deadline.
Three years later, and the Tigers have bought into their scouting department and player development. The likes of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning are set to buoy the starting rotation for years to come. Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, and Riley Greene, their 2019 first-round pick, will be powerful additions to any lineup when they’re ready to make the leap.
Detroit made waves early this offseason by hiring AJ Hinch, formerly of the Houston Astros. Hinch knows how to connect with you talent and, perhaps, turn the Tigers into winners. Despite his baggage related to the Houston sign-stealing scandal, Detroit landed Hinch and won’t look back.
— Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter) October 30, 2020
So just how close are the Tigers to playoff contention? FanSided spoke with team scout Tim Grieve to get a better sense of when Detroit can be a factor in October.
1. What does Hinch bring to the Tigers, and does he move up their competitive window?
While Hinch does carry some baggage with him, his talent as a manager — in leading an organization from the top-down — is worth the weight for the Tigers. Hinch has organizational experience as a player, manager and even the front office, as he served as the VP of Professional Scouting for the San Diego Padres before his stint in Houston.
Possessing such knowledge of the inner-workings of a baseball front office gives Hinch an edge over other managerial candidates as he takes on the final stages of the Tigers rebuild.
“We’re really excited to have A.J. on board…excited for what he’ll be able to do for us,” Grieve said. “From an amateur scouting standpoint, the more input the better. If that’s something A.J. wants to be involved in, I think that’s outstanding.”
Grieve was quick to point out that the Tigers have long had input from former players and even managers in the scouting department — from Alan Trammel to the late great Al Kaline — so Hinch providing some direction would be a welcomed sight. However, given that organizational viewpoint, the arrival of Hinch doesn’t necessarily provide any pressure to move up their competitive window.
“The timeline doesn’t really change. We want to win,” Grieve said. “We’re at the point in our rebuild where these guys are reaching the big leagues — the Skubal’s, the Mize’s, the Torkelson’s — it’s not just, ‘Hey, look that guy’s doing really well in A-ball’ anymore.”
Placing such high expectations on the shoulders of young players can backfire, but Grieve and the Tigers are confident they can deliver. They have to be, as it’s the process they bought into long ago, hopefully coming to fruition.
“If those guys are who we think they are, then yeah, it’s time to start expecting wins. I think we’re all confident that’s going to happen,” Grieve said.
Hinch has experience getting the most out of talented young players who perhaps just need a little direction. When he arrived in Houston in 2014, George Springer was a mere rookie, while Carlos Correa was near MLB-ready in the Astros minor-league system. It’s a spot most of Detroit’s high-ranking minor league talent can relate to.
“It gives you a little extra confidence that he’s been in a place that, in the not so distant past, was right where we were — picking at the top of the draft, finishing in last place — and you look at what they did. A.J. was at the forefront of that…He did it there, let’s do it again here,” Grieve said.
2. Is Detroit’s young pitching ready for the biggest stage?
The shortened 2020 MLB campaign was strange enough for seasoned veterans. For young prospects on the come up, it had a potentially drastic impact on their career arc. The minor league season was canceled, and while the best prospects in the Tigers system did receive reps at the alternate training site, it’s yet to be seen if the lack of consistent innings, or at-bats, will result in a setback for some names Tigers fans have become quite familiar with.
“Hopefully there’s not any issue but I think as an industry we’re still kind of feeling it out and seeing what happens this year,” Grieve said. “The vast majority of those guys (top-ranked prospects) were able to salvage those at-bats and innings (at the alternate site), so hopefully the impact is minimal at worst, but we’re not really sure what the impact will be yet.”
Detroit’s farm system is consensus top-5 in baseball per MLB pipeline. At the top of those rankings are Spencer Torkelson (more on him later), Riley Greene and three MLB-ready pitchers in Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, all of whom are expected to lead the Detroit rotation in the near future.
Manning, of course, is a little behind Mize and Skubal in his development, but should see some time in the majors this coming season assuming he can continue to develop his secondary pitches. The 22-year-old has dominated at just about every level, but could be in for a rude awakening in the bigs if he remains fastball-heavy.
Matt Manning said it gave him "joy" to see Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal make their #Tigers debuts this season. Now he waits for his turn, and for so much else.
— The Athletic Detroit (@TheAthleticDET) October 28, 2020
Mize, on the other hand, enjoyed a cup of coffee in the bigs, but perhaps burnt his tongue a little. Metaphors aside, Mize’s numbers (0-3, 6.99 ERA) are pedestrian at best, but beyond the statline he appears to be developing a killer splitter as a strikeout pitch. Assuming his sequencing improves, Mize is due for a big jump in his sophomore campaign.
Casey Mize's splitter vs.
Max Scherzer's changeup
— David Adler (@_dadler) August 20, 2020
“With Casey, it was just an instance of getting the experience, learning how to attack hitters and things he needs to improve on in terms of locations and mixing pitches…I know he would tell you that he was not at all satisfied with how his year worked out, but he found some positives and things to build on,” Grieve said. “He’s a kid that’s wired the right way.”
In this way, Mize and Skubal are similar. One interview with Grieve made it clear that the Tigers value personality and drive in their prospects, as well as elite-level talent. Selecting so high in the draft the last few years has gifted them the opportunity to have both.
“I think Skubal’s probably in the same boat. Just tightening up the command, getting the breaking ball where it needs to be,” Grieve added. “You see the stuff, it’s more than good enough to be a productive major leaguer.”
Skubal passed Mize in Baseball America’s prospect rankings for 2021, but both have the same early struggles that young pitchers often run into in their first MLB action — control and pitch sequencing. Nonetheless, their potential has this scout glowing, and rightly so.
“These are two young guys that we’re really excited about. We’re looking forward to that next step and seeing what they can be next year,” Grieve repeated.
3. Is it fair to compare Torkelson to Cabrera, and how much does Miggy have left in the tank?
As a No. 1 overall draft pick, Torkelson is used to unfair expectations being place upon him. The Tigers drafted Tork — a first baseman out of Arizona State — in last year’s showcase. With the Sun Devils, and even at the Tigers alternate training site, Torkelson showcased incredible power rivaled perhaps only by Miguel Cabrera in the organization. Considering Miggy’s advanced age, it’s a natural progression to wonder if Torkelson could become the heir-apparent to Cabrera at first base. Despite being drafted as a third baseman, Torkelson can play either position, in similar fashion to Miggy in his younger days.
Per Matthew Boyd: Miguel Cabrera saw Spencer Torkelson in the hallway. Told him: "Get on this side of the locker room soon. We need you."
— Cody Stavenhagen (@CodyStavenhagen) July 6, 2020
Yet, comparing any young prospect to a future Hall of Famer is an unfair burden. It’s a fun activity for fans, but not something Grieve or anyone within the Tigers organization wants to play a part in.
“As a scout I always try to resist the temptation to compare a 21-year-old kid to Miggy, and if you ask Spencer he has the highest expectations for himself as anyone,” Grieve said. “So is it completely outrageous? No. But it’s not something I necessarily want to do.”
Tork’s progression through the system is still a mystery at this point. He reported to the alternate training site immediately after signing with the Tigers, and got in plenty of work during the season. He was considered a near-MLB ready talent coming out of Arizona State, especially at the dish given his tremendous power and plate presence.
“Anything that we were able to get in was going to be a positive, just getting him introduced to our staff and facing top-level prospects and big leaguers on a daily basis,” Grieve said. “That probably did a great deal of benefit for him in terms of preparing him…for his timeline. It’s reasonable to say that’s a very advanced timeline…whether that’s early this year, late this year, etc., I think a lot of it just depends on what Spencer shows up and does in 2021.”
Verdict: Detroit’s system is top-heavy, meaning they’ll eventually have to bring in talent via free agency or trade to complete their rebuild. But the future household names — Spencer Torkelson, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Riley Greene and others — are plenty to build around, and Al Avila and the Tigers scouting department have done a tremendous job drafting talented and driven individuals over the last half-decade. Assuming they can adequately support their future stars, the Tigers competitive window might finally be opening.