With Mize, Skubal, and Paredes, The Tigers Turn Towards Their Future

The future of the Tigers arrived ahead of schedule this week — in Chicago, not Detroit, because necessity didn’t consult a travel itinerary. Faced with injuries, the majors’ most ineffective rotation, and a losing streak that erased a surprisingly strong start to the abbreviated season, the Tigers promoted three of their top prospects — third baseman Isaac Paredes, lefty Tarik Skubal, and righty Casey Mize, the last of those the number one overall pick of the 2018 draft — to provide immediate reinforcements. The moves aren’t likely to send the team to the playoffs, even given the field’s expansion, but they should make the Tigers an improved and more interesting club even as they endure growing pains.

After losing 114 games last year and an average of 103 over the past three seasons, the Tigers appeared likely to remain doormats this season. Back in March, before the coronavirus interrupted spring training, our Playoff Odds projected them for 95 losses, with a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs — higher than the Mariners and Orioles, both of whom came in at percentages too small to be viewed with the naked eye, but otherwise pretty hopeless. The pandemic-shortened schedule improved their odds significantly; though still projected for a .417 winning percentage (25-35 instead of 67-95) as of Opening Day, they were estimated to have a 1.4% chance at winning the AL Central and a 12.0% chance at claiming one of the AL’s eight playoff berths.

Those odds climbed to as high as 39.2% as the Tigers won nine of their first 14 games, the team’s best start since 2015, when they went 11-3. In that year, however, 14 games represented 8.6% of their schedule, where this year it’s 23.3%. Those Tigers finished 74-87, a reminder that even lousy teams sometimes bolt from the gate in impressive fashion; last year’s Mariners, to use an example in recent memory, opened by going 13-2 but still finished 68-94.

As if on cue, the 2020 Tigers hit the skids for what has become an eight-game losing streak, starting with five straight at home — two to the White Sox, then three to the Indians — and then all three games against the White Sox in Chicago. The skid has sent them to a 9-13 record, dropping their run differential into the red (-25 runs); even entering Wednesday, their actual winning percentage had been well ahead of their projected winning percentages, but they’ve regressed to the point that their .409 mark is looking up at both their Pythagenpat (.420) and Baseruns (.416) winning percentages, which is to say that they’ve apparently found their level.

In the final victory before their slide began, the Tigers lost first baseman C.J. Cron to a torn ligament in his left knee, and a few days later, they lost starter Iván Nova to right triceps tendinitis. Nova and fellow starters Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer were collectively rocked for 14 runs in 10.2 innings in three games against Cleveland, and the rotation was a complete eyesore, entering Wednesday’s game with the majors’ worst ERA (7.67) and FIP (6.56) while averaging just over four innings per turn, with Turnbull (2.78 ERA and 2.85 FIP) the only starter with an ERA below 7.56 or a FIP below 6.36; five of the seven other pitchers who have started have served up at least three homers per nine. Fulmer is still building up his pitch count after missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, and likewise for Daniel Norris, who is recovering from a coronavirus infection that cost him most of summer camp and has started just once from among his four appearances.

A team could hardly do worse than Tigers starters have done; the combination of injuries and underperformance led general manager Al Avila to reverse course from his previously stated plan and call up both Mize, a 23-year-old righty out of Auburn University, and Skubal, a 23-year-old lefty who was the team’s ninth-round pick out of Seattle University in 2018. Joining them in this wave of new arrivals is 21-year-old third baseman Isaac Paredes, a 2015 J2 signing by the Cubs who was acquired alongside Jeimer Candelario in the 2017 deadline trade that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to Chicago. Mize, Skubal, and Paredes are three of the five Tigers who placed among our Top 100 Prospects list in the spring, at 16th, 53rd, and 120th, respectively; they’ve since been joined on The Board by 2020 first oveall pick Spencer Torkelson.

On that Top 100 list, Eric Longenhagen described Paredes, who hit .282/.368/.416 at Double-A Erie last year, as having “all the statistical markers of an impact regular” while grading his hit tool, throwing, and raw power as average or better. However, he noted Paredes’ below average in-game power and fielding prowess as well as body-related concerns (he lists at 5-foot-11, 225 pounds) regarding a lack of athleticism, which “clouds his long-term projection.” His arrival helps to compensate for Candelario’s shift from third base to first to cover for the loss of Cron. He debuted on Monday, going 1-for-4 with a two-run single off Gio González but also an error at third base; through three games, he’s 1-for-9 with a pair of walks.

Paredes joined a lineup that now ranks eighth in the AL in scoring (4.64 runs per game), 12th in wRC+ (91), and dead last in on-base percentage (.294). With the loss of Cron, Candelario, catcher Austin Romine, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, and center fielder JaCoby Jones are the only regulars carrying a wRC+ of 100 or better; a couple of those have crossed the line even as the team has continued losing. Outfielders Victor Reyes and Christin Stewart, shortstop Niko Goodrum, and designated hitter Miguel Cabrera are all at 87 or lower. Cabrera is hitting just .190/.286/.354 (76 wRC+) with four homers, and while his 92.5 mph average exit velocity, 51.7% hard hit rate, and .372 xWOBA all suggest he’s been rather unlucky upon making contact, his 46.8% groundball rate is a dead ringer for his combined rate in his injury-marked 2018 and ’19 seasons, during which he managed just a 103 wRC+ and 0.4 WAR.

Skubal, who split last season between High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie, striking out an eye-opening 179 (36.5%) in 122.2 innings, debuted on Tuesday and, well, it could have gone better. On his third pitch of the game, a 93.8 mph fastball on the inner part of the zone, Tim Anderson launched a solo homer, 105.5 mph off the bat — his second leadoff homer in as many days. Yoán Moncada and José Abreu both followed with singles, and while they were erased with a double play off the bat of Eloy Jiménez, a two-out walk to Edwin Encarnación helped stretch Skubal’s first big league inning to 30 pitches, during which he induced only two swings and misses. His second inning went even less well, as he surrendered four hits and three runs, punctuated by an RBI double by Anderson (107.6 mph) on an 0-2 slider, and an RBI single by Abreu. That was it for his night, after 52 pitches; Norris threw four solid innings of relief but the White Sox still prevailed, 10-4.

Obviously, the hope is that sooner or later, Skubal can give the Tigers more than that, and to be fair, he missed almost all of summer camp due to a COVID-19 infection, had thrown just 46 pitches in his last outing at the Tigers’ alternate training site in Toledo, and had never made an appearance above Double-A. As Longenhagen wrote in January, he’s still something of a work in progress due to the shakiness of his command and strength of his secondary pitches, whose present grades are only 45 (curveball and changeup) or 50 (slider):

There are some folks in baseball who have Skubal right up in the same tier with Mize and [Matt] Manning. He has a dominant fastball, equal parts velocity, ride, and tough-to-square angle. So unhittable is Skubal’s heater that he’s struck out 37% of hitters during his pro career (48% over the final few weeks over Double-A play last year) while throwing the pitch roughly 70% of the time. No current big leaguer with a fastball that plays at the top of the zone throws their fastball that much; anyone close to 70% is a sinkerballer. An occasionally good changeup and slider aside, Skubal’s secondaries are not all that great in a vacuum, but luckily they too benefit from the funky angle created by Skubal’s cross-bodied, high-slot delivery. His overall swinging strike rate (18%) was higher than the rate on his fastball alone (15%), which means the secondaries were a net positive for him, but we’re unsure of what big league hitters will do if they know a fastball aimed at the letters is coming most of the time. So while he’s had nothing but goofy strikeout rates for two years, we think Skubal ends up more toward the middle of a rotation rather than the front.

On Tuesday, Skubal threw his 93-97 mph four-seam fastball about 56% of the time, but struggled to locate it. Of the nine times he threw it as the first pitch of a plate appearance, he got just four strikes; he was well outside the zone three times, and additionally gave up the RBI single to Abreu. He got a pair of swings and misses on both his slider and changeup, but the White Sox made hard contact (exit velos of 95 mph or greater) against three of the four balls (out of 17 total) with which they connected. Most impressive were his results against Jiménez, whom he not only doubled up but stuck out swinging at a well-placed slider on the inner edge of the zone.

As for Mize, the first number one overall-chosen pitcher to debut in the majors since Gerrit Cole arrived in 2013, Longenhagen has hailed him as “arguably the top pitching prospect in all of baseball” based purely on his stuff, which he called “hellacious,” with all four pitches — fastball (55 present grade), slider (60), splitter (60), and cutter (70) — capable of missing bats. The knock on him has been health; he dealt with a flexor strain in his forearm at Auburn in 2017 (and again that summer with Team USA), then missed a month last year due to shoulder inflammation, after which he was much less effective than prior. Even so, he finished with a 2.55 ERA, 3.00 FIP, and 24.7% strikeout rate in 109.1 innings split between Lakeland and Erie; he spun a 98-pitch no-hitter in his first start at the latter stop on April 29, 2019. His health concerns led Longenhagen to place him in the middle of his tier of 60 Future Value pitchers, behind fellow Tiger Matt Manning (the team’s 2016 first-rounder out of a Sacramento high school) as well as Jesús Luzardo, Nate Pearson, Dustin May, and Forrest Whitley, but just ahead of Brendan McKay, Luis Patiño, and Michael Kopech.

For the occasion of Mize’s debut, Fox Sports Detroit assembled a clip that began with commissioner Rob Manfred announcing him as the number one overall pick, followed by a goosebump-inducing montage of Tigers legends — Al Kaline, Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Kirk Gibson, Willie Horton, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker (together, as nature intended), and Ty Cobb — only some of whom arrived via the amateur draft. For the actual festivities, Mize was matched up with Dane Dunning, a 2016 first-round pick by the Nationals whom the White Sox acquired alongside Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López in exchange for Adam Eaton in December 2016. It was just the second time that two first-round picks squared off in their debuts; the Tigers’ Rick Porcello and Blue Jays’ Ricky Romero did so on April 9, 2009.

Mize breezed through his first inning on 14 pitches, retiring the hot-hitting Anderson on a fly ball and then sandwiching strikeouts of Moncada (swinging at a diving splitter) and Jiménez (chasing an outside slider) around an Abreu single. Encarnación provided a bracing dose of reality by hammering a hanging curve 415 feet down the left field line for a solo homer, and Nomar Mazara followed by mashing a 95.4 mph fastball off the left field wall.

Fortunately, Mize settled down, retiring the next five hitters in a row, with Zack Collins, Anderson and Abreu all going down swinging at splitters. He worked around a leadoff infield single by Jiménez in the fourth, getting Encarnación to chase an outside slider for strike three, but ran into trouble in the fifth by allowing a double to Collins and singles to Anderson and Moncada. He exited in favor of José Cisnero with one out, one on, and the score tied 3-3. Solo homers in the eighth inning by Abreu and Encarnación (again) off Gregory Soto provided the margin of victory for the White Sox.

Still, it was an impressive debut for Mize despite his allowing three runs and seven hits — three on hard-hit balls of 102 mph or higher — in 4.1 innings. He struck out seven without a walk, generated 11 swings and misses from among his 73 pitches (six from among his 19 splitters) and got nine called strikes (six from among his 20 sliders). His four-seam fastball ranged from 92 to 96.2 mph, averaging 94.2. He did get ahead of just 11 of the 20 batters he faced, and gave up the aforementioned scorchers, but Tigers fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about his next turn, and many, many more after that.

As their current losing streak and their underlying metrics illustrate, there was less to the Tigers’ hot start than met the eye, and it shouldn’t be too surprising that they’ve slipped below .500, even if the plunge has been drastic. That said, the starting pitching in particular was in such a sorry state that doing nothing made little sense, particularly with the team having fared respectably through the first third of the season, and with no minor league schedule, taking the wraps off Skubal and Mize at the big league level, despite the sizable jump from partial seasons at Double-A, is defensible. The two pitchers and Paredes are the first Tigers prospects with 50 FV or better to debut in the majors since Fulmer in 2016, though for homegrown ones of that caliber, one has to go back to Nick Castellanos in ’13. In that regard, the Tigers have turned the corner, and while it may well be premature to say so with regards to their competitiveness, what lies ahead — including the arrivals of Manning and Torkelson — should be vastly more compelling than the team’s dismal showings of the past few seasons.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

Dunning was actually a first rounder by the Nationals.