DETROIT – The start of the 2020 season has gone better for the Detroit Tigers than anyone could have reasonably imagined.
Going into Tuesday’s game against the Chicago White Sox, the Tigers had won four in a row and owned the third-best record in the American League. The schedule has been extremely forgiving, but it doesn’t take much more than being better than the worst of the worst to make a 16-team postseason.
With a quarter of their season in the books, the Tigers are squarely in the middle of the playoff hunt.
So why aren’t they acting like it?
The winning streak came to an end Tuesday, which on its own isn’t a big deal. Five-game winning streaks don’t come along very often over the course of a baseball season.
But it was the way the Tigers lost that felt so discouraging.
Casey Mize debacle
As Tyler Alexander served up four runs before the Tigers’ bats could even step into the box, it was impossible not to think, “Why isn’t Casey Mize on the mound right now?”
It’s the opposite of a rhetorical question. Mize’s absence from the roster at this point in the season is something that absolutely needs to be addressed by Al Avila.
Any service time concerns have passed by now. The Tigers can call up Mize today and they’ll have control of him for just as long as if he debuts next season in the rotation.
Holding him down for all of 2020 and the first several weeks of 2021 would be such a blatant bad-faith financial move it could sour Mize’s relationship with the organization from the start.
Here’s what’s so confounding about the Tigers’ reluctance to call up their top pitching prospect: It’s a no-lose situation. They got an extra year of service time. They’re in contention. Nobody can criticize them for bringing him up this year because it’s such a blatant need.
What makes matters worse is while they dawdle with the decision, Mize isn’t even getting true starts in the minor leagues. He’s practicing with teammates and losing valuable development time.
Mize would likely be one of the best pitchers in the Tigers’ rotation right now, at a time when they desperately need help at the back end. It’s such an obvious solution, but for some reason the Tigers just won’t pull the trigger.
Replacing C.J. Cron
The handling of Mize wasn’t the only issue at play Tuesday. The way the Tigers maneuvered around the loss of first baseman C.J. Cron just didn’t make much sense.
First of all, anyone who saw the way Cron left the field Monday knew he was probably going on the injured list, so the team certainly wasn’t blindsided by his absence Tuesday. Why, then, did the lineup look like it was hastily thrown together at the last moment?
Moving Jeimer Candelario from third base to first base would make sense if it was to make room for another impact bat. But what the Tigers did was move Candelario to first base to get light hitting Dawel Lugo in the lineup.
Not only is that a significant defensive drop-off at third base, but now Candelario is also moving across the diamond and playing where he’s less comfortable.
The Tigers’ infield defense had been stellar through the first 14 games, and they could have left three of four positions untouched. Instead, they disrupted both corners just to add Lugo’s bat to the lineup.
In the heart of the order, Jonathan Schoop was moved from the No. 2 hole to fill Cron’s vacant cleanup spot, which is fine, except the obvious choice to then replace Schoop at No. 2 was left at the very bottom.
JaCoby Jones has been the Tigers’ best hitter all season. Yes, there’s an argument against moving a player who’s on a hot streak for fear of messing with his rhythm, but at some point, Ron Gardenhire has to stop guaranteeing that Jones gets the team’s fewest plate appearances.
Think about it: When Jones is batting ninth, there’s no chance he gets more plate appearances than Lugo as long as they’re both in the lineup. The Tigers have to think about who they really want to award more opportunities the plate.
The No. 2 hitter not only gets the second-most plate appearances in a season, he also comes up in the most high-leverage situations statistically. That’s where teams should put their best hitters.
It’s not Gardenhire’s fault that Mize isn’t in his rotation or that his setup man, first baseman and right fielder are on the disabled list. All in all, he’s done a nice job managing this team through a really strange and unique season.
He’s been part of numerous playoff races in his career -- often leading Minnesota Twins teams very similar to this Tigers team in that they didn’t have many big names or stars.
The Tigers are going to have to do a lot right over the next month to stay in the playoff race, and that includes Gardenhire running out a lineup that gives them the best chance to win every night.
Austin Romine might have to play the occasional day game after a night game to keep his bat in the lineup. Harold Castro might not be able to play every series if he’s batting .050. Jones has to move up in the order to see if he’s capable of succeeding there.
It’s only a 60-game season, so every single day is extremely important. Each decision is magnified, and while that breeds more scrutiny, it also presents a great opportunity.
In a 162-game season with 10 playoff teams, the Tigers wouldn’t have a prayer of making the postseason. Yet here they are, midway through August, holding down the No. 4 seed in the AL.
Whether it lasts or not, right now the Tigers are smack dab in the middle of the playoff hunt.
It’s time to start acting like it.