Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire meets fans outside Comerica Park on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018. Video by George Sipple/DFP George Sipple/Detroit Free Press
Surprise is the best kind of present in sports. You think a baseball team might lose 95 games and then it approaches the halfway point a game under .500 and, well … here are your 2018 Detroit Tigers.
Exactly where you didn’t think they be. That’s OK. Neither did I.
Nor did anyone, really, except the man who assembled the roster and the man who manages the team. Not that Ron Gardenire was predicting a World Series run during his introductory press conference last fall.
Well, he knew something. He knew that despite the plans to rebuild and despite the loss of star players, those of us considering how good — or bad — the Tigers would be this summer weren’t factoring in one thing:
His presence. And what that presence could mean to a team of under-the-radar players, a couple of potential stars and a handful of veterans trying to stay healthy for another go-around or three.
Gardenhire told us last fall that he entered the season “thinking we’re going to kick some butt.”
And if the Tigers’ record doesn’t yet suggest that they have, the players themselves act as though they have. You sense this when you watch them, when you see how they follow losing streaks with winning ones.
It’s not just that Gardenhire’s Tigers fight inning-to-inning and game-to-game, they fight week-to-week. Somehow, the new manager has convinced this team both to stay in the moment and to think of each moment in the larger context of a season.
This helps explain the Tigers’ current five-game winning streak without Miguel Cabrera. It’s the “next man up” cliché brought to life.
Instilling that ethos into a baseball clubhouse isn’t an easy thing. In fact, such platitudes aren’t normally associated with this game, where it’s fair to wonder how much difference a manager makes.
Instead, we focus on numbers and measurable skill and the lineup card and when a pitcher gets called in from the bullpen. And yet, something’s afoot in this Tigers’ clubhouse.
Here is what catcher James McCann said last week when Gardenhire secured career win No. 1,100 win, after the team doused him with beer in the clubhouse to celebrate:
“You don’t get 1,100 wins as a manager by accident,” he said. “Just like you look at a veteran player who plays for 15-20 years. That doesn’t happen by accident. The fact that he’s got those numbers, it doesn’t surprise me based on what I’ve seen this year.”
In just under three months, Gardenhire has blended his understanding of human nature with a new appreciation for analytics. He’s leaning on the club’s growing metrics department while he relies on communication tricks he’s acquired over the last 40 years.
Gardenhire, of course, doesn’t like to take credit for the Tigers’ inspired first-half play this summer. He’d rather take his team’s temperature. In the clubhouse. During batting practice. In the dugout.
Here is what he said last month after a win at Minnesota that ended a five-game losing streak, and he’d noticed a lack of enthusiasm on the bench the game before:
“That (was) my fault. I was kind of sitting there trying to get through (the losing streak) and I went and told those guys, ‘We’ll bring it tomorrow. You won’t have me sitting around tomorrow. I’ll be up there with you.'”
And he did. He told them they were OK. To keep going.
They ripped off wins in eight of their next 10.
In football, even in basketball, we talk about learning how to win. The same can be true in baseball. Teaching this is why Tigers general manager Al Avila wanted Gardenhire. He wanted his young roster to learn how to compete.
“We wanted that leadership quality,” Avila said back in January. “We wanted (Gardy) to teach the guys the right way. (Because) there (was) going to be a learning curve here. His job was to prepare the team to win, and get that winning attitude, even though you might (lose) the game.”
It’s easy to see that now, as the Tigers have climbed back to a game under .500 after falling eight games under last month. And while this team plays in the weakest division in the American League, and aren’t pretending they are title contenders, they are still beating teams in a way few thought they could.
Which makes this fun. And surprising, as often happens when a team comes along and performs against expectations.
There’s a reason players and coaches and even fans remember the first championship above all others. They didn’t know it was coming.
The same holds true in non-championship seasons. Sometimes, all it takes is an old manager connecting with young players and the kind of relentless competitiveness we’re seeing down at Comerica Park these days.
Jamie Samuelsen, co-host of the “Jamie and Stoney” show at 6 a.m. weekdays on WXYT-FM (97.1), blogs for freep.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Detroit Free Press nor its writers. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jamiesamuelsen.
Is there one player from the Detroit Tigers that has been the biggest surprise for you this season, good or bad?
When you accomplish something like that, you have to figure that you’re getting a lot of surprise performances and most of them are of the positive variety.
When you go through the Tigers’ roster, only a handful of players are having disappointing seasons. Miguel Cabrera is an obvious one, with his season now over with a ruptured bicep muscle. Victor Martinez hasn’t generated the power needed from the DH position or the clean-up spot. He has only 14 extra-base hits in 2018, which is unacceptable for his salary ($18 million this season) and spot in the lineup. Jordan Zimmerman and Alex Wilson have both been up and down and had stints on the disabled list but they have still made solid contributions.
Beyond that, most every other Tiger player has either performed up to expectations or exceeded them. All-Star selections aren’t the ultimate test of whether or not a player is having a good season, and we all know how misguided the selection process can be. That said, the Tigers have at least three players having All-Star-caliber seasons: Matthew Boyd, Nicholas Castellanos and Joe Jimenez. Shane Greene is among the league leaders in saves, but his blown saves and home runs allowed will knock him beneath more consistent closers. This is not to say that all three of these players will make the team, but it is a good indicator that this hasn’t been simply a one man show.
You can certainly count Boyd and Jimenez as surprises given just how effective they’ve been. Boyd has been the Tigers best starting pitcher and Jimenez a virtually untouchable reliever. Castellanos is making the natural improvement that you’d expect from a player at this point in his career, although you have to give him bonus points for his performance at the plate while he’s made the transition from third base to right field.
As for the biggest surprises, there are three that stand out to me:
The most recent pleasant surprise that the Tigers have enjoyed and it came at a time when it looked like the whole season was about to come off the rails. Hardy was designated for assignment after spring training and no other major league team gave him a deal, so he was outrighted to Toledo. He returned as a reliever and then as an unexpected starter and he’s been exactly what the Tigers needed. He’s a lefty. He doesn’t walk anyone and he’s allowed two runs or fewer in six of his seven starts. He’s been so effective that he has Ron Gardenhire considering a six-man rotation once Francisco Liriano returns from the disabled list. I don’t know if that option works. But I do know that it doesn’t make any sense to have Hardy not start once Liriano is ready.
I viewed the Fiers signing as an arm and a pulse. I figured he would get hit hard, give up lots of runs and either be out of the rotation or out of the organization by the All-Star break. Instead, he’s been bizarrely consistent. You pretty much know what you’re going to get from a Mike Fiers start – five or six innings, good movement on his pitches and the team will have a chance to win the game. Really, a lot like Hardy just with a higher ERA. When you grow accustomed to watching pitchers named Verlander, Scherzer, Porcello and Price throw for the Tigers, you’re not used to a journeyman starter occupying one of the roles. But Fiers is a perfect fifth starter in a five-man rotation and he’s been much better than that for the Tigers this season.
I may not have been as dubious on the Martin signing as I was on the Fiers signing but I didn’t see much there either. Martin won the everyday center field job in spring training and has led off almost every game other than his brief stint on the disabled list for a hamstring injury. He’s become the pulse of the team, added a little bit of pop and made more than a few defensive gems in center – highlighted by his running, leaping catch against the wall Sunday in Chicago. For all the talk about how this clubhouse is better and looser than in years past, Martin deserves much of the credit. His voice is constantly heard and that’s been a good thing for this team so far.
As we praise the Tigers and the surprises on the roster, we have to tip our caps to general manager Al Avila as well. He might not ever admit that some of these players have surprised him because that would be a public admission that he didn’t expect exactly what Gardenhire has gotten out of them. The fact is that most of these players were identified by Avila and most of these players have performed. We rip the GM when they don’t so we should praise him when they do. You look at Martin, Fiers and Liriano and what they’ve meant to the team. Then add to them the steal he got at the deadline last year when he sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Cubs for Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. Avila carries around the Jordan Zimmermann deal like an albatross, but he’s made some very shrewd and overlooked moves over the past calendar year.
I don’t know where this Tigers season is headed and merely getting to .500 shouldn’t be the cause for a celebration. But raise your hand if you thought the Tigers would be anywhere near .500 on the first day of summer.
Yeah. Didn’t think so.
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The Free Press rated Burrows the team’s No. 2 prospect, Faedo No. 4 and Cameron No. 6 going into the season. (Those rankings will soon be updated to reflect where the 2018 draft picks fit in among the organization’s top 20 prospects).
The Tigers selected Faedo, 22, with their first 18th overall pick in 2017. He went on to help Florida win the College World Series last season. He has a 3.10 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP in 12 starts this season for High-A Lakeland. He has 51 strikeouts and 13 walks over 61 innings. Opponents are hitting .217 against him.
The Tigers are as mystified as observers on why Faedo’s velocity has dropped 3-4 miles per hour from the 95-97 mph he threw in college.
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“I can’t explain it,” Avila said. “We all saw him, obviously, in the College World Series (throwing) in the upper 90s. He hasn’t hit that right now.”
Avila did his best to explain why the velocity dip doesn’t concern him.
“He’s pitching very well,” Avila said. “The way he’s pitching is very similar to the way he was pitching in college, except the velocity, that 95, 97 fastball is not there.”
Avila said some pitchers experience velocity fluctuations in the minors, so he’s not concerned.
“Eventually it comes back,” Avila said. “At his age right now, he’s perfectly healthy. I think it’s just a matter of time where you’ll see it take off little by little.”
Avila did confirmed that Faedo isn’t purposely taking anything off the fastball.
“The reason I say we’re not concerned is because he’s got his full arsenal of pitches,” Avila said. “He’s not walking guys. He’s pitching (how) he’s always pitched.
“When the velocity does come back, it will make him even more effective. That pinpoint control and that slider and the way he pitches, that’s what makes him a real good pitcher.”
Cameron, 21, was batting .259 with 59 hits and 25 walks in 58 games for Lakeland. He had nine doubles, three triples, three home runs with 20 RBIs in 35 runs scored.
Cameron is the son of Mike Cameron, who played 17 seasons in the majors with the Mariners, White Sox, Mets, Red Sox, Padres, Brewers, Reds and Marlins.
Cameron came to the Tigers from the Astros as part of the Justin Verlander trade in August. The Tigers also received catcher Jake Rogers and right-handed pitcher Franklin Perez in the deal.
Here are three observations from the weekend series sweep of the White Sox in Chicago by Free Press sports writer George Sipple:
Oh, that good bullpen
The bullpen has as much to do with the Tigers’ five-game winning streak as anything else.
Over the five-game streak, the bullpen allowed one run on 12 hits over 17⅓ innings with one walk and 20 strikeouts.
In the three-game sweep, the bullpen combined to give up one run on 10 hits over 11⅓ innings with no walks and 12 strikeouts.
Shane Greene and Joe Jiménez each pitched in four of the five games.
Greene earned saves in each of the first four wins and allow two hits and no walks over four scoreless innings with six strikeouts.
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He became the first Tigers closer to earn four saves in four days since Todd Jones from July 30 to July 3, 2000. Greene has converted each of his last nine save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 10 of his last 11 appearances.
He would have pitched on Sunday if the Tigers let him, but manager Ron Gardenhire smartly told him he was getting a day off.
Jimenez has allowed one hit and no walks over four scoreless innings with six strikeouts. He used his fastball-slider combo to earn his second career save on Sunday, striking out three batters he faced.
Jimenez has not allowed an earned run in 18 of his last 19 appearances. He’s allowed one run on 10 hits and two walks with 27 strikeouts over 18⅓ innings in his last 19 games.
The Tigers have many more pitching prospects in their farm system than position players who could fill the void if Castellanos, 26, is traded.
Give credit to the Tigers for buying into Gardenhire’s desire to have an aggressive baserunning team. But the Tigers showed a little too much courage and not enough patience against the White Sox.
James McCann made poor decision to try and steal home with two outs in the fourth inning on Friday, with the Tigers leading, 3-0. With Jeimer Candelario batting with two strikes, Leonys Martin was given the green light to steal second. McCann was told not to run, but did anyway and got thrown out at home.
JaCoby Jones was tagged out on the base paths twice in Sunday’s win. Jones was caught off third base on a comebacker to the mound by Candelario. Candelario was then thrown out at second on a 1-5-2-4 double play.
Third base coach Dave Clark tried to take the blame on Sunday, but Gardenhire wouldn’t let him.
“I think Dave said something about he yelled ‘Go’ when it was hit,” Gardenhire said. “Dave said it was on his shoulders. But really, Jonesy went as soon as the ball was contacted with the bat. Dave can try to protect him, but it was a little rough day.”
Jones got picked off first base later, which earned him a little conversation after the game with Gardenhire. “I talked to him about it,” Gardenhire said, with a smile. “I said, ‘You’re exciting. You really are exciting.”
Contact George Sipple: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeSipple. Download our Tigers Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!
TOLEDO, Ohio — Christin Stewart stepped into the batter’s box Friday night at Fifth Third Field and flipped his bat once. He went through his routine — a tap to each cleat, a touch of each corner of the plate and one big circle in the air with his bat — before settling in.
Pop-out to the pitcher.
He usually hits the ball much farther.
It’s an unfamiliar spot for Stewart, who is 54 miles and a phone call away from Comerica Park and realizing his dream of playing the majors.
The 24-year-old Toledo Mud Hens left-handed-hitting outfielder, who is MLB Pipeline’s No. 10 Detroit Tigers prospect, has been impressive during his four seasons in the minors, producing a staggering 81 home runs, 257 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .360 through Monday.
“From what I see here, yeah, he’s 100 percent ready,” said Mud Hens catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, an MLB veteran who has played in big-league 890 games. “He’s got a great work ethic. He’s a great kid, always smiling and having fun.”
The Tigers could use a player like Stewart. They need power in their lineup after losing Miguel Cabrera for the season to a ruptured biceps tendon, and Stewart might be the best fit. But his limited defensive ability, combined with the Tigers’ already crowded outfield depth chart, could force Stewart to wait a little longer.
Stewart set Georgia high school state records with 69 career home runs, a .545 batting average his sophomore season, and 70 RBIs his junior season. He held a career batting average of .496 and was one of the top high school prospects in the country.
Former Tennessee coach Dave Serrano wanted Stewart’s bat on his team.
Serrano recognized Stewart could hit it “anywhere,” a gift few college hitters have. He saw Stewart’s power to all fields and a player ready to compete from the outset.
He inserted Stewart into the heart of his lineup on Day 1, and three years later — after hitting .319 with 23 home runs and 113 RBIs at Tennessee — the Tigers drafted him No. 34 overall in the 2015 draft.
“What made him a first-round draft pick and will get him to the big leagues one day is going to be his bat,” Serrano said. “From Day 1, he was born to be a hitter.”
His Achilles heel
It’s no secret why he hasn’t been called up – his defense.
He only plays outfield – 51 of his 57 starts this season have been in left, the other six in right– and he’s still developing as a defender.
“I think he’s well aware that’s his only Achilles heel,” Serrano said. “One thing he’s always been able to do in high school, college and the minors is hit. I think it’s just a matter of him continuing to develop defensively. … It’s just not something he’s real comfortable with. But it’s something he knows he has to get better at, and it’s probably the one thing that has held him down because it’s definitely not about the offensive numbers he’s putting up year-to-year.”
If given the opportunity, he could become an elite hitter at the next level.
“For a left-handed hitter to be able to hit high-velocity fastballs up in the zone, lefty’s are typically low ball hitters (that) struggle with the up pitches, but he handles them,” Saltalamacchia said. “He doesn’t give up at-bats, just a lot of things you don’t see young hitters do.”
When asked how badly he wants to play in the majors, Stewart, who went 0-for-4 on Friday, shrugs off the question and gives an answer about his current team. . .
“He’s not a guy that sits there and thinks about that stuff. I don’t think I’ve heard him talk about the big leagues at all,” Saltalamacchia said. “He could be a big piece for the Detroit Tigers to get something they need. I think he’s handling things the right way.”
Stewart is described as a “quiet and humble kid” by coaches and teammates. To see him make it to the big leagues would not only be a dream come true for him, but also for the people who helped him get there.
“For me, it’s still going to be Christin,” Cantrell said. “He’s still going to be one of my favorite kids to be around. I certainly didn’t get him there. I just tried not to screw him up.”
Clearly, Cantrell didn’t. Stewart’s future is bright, but he must wait his turn.
“Like I said, he’s got the type of bat to get him to the big leagues,” Serrano said. “He hit in high school, he hit in college, he hit in the minors — he’s going to hit in the major leagues. He will.
“I think he will have a long career of hitting the ball over the fence.”
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