DETROIT — Ron Gardenhire’s Detroit Tigers sensed an opportunity this season – and these last few weeks have shown why.
Detroit is 9-7 and in second place in the AL Central, 1 1/2 games out of first. It may not sound like much, but the Tigers are now more than a quarter of the way through their schedule. They’ve been competitive even without promoting any of their top pitching prospects. It’s an example of just how quickly a team can turn into a postseason contender in this shortened season with expanded playoffs.
“We’ve got some confidence in our dugout,” said Gardenhire, Detroit’s manager. “We’ve got some guys that have been there and done it, along with some kids. It’s fun. It’s a good atmosphere in the clubhouse, and so far we’re doing OK.”
Before the season started, one of the big questions for the Tigers was how much Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal might contribute in 2020. Those pitching prospects gave Detroit hope after the Tigers dropped 114 games last year. None of them has pitched above Double-A, however.
They’re all in Detroit’s player pool, but the Tigers haven’t called any of them up to the major leagues yet. Instead, it’s been a revamped offense that has led Detroit to a winning record so far.
The Tigers finished last in the major leagues in runs and last in the American League in home runs a season ago. This year, they were 10th in the majors in OPS as of Thursday afternoon. They were tied for eighth in homers despite having a break in their schedule recently when a series against St. Louis was called off.
“We like what we have. We have to stay healthy,” Gardenhire said. “We liked them in spring training, and they’re coming out and putting some nice swings out there. We can be a bashing team.”
Staying healthy has already been a challenge. C.J. Cron recently went on the injured list with a sprained knee after hitting four homers in his first 42 at-bats. But fellow newcomer Jonathan Schoop also has four, and so does Miguel Cabrera after hitting only a dozen all of last season.
Then there’s JaCoby Jones, an athletic outfielder who hit just .235 last year. He’s batting .304 with five home runs and 12 RBIs in 2020.
Jones credits a stance adjustment last season with helping him build confidence that has carried over to this year.
“I would literally try anything. If they told me to hit with my feet, I would have tried to do that at that point. I was trying anything they brought to me,” he said. “It’s paid off so far.”
Detroit’s offensive uptick has helped mask some problems with the pitching staff. Opening Day starter Matthew Boyd has an ERA of 10.24, and Ivan Nova hasn’t been great either. Spencer Turnbull has been sharper in his three starts, and reliever Gregory Soto has emerged as a potential force, allowing two hits in 10 scoreless innings while striking out 14.
With every mediocre performance by a starter, however, the speculation about those pitching prospects will seem more and more relevant. There’s certainly room for improvement if someone like Mize can provide a boost, and if he does arrive soon, it may be more than just a glimpse of the future. He might be pitching in meaningful games late in the season.
For Gardenhire, it’s still a little too early for any grand proclamations about what the Tigers might be capable of. So far, they’ve been intriguing – and that’s a start.
“We’ve still got a lot of baseball to play here, and I haven’t really tried to sit back and say we’re this or that,” Gardenhire said. “I think we’re learning who we are as we go along, and that’s a process here.”