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Final thoughts before the 2020 Detroit Tigers take the field

Opening Day is here and we have many things on our minds.

Detroit Tigers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Friends, we made it. Opening Day for the Detroit Tigers in 2020 is finally here. After the year we’re all having, it feels a bit surreal to realize we suddenly have baseball back in late July. Normally, a qualifier that is getting worn to the nub this year, the Tigers’ home opener is an unofficial state holiday. Things will be a little quieter for the Reds today, but for those same reasons we’ll appreciate having Tigers’ baseball back in our lives even more.

The wait to get to this point, and the amount of issues surmounted just to get to Opening Day, have been a lot to absorb. We haven’t even seen a regular season game, and yet it feels like the longest season of our lives already.

On top of the ongoing scourge of COVID-19, the miserable relations between baseball’s owners, Commissioner, and players, were laid bare for all to see in the failed negotiations to plan the season. Not only does that forebode ill for the future of the game, but it also impacted the planning and preparation to hold some kind of a season as safely as possible. Part of the result is a less cohesive approach to dealing with the all the difficulties involved than the NBA or NHL seem to have managed.

Hastily cobbled together solutions are rarely airtight ones, and obviously the pandemic presented unprecedented issues to be resolved. We simply can’t know how things are going to play out over the next few months.

However, from a Tigers perspective, Summer Camp was an interesting tour of the organization, with many of the bright spots coming from the club’s prospects. Along the way, a lot of interesting things have come up that didn’t require a full article of their own. Here is an admittedly random grab bag of notes, things to watch for this season, and questions left unanswered on Opening Day in Detroit.

Expanded playoffs are great for the Tigers

On Thursday, Major League Baseball and the players’ union agreed to expand the playoff format to a 16-team tournament. Our own Patrick O’ Kennedy made the benefits and likelihood of such a move clear in a recent article, but the negotiations still seemed to emerge out of thin air and reach rapid agreement.

Does this mean the Tigers now have a shot at the postseason?

In theory, the Tigers playoff odds just went up. But they weren’t good to begin with. FanGraphs updated odds give them a 12 percent chance of a postseason berth. Still bad odds, but enough to keep things interesting for a while should they get out to a good start.

Getting to the postseason is a very valuable commodity for team owners and players both. Those six extra playoff berths could well spice up the action at a trade deadline that might otherwise have been relatively quiet. However, it’s also possible that some teams dump veteran players like hotcakes if they can’t win in order to cut costs.

The Tigers will have veterans like C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Cameron Maybin, and Austin Romine available though none will garner much of a return. More interesting possibilities surround Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, and relievers Joe Jimenez and Buck Farmer. Possibly the better odds to reach the postseason will create a sellers market that could help the Tigers deal for young talent, but it’s also possible that the market ends up diluted by teams willing to take anything to shed salary.

On the other hand, maybe the Tigers hang in there for a month and are fortified by their farm system for the stretch drive. Is it impossible that they could snag a playoff spot? No, just pretty unlikely. However, the way 2020 is going, it does feel like anything could happen.

All hands on deck

The compressed number of games means that every win is worth 2.7 compared to a game in a full 162-game schedule. A rough four-game losing streak early on could prove an unrecoverable stumble. Teams will be motivated to lean on their best pitchers with fresh arms and only a two month sprint to the postseason ahead.

The question is whether fortune favors the team with the best five pitchers, or whether depth will be the key factor. If so, teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, San Diego Padres, and others who can dip into their farm system successfully may have an edge.

Juan Soto tests positive for COVID

While numerous players and other team personnel tested positive for COVID-19 in trying to get to Summer Camp, Washington Nationals star outfielder Juan Soto’s positive test results are the first major example of a player getting the bug since teams convened for camp. If anyone still needed one, it was a sobering reminder of how fragile the attempt to bring off a baseball season really is.

Soto is reported to be asymptomatic, which is the important part. Unfortunately, now begins the waiting game for the Nationals next few series of test results. If the virus has spread to a substantial number of people, the season may be hanging by a thread before teams have even turned their rotation over.

This is the reality of baseball in the time of COVID-19.

Too legit to quit?

It’s probably time right now to declare whether or not this season’s World Series winner, should we be blessed to get so far, will be considered on a par with all others, or whether this season will come with its own unique asterisk. My cynical side presumes that in the court of public opinion, this will largely decided by how happy we collectively are with whoever ultimately wins it. If some Cinderella story emerges, are pundits and fans going to consider them a less legitimate winner than say, the Yankees or Dodgers? If our standard for legitimacy is simply a result that fits preseason expectations, we’re in the wrong game.

Frankly, even if the virus somehow doesn’t play a huge role in the outcome, a 60-game season demands an asterisk-heavy scenario. Baseball already has a lot of chance involved regarding injuries. The addition of positive COVID tests that could keep a player like Juan Soto out of the Nationals lineup for weeks, is a prime example of the ways this season may be decided by non-baseball factors.

Maybe we’ll argue about this one for decades. From our perspective as Tigers’ fans? We can just see how it goes as it’s unlikely to concern us either way.

Tigers have had a smoother camp than most

Testing delays and opt-outs played havoc with numerous teams ability to prepare and to put their best possible roster on the field. However, the Detroit Tigers have had a relatively smooth run of it thus far. Things ran on schedule. Players have gotten their work in without interruption. Several players were delayed in arriving to camp, however, at this point only Daz Cameron, who wouldn’t have been on the active roster to begin with anyway, has been unable to report.

Does this mean the Tigers are a little more primed to hit the ground running than teams that had more issues to deal with? Probably not, but things couldn’t have gone much better under the circumstances. Hopefully it translates into a quick start.

From here to the 14.81-game mark

On Friday, August 7, the Tigers will welcome the Pittsburgh Pirates into Comerica Park for a three-game weekend series. At some point in the 8th inning, the Tigers will reach the equivalent of the 40-game mark in this short season. This is traditionally when the media and fans start solidifying opinions about a team and their season outlook. It puts into perspective just how quickly this season is going to go, and how wildly fortunes may appear to ebb and flow based on short winning and losing streaks.

After a three-game set in Cincinnati to open the season, the Tigers then play nine games in a row at home against the Royals, Reds, and Cardinals, before heading to St. Louis and then Pittsburgh. Two of those teams are fairly talented and potential contenders in the NL Central, while the Royals and Pirates are projected to be at the bottom of the pack again. Of course, so are the Tigers.

The season is going to come at us faster than we’re accustomed to, and the club really needs to put together a nice stretch out of the gate. The Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, and the rising young power in the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox, are going to account for a bigger portion of the Tigers’ competition than normal. The roster just isn’t talented enough to overcome a rough start against those teams.

New season, new rules

Having now watched a good many minor league games end in the runner-on-second format in extra innings, I don’t mind it at all at those levels of the game. It’s not a pretty sight when some kid making minimum wage ends up having to go five innings on short notice in a game with no larger meaning. There are enough spontaneous double-headers, long bus trips, and few days off in minor league ball that playing 15 innings makes no sense.

In the major leagues? I’ll probably never be happy about it, despite the occasional nightmare recap that required a very late night.

However, for this season, with teams desperately trying to keep free of COVID-19 infections and facing a dramatically compressed schedule with only a few off days, there is zero issue with it. For the moment, it is a relatively interesting format that will have baseball pundits waxing strategic all season long. I just fear it’s here to stay.

Meanwhile, the three-batter minimum rule for pitchers, and the advent of the National League designated hitter are, at least this season, less controversial. A predicted run on slow, slugging types hasn’t really occurred as team’s valuing rest for their best players are more likely to simply rotate their regulars through the DH spot as a rest day. Either way, it will be interesting to see how National League pitchers’ numbers look compared to non-DH years, assuming this isn’t quite here to stay permanently. Stay tuned on that one as well.

Toledo Development Authority

Perhaps the situation will change in a few weeks, but right now it’s just kind of a drag that the Tigers top pitching prospects are going to be stuck throwing sim games for a while. On the other hand, for Tigers prospects like Isaac Paredes, Jake Rogers and Willi Castro, who may each see major league action, they’re going to be tested against a fairly ridiculous Triple-A level pitching staff. Dealing with Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Alex Faedo, and Franklin Perez is as good a test as you’re going to find on a taxi squad. Meanwhile, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson will be getting an advanced tutorial in high-end, professional grade pitching.

Rogers and Paredes are the two key players to watch as both are roughly major league ready and simply waiting for an opportunity. Paredes just got to camp and needs time to get up to speed. He hasn’t been above Double-A yet, but his skills are already developed enough to put to the test. Facing a strong staff of starters over the next few weeks should give the Tigers a pretty good idea of his potential to impact the major league club. After such a long layoff, his debut may have to wait, but he’s closer than some might think.

Rogers really re-worked his swing mechanics over the offseason with independent hitting coach Doug Latta. The Tigers potential catcher of the future took out his pronounced leg kick and lowered his hands at setup, trying to keep the barrel on plane and in the zone longer. The Tigers want to give him time to work on it while Grayson Greiner gets another look as backup to starter Austin Romine, and that’s fine. Fortunately he’ll have tough pitching to face in Toledo. Hopefully he’s swinging the bat well and gets the call before too long.

This lineup isn’t terrible!

C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop have shown the power they were expected to provide in both preseason camps. Actually, most of the Tigers position players have posted strong camps. Cabrera looks pretty good. Niko Goodrum and Christin Stewart swung the bat well. JaCoby Jones has carried over some of his improvements last season and shown better discipline while tapping into his power a bit more often. Jeimer Candelario is two years removed from his fast start with the club and needs to show a reason to keep hanging on this year, but as he typically does, has looked good in camp as well. They couldn’t possibly hit worse from the catcher position than they did last year.

There’s just enough there, with a bit of depth in Toledo, to make them a little interesting. A hot start could make for a fun season of baseball.

Toledo Development Authority part two

One thing has been pretty clear through both preseason camps. Casey Mize is far and away the Tigers most major league ready pitching prospect. With a subtle tweak to his cutter, the young right-hander really tied his whole repertoire together over the offseason, to the point that he’s quite possibly the organization’s best pitcher already.

Of course, Mize is older than Matt Manning, and more experienced than Tarik Skubal. Prospecting is about future potential rather than just a snapshot in time. But here and now? Casey Mize is clearly the most equipped to make the leap to the majors right now.

Skubal impressed in spring training, but only just arrived in Summer Camp this week. He’ll need plenty of time in Toledo before he gets consideration for a major league look.

Meanwhile, Matt Manning’s progress has stalled over the past 12 months. After a strong first half in 2019, he’s struggled to show his best curveball and changeup consistently, and early work on a harder breaking ball has produce no tangible returns just yet. Most of our staff, believes in Manning’s athleticism and remaining projection enough to regard him as their top pitching prospect, but until he takes the next leap in his development, Mize is going to be the one leading the young guns into the Tigers’ starting rotation.

Play ball

Few seasons have ever posed as many issues and problems for the game as this one does. We’ll be keeping an eye on these topics all season long. But for now? We’re just happy to kick back for one blessed July weekend, and enjoy the return of our favorite game.