jay Markle: Detroit Staked their Future on Pitching

This article is by guest writer Jay Markle

The Tigers are an atrocious baseball team. The precipitous nature of their decline from their perch atop the AL Central has only been punctuated by the depth to which they’ve plummeted, seemingly in free fall. As the team was entering their teardown process, a portion of fans convinced themselves that they’d see an Astros-esque rebirth, eating up the front office’s promises to groom a stock of players drafted by Detroit to become the next juggernaut to grace the spacious Comerica Park. 

More cynical fans (we prefer to call ourselves even-keeled) were much more skeptical. That comparison always seemed a little ridiculous, and even more so in hindsight. No team can be built from the inside alone, especially when the starting point of a rebuild was a farm system so laughable that it consistently ranked in the bottom five across every major publication for years. Instead of a quick turnaround, Detroit quickly became the worst team in baseball. And then they did it again. To put it gently, it’s been hard to watch.

As for the team itself, the Tigers have done a huge number of things poorly. General Manager Al Avila’s track record of navigating the trade market is spotty at best. His most nationally well-received trade – shipping Justin Verlander to Houston – has become one of his most panned. The team’s transition to modern coaching and development techniques can be described only as glacial. They’re seemingly loathe to bring in coaches from better organizations, instead, promoting from within or hiring old friends for positions of power. It’s a bleak picture.

There is a solitary light at the end of the tunnel.

The Tigers have become outstanding at developing pitchers. It’s the organization’s redeeming trait, and they’re leaning on it heavily to pull them out of their current state. If the pitching cannot champion a return to competitive baseball in Detroit, it probably won’t happen under the stewardship of the current management group. With such importance tied to the group of hurlers they’ve gathered, let’s take a look at the men they’ve pinned their hopes on.

RHP Casey Mize

Aside from Miguel Cabrera himself, perhaps no player in the organization is more nationally well-known than Mize, and rightly so. Although Mattew Boyd is currently the best player on the team, Mize eclipses his national status thanks to his unbelievably good 2018 campaign with the Auburn Tigers and unquestioned status as the best player in that draft class. His legend has only grown since turning pro, throwing a no-hitter in his Double-A debut and beating opponents both by outsmarting them and outclassing them. 

The main concern with Mize after turning pro was that his fastball didn’t play to the level of his other pitches, and although it was above-average, it could still limit his ceiling. Everything else about his game screamed that he was a slam-dunk future major leaguer. He checks all the boxes – polish, velocity, feel, pitchability, leadership, intelligence, confidence, and understanding of pitch design, not to mention a full array of excellent pitches. Astonishingly, every part of his game has seemed to improve in professional baseball. 

His fastball is gaining more explosiveness. He revamped his mix of breaking balls to good effect, drawing ugly swings from righties and jamming lefties inside. Even his devastating splitter, considered the best pitch in his draft class and one of the best in the minors, has gotten better and attracts whiffs from both sides. Tigers fans are enthusiastic to see him break into the majors, which should happen sooner than later when professional baseball reopens.

He’ll almost certainly be at least a mid-rotation guy at some point in the near future. The question still remains as to how good he can ever really be. His stuff doesn’t rack up a lot of strikeouts and his status as the best player in his class was based on his breathtakingly advanced talent compared to other amateurs. The Tigers will need a star, and hype aside, Mize probably isn’t ever going to fill that role.

RHP Matt Manning

No case study is extant in the Detroit organization more demonstrative of what can happen when a player with aptitude is matched with coaches who can coax out his talent than Manning. He was the ultimate upside bet when the Tigers drafted him out of high school in 2016. He had a projectable frame, some easy velocity, feel for a curve, and little else. It has paid off in a big way, perhaps more so than even the team expected at the time. 

Manning has added 30 pounds of muscle under the guidance of professionals, and it’s paid dividends in the velocity column. (Incidentally, that’s the same amount of weight I’ve gained since 2016, but we don’t need to talk about it.) He now bumps up on triple digits with a fastball that’s virtually untouchable when he’s facing off against players of a similar age in Double-A. Mixing in a plus curveball and a changeup that also flashes plus makes the entire package completely unfair. 

The questions facing Manning will determine whether he can start at the next level. In the minors below Triple-A, velocity and anything even resembling control alone will garner success. Playing with a far more explosive ball at the highest levels, hard-throwers find themselves providing exit velocity for more advanced batters who can square up against a quality fastball. He’ll be forced to lean on his secondaries more often, and although his changeup flashes devastating fade, it’s more often a fringy pitch.  

The outcome of Manning’s development may be more important than that of any other player in Detroit’s pipeline. He has the highest ceiling among the Tigers’ hopefuls and could one day be the ace of the staff if all goes well. There’s also more relief risk than many fans are willing to admit, or even to accept. There’s so much to dream on with Manning, but there’s always a chance things go ugly. It’s not a reality that ends well for anyone associated with the team unless someone else steps up in his place. 

LHP Tarik Skubal

Few people knew who Skubal was when the Tigers called his name in the ninth round of the 2018 draft, but every last organization likely regrets not jumping on him when they had the opportunity now. Public opinion of the lefty ballooned when he blew away hitters in his brief professional debut. I was able to catch one of his relief appearances in West Michigan, the Tigers’ Low-A affiliate, and he was a man among boys. He really caught fire in 2019, though, when he was astonishingly good during a full season as a starter, with a fastball that reaches 97 miles per hour and three legitimate offspeed offerings.

To only look at his numbers as a professional, it boggles the mind to contemplate why he was available to Detroit in the ninth round, or why they waited so long to select him. The reason lies within his left elbow, specifically, the fact that one of the tendons within his left elbow is a replacement part. After blowing out and subsequently getting surgery on his UCL, what little command he had before was completely missing in action. He always had the power arsenal, but it wasn’t clear that he would be able to challenge quality hitters in the zone, much less hit his spots.

It’s pretty clear now that he can, and has the eye-popping stats to back that up. His time in Double-A resulted in an average of nearly two strikeouts per inning. It’s difficult to contextualize just how good that figure is. No major league pitcher with at least 40 career innings has ever beaten Josh Hader’s career 15.35 K/9 mark. Skubal’s 17.43 K/9 in just over 42 Double-A innings in 2019 blows that out of the water.

Of course, that isn’t to say that Skubal is going to be the most prolific strikeout artist in the history of baseball. In fact, it demonstrates the opposite. No one can maintain that level of performance over a career as a reliever, much less facing the batting order two or three times as a starter. His fastball usage rate is virtually unprecedented by successful starting pitchers in the modern era, leading to big concerns over the viability of Skubal’s usage in the rotation. The Tigers certainly hit on this power lefty relative to his draft position, but there’s a decent chance he’s not going to be the frontline pitcher people envision. 

RHP Franklin Perez

Acquired in the Justin Verlander deal, Perez is a convert to the mound after failing as a third baseman and he took to like a fish to water. He has a plus fastball that batters have a difficult time reading from his overhead delivery. He backs it up with a curve and a changeup that both register as plus depending on who you ask. Unfortunately, there’s a decent chance he’s not built for the rigors of pitching as he’s spent eons on the Injured List with mysterious soreness. He was supposedly at full strength and pitching well this spring, reinforcing the fact that he could still make an impact one day. He’s only 22 years old and has high minors experience but the medical track record isn’t good.

LHP Joey Wentz

Another trade acquisition, Wentz was a high schooler with helium in 2016.The Braves drafted him thirty-one picks after the Tigers nabbed Manning and paid him handsomely. They’re now teammates, but Wentz’ career trajectory hasn’t been quite as smooth. He’s been dogged by leg injuries that have hampered his development, but he was finally healthy entering 2020 and there was every indication that he was about to break out. Unfortunately, he underwent Tommy John Surgery this spring and will be back in May of 2021 at the earliest. It’s not the death knell it used to be, but Tommy John Surgery is far from a boon to any pitcher’s career.

RHP Alex Faedo

Faedo’s time with the Tigers appears to be the tale of two pitchers. He was a vicious slider monster in his dominating College World Series performance just before being drafted, but didn’t pitch in 2017 because the Gators rode him so hard in their playoff run. He showed up in 2018 with exhibiting poor conditioning and his stuff took a huge step back, leading to immediate concerns about his value. He was much better in 2019 after reclaiming some of his fastball velocity and getting some of the bite on his slider back. Although vintage Faedo has yet to show up in the field for the Tigers, he still has upside as a backend starter, but people will never not complain about his delivery and somewhat hittable heater.

RHP Hugh Smith

The best DIII prospect in the 2018 class, Smith has an interesting story that we can’t do justice to here because this is already an immense article. He’s an enormous pitcher who grew late, gaining velocity in college and now occasionally touching the high 90s. He made his pro debut in 2019 after an undisclosed injury – sources have told me it was biceps tendonitis followed by a bout of mono – left him completely sidelined post-draft. He came out of the gate throwing 89-91 mph, but that was a direct result of his illnesses and he gained velocity as the season wore on. It’s unclear what role he’ll eventually fill and a transition to relief wouldn’t be surprising considering his secondaries, but the Tigers envision him hitting triple digits with regularity one day. 

RHP Paul Richan

The Cubs drafted Richan in the second round of the 2018 draft and sent him to the Tigers as part of the package for Nick Castellanos. His command is what makes him stand out, and he pounds the strike zone with fearlessness despite his ordinary stuff. He’s not a premium prospect despite his premium command because he doesn’t have any significant upside. It’s basically starter or bust for him, and he’ll walk a tightrope for his entire career as he proves every single year that yes, he does belong because if he doesn’t, he’ll quickly find himself on the chopping block. Things have gone well so far but the wiggle room here is minimal. 

These are the men in whom the Tigers have placed their trust. Of course, there are others. There is an overflowing multitude of pitchers with some kind of fathomable role in the future of the organization. I could easily have written tens of thousands of words and given loving attention to Rony Garcia, Wladimir Pinto, Austin Bergner, Elvin Rodriguez, Anthony Castro, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser, Wilkel Hernandez, Keider Montero, Jack O’Loughlin, and so many more. Things are becoming more balanced, too, as the Tigers have made significant investments in position players such as Isaac Paredes, Riley Greene, and Roberto Campos.

In the end, though, the success or failure of the organization’s attempt at a return to contention will come down to the success or failure of their pitching prospects. For the fans, it’s a matter of entertainment. For Al Avila and his staff, it could be their careers at stake. Fortunately, the quality of Detroit’s crop of young pitchers is difficult to top. They’re still prospects though, and it’s not hard to squint and see a dark, evil future where Mize is the only one who pans out. The truth will probably be closer to that gloomy picture than most fans realize.

Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that it’s not.

Be sure to check out more of Jay Markle’s work at Motor City Bengals, where he covers the Detroit Tigers as a part of the FanSided network. Also be sure to follow him on Twitter @jaymarkle_byb.