DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have offered live streams of their intrasquad games for about a week now, and while the rules are loose and the results come with an asterisk, it’s blatantly obvious this team is much better than a year ago.
On one hand, being better than the 2019 Tigers is a low bar. But on the other hand, this spring and summer has been the first true glimpse of improvement in what feels like a long and painful rebuild.
Back in February, I predicted that the Tigers could be 15-20 games better than their 47-114 record this season. Well, I don’t think they’ll win 62-67 games with a 60-game schedule, but that horrid .292 winning percentage could realistically jump more than 100 points.
That won’t be enough to compete for a playoff spot, but it’s a big step in the right direction, and the rebuild was never going to culminate in 2020 contention anyway.
After watching the Tigers’ intrasquad games from Saturday through Thursday (five games total), here are five positive observations.
Matt Boyd got better
There are so many questions facing Matt Boyd this season after he was one of the best pitchers in baseball for 12 starts -- 2.85 ERA, .614 opponents’ OPS and 88 strikeouts in 72.2 innings -- and fell off for the final 20 starts -- 5.67 ERA, .858 opponents’ OPS and 150 strikeouts in 112.2 innings.
Most importantly, Boyd proved he can miss bats at an elite level. While the end-of-season numbers looked a bit mediocre, the strikeouts were consistently high and his 14% swinging strike rate ranks among the pitchers considered the best in the game.
Home runs were the problem, as he led the league by allowing 39. Boyd said Wednesday during his most recent intrasquad start that he felt he got a little too predictable with just a fastball and a slider.
Well -- and I can’t believe I’m falling for this classic spring training cliche -- Boyd has started using a curveball and a changeup this summer, and the curveball looks like a plus pitch.
During Wednesday’s start -- a four-inning, four-strikeout performance in which Boyd allowed just one run on a Grayson Greiner homer off the right field foul pole -- Boyd complimented his slider and fastball extremely well with the curveball.
His curveball has good depth that differentiates it enough from his slider to make hitters think a little more.
It doesn’t hurt that he reached 95 mph on his fastball, either.
Boyd showed signs of being a middle-of-the-rotation starter in 2018. Then he showed glimpses of ace potential last year. He’s 29 years old, so it’s not out of the question that his best baseball is in front of him, and insofar as summer camp can prove anything, Boyd looks ready to take another step forward in 2020.
New No. 2 pitcher
I won’t quite go as far as to say the Tigers have a second potential budding ace, but at the very least, Spencer Turnbull has separated himself from the rest of the starting rotation and cemented himself behind Boyd as the No. 2 pitcher.
Here are some of the stories we had about Turnbull in the first half last season:
It seems like Turnbull’s pre-injury success as a rookie is being dismissed a little too easily. Through his first 14 starts, Turnbill struck out 73 batters in 77.2 innings with a 2.78 ERA, a .670 opponents’ OPS and 29 walks.
He looked dominant during spring training in March and has built off of that progress during intrasquad games. Sure, it helps to face the Tigers’ offense every time out, but there are some actual MLB hitters on the roster this season, and Turnbull has been even better than Boyd.
The Tigers’ defense was terrible last season. It’s one of the underrated parts of the game, but for a team that didn’t have many swing-and-miss pitchers, the defensive holes were especially glaring.
In a complete 180, outfield defense has probably been the most obvious takeaway from summer camp in Detroit.
He won’t get any MLB action this season, but top prospect Riley Greene has been ridiculous in Comerica Park’s spacious outfield.
Most notably, Greene robbed C.J. Cron of a no-doubt home run in left field, timing his jump perfectly and extending fully over the wall to pluck the ball out of the clutches of the bullpen.
On Wednesday, he made a diving grab to rob Austin Romine down the right field line.
More importantly for the 2020 season, Derek Hill has also put on a defensive show.
It’s no guarantee Hill will make the 30-man roster, but he’s certainly helped his case this month. He went viral for a play in which he ran down a line drive hit directly over his head, switched sides of his body to get a glove on it and snagged it with his bare hand before it could hit the ground.
Since then, Hill has demonstrated Austin Jackson-like range in the gaps and snared two hard-hit liners up the middle on diving plays.
Many consider Hill the best defensive player in the organization, and that looks like the case.
If Hill makes the team, he and a healthy JaCoby Jones will give the Tigers two elite defensive options in the outfield. Victor Reyes and Cameron Maybin can likely be at least average defenders, but the center fielder will need to make up for Christin Stewart, who struggles (to put it kindly) in left.
It’s embarrassing that Brandon Dixon led the Tigers with 15 home runs this year. I mean, hats off to Dixon, but 15 should never be a team’s highest home run total, especially in the greatest home run season in MLB history.
The Tigers made two simple, yet effective signings this offseason to make sure that doesn’t happen again, and both Cron and Jonathan Schoop look ready to mask this season.
Cron hit two home runs Thursday and has a handful this summer, even though Greene stole one of them. Schoop hit a bomb into the visitor’s bullpen off of Anthony Castro in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s game.
Both players -- especially Cron -- could conceivably challenge that 2019 home run total in just a 60-game season. Having them both in the middle of the lineup suddenly makes the heart of the Tigers’ offense MLB quality.
It’s likely Cron and Schoop will be the best two hitters on the team this year. To add them on cheap, one-year deals was an underrated offseason move.
Power bullpen arms
Thanks to the expanded 30-man Opening Day rosters, the Tigers will have a much deeper bullpen to start the season. For the first time in awhile, that bullpen will include a deep group of power arms.
Joe Jimenez has a strong fastball-slider combination in the ninth inning, but this year he’ll be joined by Shao-Ching Chiang, Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, Rony Garcia and Bryan Garcia.
Each of those pitchers can ramp their fastballs up to the upper 90s, and they’ve all shown flashes of at least one solid secondary pitch. At the very least, the bullpen will have upside, though command and consistency have been major questions for Soto and Cisnero, while the other four are simply unproven.
Still, Jimenez, Soto and both Garcias were among the team’s top 30 prospects at the time of their call-ups -- Jimenez and Soto have since graduated from rookie status -- so the top bullpen options in the organization are now on the MLB roster. That’s a storyline worth watching.