March 19th, 2019
Hope strikes out? Tigers hard-pressed
to avoid third straight 98-loss season
By KEITH GAVE
From where and when I sit at the moment, the Detroit Tigers are about 20 minutes away from the first pitch in Toronto – opening a can of new baseball season. Springtime and baseball, redundant in my world since the day my father slipped an ill-fitting, three-fingered mitt over my 5-year-old hand and produced a shiny white rubber baseball and threw it against the side of our apartment building.
The ball bounced back and hit me in the chin, and I’ve been in love with the game ever since.
A new world begins today, a time of hope and promise. But in what is essentially the third year of a rebuilding process, hope is a lot harder to come by, and promise caught a cab years ago. About when Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski was unceremoniously fired, only to go to Boston to build a World Series champion there.
Here in Detroit, we should be celebrating the healthy return of Miguel Cabrera, the Hall of Fame-bound first-baseman who we should see transition into a designated hitter over the next few seasons. If he stays healthy. And that is a monumental if. We’ve seen enough now to know he’s only one hard swing-and-a-miss from perhaps an injury that would end his career.
Sorry, that’s the cynic at the keyboard right now, they guy who finds it difficult to believe the Tigers will improve much, if at all, from the back-to-back 98-loss seasons the past two years.
Not with how they’re “built” down the middle, the baseline measure of any ballclub. Face it, the Tigers begin the season without an everyday MLB catcher; Grayson Greiner and John Hicks, both better suited as capable backups, will share the duties.
At short and second, they have a reclaimed combination from a mediocre Pittsburgh club;2B Josh Harrison should be a fixture at the top of the lineup, and steady but not flashy SS Jordy Mercer will be a fixture near the very bottom.
And in center the Tigers boast the statistically best defensive outfielder in all of baseball in Jacoby Jones – but he will miss the first 2-3 weeks of the season with a sprained left shoulder. And when he’s healthy he struggles to put the ball in play with his bat.
The rest of the roster is. . . interesting, at best. At the corners, the Tigers boast power at the play, with Cabrera batting third and 3B Jeimer Candelario hitting cleanup. But both are average, at best, defensively. Same goes for the corners in the outfield with Christin Stewart in left and Nick Castellanos in right. Stewart had a sublime spring, and Castellanos seems poised for a monster year as he enters the prime of his career. Both, however, are less than efficient defensive players.
Mikie Mahtook is probably their best outfielder – when he plays either corner. But he’ll be pressed into action at center in Jones’ absence, spelled by Nikko Goodrum, one of the most efficient and versatile utility players in all of baseball.
Detroit’s starting rotation instills fear in nobody, and it begins the season missing one of its cornerstones. Former Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer is gone until mid-2020, at least, to undergo Tommy John surgery and up to 15 months of rehab. So that answers the question of whether or not he could stay healthy. Same goes for Jordan Zimmermann, the Opening Day starter whose three-year stint with Detroit has been plagued by injuries.
Can lefthander Matthew Boyd find consistency his game? If he does he will emerge as the ace of this meager staff.
Can RHP Tyson Ross, LHP Matt Moore and RHP Spencer Turnbull – all best options as a fifth option in just about any MLM rotation – nail down the 3-4-5 spots? Or can Daniel Norris reclaim a starting role by finding his game – and the fastball that made him one of the best young pitching prospects in baseball – once-upon-a-time?
The Tigers have even more questions surrounding their bullpen, where they have a lot of live arms and not many assigned roles. Shane Greene was fairly effective as a closer last season, but hardly dominant. Joe Jimenez still looks like the closer in waiting, and will likely get the job by default if Greene pitches well enough to garner some value at the trade deadline.
Word around the Grapefruit Circuit this spring has been to not count the Tigers out of anything, that they just might be able to sneak up on some teams in the AL’s weak and transforming Central Division.
But as much as we like to see the glass half full, if not overflowing, on this baseball holiday, it’s hard to imagine Detroit improving much on the 98 losses we’ve endured in each of the past two seasons. It feels like the over-under is closer to 100.
‘The Russian Five’ movie, written and produced by Keith Gave, Blarney Stone Broadcasting’s sports director, is now playing in theaters around the country. Check local listings in your area.