DETROIT – Say what you want about the last three years of Detroit Tigers baseball, but beneath the losing records and long, painful summers, they’ve done a lot of things right during this rebuild.
Four years ago, the Tigers made a mistake. They dipped their toes in the rebuilding waters by trading away David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria in 2015, but then tried to get back into the hunt the following year with the likes of Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann.
The core of the 2011-2014 teams was aging. The farm system was barren. Money was getting tight. All signs pointed toward the restart button, but instead, the franchise took one last shot.
Most rebuilds are either all or nothing. Few organizations can pull off a successful retooling on the fly. Detroit wasn’t one of them, and that was when the Tigers hit rock bottom.
In 2017, a team that would eventually finish tied for the worst record in baseball shipped Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to playoff contenders and received prospects in return. The rebuild had officially begun.
Slowly but surely, the farm system grew from perhaps the worst in the game to one of the best. It’s only been three full seasons since the Tigers were in the playoff hunt the final weekend of the season, but already it’s time for the crown jewel of that revamped minor league system to make his debut.
It’s time for the Tigers to call up Casey Mize.
How Mize got here
It’s ironic, really, how the Tigers managed to land the game’s No. 7 overall prospect.
On the final day of the 2017 regular season, Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants -- who almost singlehandedly put the Tigers on the path to being swept out of the World Series in 2012 by taking Verlander and Al Alburquerque deep three times in Game 1 -- hit a walkoff home run against the San Diego Padres to give the Giants their 64th victory.
The difference between 64-98 and 63-99 doesn’t mean a thing in terms of playoff standings, but it made a world of difference for the Tigers.
Thanks to that home run, the Tigers ended up with the No. 1 overall pick. Thanks to that home run, Casey Mize will soon wear the Old English D instead of the orange and black.
Since then, Mize has dominated the minor leagues and become one of the top 10 prospects in the league, according to MLB Pipeline. He’s also the No. 1 right-handed pitching prospect.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was a disaster for baseball, as it cut more than 100 games off the regular season and left the league and player’s union publicly bickering for months.
But there was at least one positive that came from the time off: intrasquad games.
For Tigers fans, the live intrasquad games were perhaps more compelling than the start of the actual season. Mize got a handful of appearances, as did fellow top-30 pitching prospect Matt Manning. Derek Hill put on a show in center field. Riley Greene did so in the outfield and at the plate.
It was pretty obvious throughout summer camp that the young prospects will be much better than what the Tigers have on the roster now, if they aren’t already.
Which brings us to Mize. With the possible exceptions of Spencer Turnbull and Matt Boyd, Mize is clearly better than the rest of the arms in the Detroit rotation.
Ivan Nova is fine, but he’s a stopgap. Daniel Norris has only been effective for three innings at a time. Michael Fulmer is coming off a lost season due to injury and a year of ineffectiveness before that.
At worst, Mize will be the Tigers’ third-best starting pitcher the day he answers Ron Gardenhire’s phone call. At best, he could be one of the top starters in the league.
The Tigers are off to a solid 5-5 start this year, and while it’s only 10 games, that’s a sixth of the 2020 season. With more than half the league making the playoffs, the Tigers don’t even necessarily have to finish with a winning record to make the postseason.
If Mize is going to help them win games at some point this year, the Tigers might as well let him make as many starts as possible.
A rotation of Turnbull, Boyd, Nova, Norris and Fulmer or Tyler Alexander has two pitchers the Tigers can feel good about on any given day. Throw Mize into the mix and suddenly Nova can be the No. 4 starter, which comes with a lower threshold for success.
Instead of being stretched thin at the back end of the rotation, the Tigers would have options with Fulmer and Alexander behind Norris, who could thrive once again in an opener role.
Nobody who’s paid attention to the Tigers would argue against Mize being one of the five best pitchers in the organization, so he belongs at the MLB level.
The only argument against promoting Mize is for service time considerations. The Tigers want to control him for as long as possible. But that deadline has passed.
Due to the shortened season, Mize only needed to be off the roster for about a week to remain under team control for an additional year. By the time the Tigers take the field again Friday, it will have been two weeks since the start of their season, likely putting any super two concerns behind them, as well.
So the only reason not to add Mize to the roster would be if the team wanted to keep him in the minors for the first month of 2021, as well, and that simply isn’t an option.
Not only would the Tigers risk crippling their 2021 season, they could also sour the relationship with Mize if they’re obviously keeping an MLB ready player in the minors purely for financial reasons.
Barring injury, Mize will be in the Tigers’ starting rotation on Opening Day 2021, whether it’s as the ace of the staff, the No. 5 starter or anywhere in between. He’ll be under team control through 2026, depending on what next year’s new CBA negotiations entail.
Detroit had to wait until after the first week of this season. It made sense. But Mize isn’t getting any game experience right now because COVID-19 wiped out the minor league season. So not only could he miss out on MLB experience -- he could miss an entire year of development.
The Tigers are still another full year away from true contention, but that doesn’t mean all the prospects can just join the MLB roster when 2022 begins. Some players have nothing left to gain in the minor leagues and will benefit from a bit of seasoning at the MLB level.
Mize is at the top of that list. When he was drafted, the Tigers knew they were getting an advanced college pitcher who could move through the system quickly. Well, it’s two years later and he’s moved through the system quickly.
Mize doesn’t make the Tigers a World Series contender in 2020, even in a shortened season. But he does give the young players a better chance to experience some version of a playoff race, and that’s valuable. He could also get 10 or so meaningful starts against MLB hitters and see what he needs to work on this offseason. That’s valuable, too.
The only logical reason to keep Mize off the roster expired last week. The prospect infatuation phase was fun, but now it’s time to see what he’s got.
Detroit’s been looking toward the future for years. The first glimpse of that era should start now.