DETROIT – Just when we thought maybe the Detroit Tigers’ second-half magic had started to run out, they mounted two comebacks to win a series against the best team in the American League.
This has been the team’s MO since mid-May: Game-to-game, there are inconsistencies, but these Tigers always bounce back from tough stretches. They also play their best baseball against the top teams in the league.
With only three weeks left in the season and a day off Monday, I’ve been thinking a lot about where the Tigers stand in both the present and future. These thoughts aren’t necessarily connected, but here’s some of what’s going through my head.
Extend Robbie Grossman
After he hit his 20th home run of the season on Aug. 31, Grossman said he would like to spend the rest of his career in Detroit. My initial reaction was that the Tigers should offer him a Jonathan Schoop-esque deal as soon as possible.
Grossman, 31, is set to make $5 million next season -- the same amount he’s making in 2021 as a 2.5 WAR (wins above replacement) player. That’s a massive bargain, and the fact that Grossman would like to stay is a chance for the Tigers to make this marriage last a couple more years.
In the last 12 games, beginning with his 20th home run, Grossman is batting an even .300 with a .966 OPS, four home runs, two doubles, seven walks and 13 strikeouts. Grossman isn’t great defensively, but his ability to play adequately in both corner outfield spots helps the Tigers mix and match their other options.
Obviously, Akil Baddoo is part of the long-term future, as is prospect Riley Greene. Both will likely be staples in the lineup next season, which leaves just one everyday outfield spot available.
In my opinion, Grossman is the perfect choice to fill that spot. He’s a veteran and the Tigers know exactly what they’re going to get from him on a day-to-day basis. That’s extremely valuable, especially in a lineup that will soon be stuffed with young, high-variance players.
This season, Grossman has hit 20 doubles, 23 home runs and three triples. He has 17 stolen bases in 22 attempts. His .357 on-base percentage is right on par with his career rate of .351, so there’s no reason to believe it will drop in the next couple of years.
Also, Grossman isn’t going to break the bank. Locking him up for a couple more seasons at a reasonable cost would allow the Tigers to focus their offseason spending on other areas -- perhaps starting pitcher or shortstop.
Is Ryan Kreidler the shortstop of the future?
Speaking of shortstop, people are starting to notice That Other Prospect -- you know, the one who got promoted alongside Greene and Spencer Torkelson a few weeks ago?
Kreidler, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2019, is mashing at Triple-A. In 25 games with Toledo, the 23-year-old is slashing .341/.429/.585 -- a 1.014 OPS -- with five doubles and five home runs.
It’s impossible to ignore these numbers from Kreidler, who has also played an impressive defensive shortstop. But if anyone is looking at this one strong month in Toledo and thinking, “The Tigers don’t need to pay for a shortstop in free agency,” let’s slow down.
If 25 games is enough of a sample size to get excited about Kreidler, then the 88 games he played this season in Double-A are plenty to serve as a cautionary tale. In 388 plate appearances, Kreidler struck out 119 times (30.7% strikeout rate) with just a .754 OPS. He hit 15 home runs and 15 doubles, but the plate discipline was a major concern.
Paying $300 million for Carlos Correa or Corey Seager probably isn’t the answer, but aiming for someone like Trevor Story or Marcus Semien, players who might be a little more affordable, still seems like an option the Tigers should explore. Even if Kreidler turns into an excellent MLB player, having to find room for an extra star isn’t a problem the Tigers should be worried about at the moment.
Triple-A hasn’t been quite as easy for the Tigers’ top prospect. Torkelson has seven home runs in 25 games with the Mud Hens, but he’s also batting just .213.
How should you dissect these numbers? I personally believe Torkelson’s first few weeks in Toledo have been a net positive.
First of all, the power is legitimate. Torkelson can hit the ball out to any part of the field, and overall, he’s got 26 homers across three minor-league levels.
As far as the batting average is concerned, the 22-year-old has struggled initially in that regard at each of his three stops. He’s responded every time.
Torkelson is playing his first season of professional baseball, and he’s already made the jump to the highest level of the minor leagues. The power has translated, and the plate discipline has, too. In 25 Triple-A games, Torkelson has a 12.4% walk rate and a 23% strikeout rate -- two very positive signs.
It’s not a given that Torkelson will be the Tigers’ starting first baseman on Opening Day next season, but he’s progressing well and should be wearing the Old English D before long.
Victor Reyes appreciation
There were times during the shortened 2020 season when Reyes looked like the best hitter on the team. He got off to such a horrible start this season that he’s been pushed to the back of everyone’s mind.
But since the start of August, Reyes has played in 30 games and is slashing .329/.361/.570. He has 26 hits, four doubles, three triples and three home runs in 79 at-bats.
Reyes has always been a guy who can put the ball in play at a high rate, but he doesn’t hit for power or draw walks, so his value is limited. Still, stretches like this remind us of how Reyes can fit into the picture long-term. He’s a versatile outfielder with solid speed and a decent bat. There are worse options for a contending team to bring off the bench.
Miguel Cabrera’s real hot streak
People started talking about Cabrera turning his season around as if it happened in May. Sure, his batting average started rising that early, but he wasn’t really helping the team win. A .290 average doesn’t do much good when it’s all singles for an incredibly slow base runner.
But over the last 38 games -- dating back to July 26 -- Cabrera has been legitimately valuable.
Over that stretch, Cabrera has six doubles and eight home runs while drawing 18 walks and striking out 26 times. His improved plate discipline is as promising as the power surge, and it’s resulted in a .399 OBP and .953 OPS.
At one point, Cabrera was well below average in terms of WAR, but now he’s back in the positive. That number isn’t getting any help from his defense or base running, which tells you how much the 38-year-old has picked up his offensive pace.
The Tigers announced a two-year extension for Schoop on Aug. 7, and he proceeded to go nearly a month without a home run.
He finally hit one last week in Cincinnati, and another Friday against Tampa Bay. Overall, his numbers are starting to come around after that unfortunately timed slump.
In the 101 plate appearances (23 games) immediately following the announcement that he had signed an extension, Schoop batted .237 with five doubles, no home runs and a .546 OPS. It was his first prolonged slump since the first month of the season.
He broke his home run drought Sept. 3 at Cincinnati, and it looks like that took a bit of weight off of his shoulders. He’s 13-for-42 (.310 batting average) since that day with two home runs, three doubles and a .849 OPS.
A different kind of double
Jeimer Candelario leads all of baseball with 40 doubles this season, but Sunday, it was his double dose of home run pop that lifted the Tigers to a series win.
Power isn’t the name of Candelario’s game, but his swing plays perfectly for Comerica Park. He’s batting a solid .275 this season with a .350 OBP. Some fans wrote off his excellent 2020 as a product of the shortened season, but he’s validating it across a full campaign this time around.
With a 3.2 WAR at age 27, Candelario is solidifying himself as the Tigers’ third baseman of the future. Even if he doesn’t have over-the-fence power typical of a corner infielder, he gets the job done in other ways.
Mize vs. Skubal
Casey Mize is one of the faces of this rebuild because he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He was dominant at every level of the minor leagues and has done a nice job preventing runs this season.
But still, I can’t shake the feeling that Tarik Skubal will be the ace of this staff sooner than later.
Mize has pitched more innings, allowed fewer runs and maintained a much lower WHIP than Skubal. But his 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 9% swinging strike rate has me a bit weary of the future.
Skubal, on the other hand, has been victimized by home runs all season. As a result, his ERA is on the high side at 4.21, but the underlying numbers are much more promising -- a 10.4 K/9 and 12% swinging strike rate.
Both pitchers have been relegated to three-inning starts the rest of the season to manage their workloads, but we saw enough between April and August to have hope that they can become staples in the starting rotation -- even though they both attack in completely different ways.
One major bullpen concern
The Tigers have a pretty strong bullpen core heading into next season. There’s just one issue that threatens to burn them at any given moment: walks.
Gregory Soto has had a legitimate All-Star caliber season for Detroit, but he’s walking 5.5 batters per nine innings. That number needs to come down by at least two full walks, or Soto will eventually pay the price.
Likewise, Kyle Funkhouser has emerged as an invaluable middle man who can go multiple innings or wiggle out of a tough spot in the fifth and sixth innings. His five walks per nine innings is far too high, though, especially since his strikeout rate is much more modest than that of Soto.
Jose Cisnero is also having control problems, walking 4.5 batters per nine innings. His other numbers are excellent, but when he loses the strike zone, innings can turn disastrous quickly (see below).
Joe Jimenez isn’t in the circle of trust, but he’s had some positive moments in the second half. His walk rate is an alarming seven batters per nine innings, which is completely unsustainable if he wants to be a major league pitcher.
Only Michael Fulmer is limiting walks among the team’s top relievers, and he’s scheduled to become a free agent after next season. The Tigers need to prioritize throwing strikes out of the bullpen next year.
We already talked about the Tigers’ ability to bounce back game-to-game, and this weekend’s series against the Rays was a microcosm of that mentality.
On Friday, the Tigers fought tooth-and-nail to build a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning, only to watch Cisnero blow it by allowing three runs in the top of the seventh. That felt like a fatal blow, especially against a tough Tampa Bay bullpen. Instead, the Tigers turned around and scored seven runs over the next two innings to win the game.
The Tigers led 2-1 for four innings Sunday before Cisnero imploded again, allowing four runs without recording an out. The offense responded immediately in the bottom half of the eighth with four consecutive singles and a sac fly to tie the game.
Down to his last strike with two outs in the 10th inning, Candelario blasted a two-run homer to tie the game once again. Grossman drew a bases loaded walk in the 11th to clinch the series victory.
Tampa Bay is the best team in the AL by 5.5 games, and the Tigers found a way to win two of three this weekend despite two disastrous innings from one of their best relief pitchers. It doesn’t mean much in the grand scope of the season, but it’s just another sign that A.J. Hinch has this train moving in the right direction.
Tough road ahead
The schedule won’t get any easier from here. Following the off day, Detroit will play first-place teams each of the next nine days before their next break on Sept. 23.
Then, six games against Kansas City and Minnesota lead up to one last three-game series against the Chicago White Sox. That means of the 18 games left, 12 are against first-place opponents.
Can the Tigers continue to play their best baseball against better competition? If so, the final few weeks of the season will bring more encouraging signs.