I saw the Detroit Tigers' future at Comerica Park. And it looks good.
Baseball is back. For now.
And while it may look the same in a few weeks when actual games begin — at least on a TV screen — nothing felt normal Friday morning when the Detroit Tigers’ pitchers and catchers reported to the first day of “summer camp” at Comerica Park.
Thank goodness for the youngsters. They make it easier to stare into the distance and think about the future. Yes, the Tigers have a future again.
Before they get there, they’ll have to navigate their way through a 60-game season. They’ll have to check their temperatures and wear masks in the clubhouse and dugout and follow one-way foot-traffic patterns through the innards of a ballpark.
“It was weird out there,” said Michael Fulmer, former ace-in-the-making before injuries shelved him nearly two years ago. “(You’ve got to) come down one way, go back another way. (There are taped) X's where we can and can’t stand in the dugout.”
And yet, for the chance to play baseball again?
“I can deal with anything,” he said.
Fulmer looked thin and fit. He joked that he’s in as good a shape as he's been in since he played high school basketball. The weight loss is good for his knees. The overall fitness good for his psyche. Whether he returns to form is hard to say. Projection in baseball is fool’s business.
Still, it’s a necessary business. And it’s why there’s a bit of buzz in Tiger town at the moment. The thought of all the highly ranked youngsters, some of whom will likely make their Comerica Park debuts the next three months, is tantalizing.
For the last several years, the Tigers amassed a handful of promising pitchers. For the last couple, they’ve gone after hitters. The accumulation is why the farm system now ranks among the best in baseball, depending on who is ranking.
Under normal circumstances, most of the youngsters wouldn’t step onto the field at Comerica Park for another year or two. But the pandemic got them here sooner.
When pitcher Matt Manning heard the reboot would take place in Detroit instead of Lakeland, Florida, he was “really excited.”
Can you blame him?
If the season had unfolded like in most years, the 6-foot-6-inch righty might have made his debut in a late-season call-up from Toledo. Instead, there he was Friday, in early July, stepping onto the Comerica Park pitching mound in a fever dream.
Manning still may have to wait to make his official big-league debut. But considering the vagaries of the coronavirus and its potential to thin the Tigers’ 30-man active roster in Detroit, Manning can reasonably expect to get a call sooner than he otherwise would have.
If he does, expect to see a late-moving fastball and swooping curve, and a 22-year-old who is learning how to mix his pitches. In other words, expect to see the future.
The same will be true for fellow pitchers — and top prospects — Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal. Both have shown promise in minor-league and spring-training outings. And both could also make their major league debuts this summer.
All three will almost certainly start the season on the taxi squad, a 30-man team that will play intrasquad scrimmages in Toledo. Yet as much has been written about them and their hopeful foothold on the team’s starting rotation of the future, there are tantalizing hitters in the fold, too.
“It’s gonna be fun to see this team take shape,” Manning said.
He is thinking about the team’s newest No. 1 overall pick, Spencer Torkelson, who grew up not too far from Manning in northern California. He’s thinking about Riley Greene, the fifth pick of the 2019 MLB draft, a sweet-swinging lefty — both will be on the taxi squad.
There are others, too. Perhaps not with the draft pedigree, but with enough potential to allow Manning to dream. And even if not everyone hits their potential, it’s reasonable to assume that a few of them will.
All of which makes this truncated season an unusual opportunity. Yes, the front office and coaching staff don’t want to push too fast with some of them. Timing is critical in their development.
Besides, there is still a big-league club to field and other players to nurture. And while the team could get hot for a streak and win a few games, this season is mostly about seeing who can still do what. Or who shows promise for the next couple of seasons.
From Fulmer to Miguel Cabrera, from Christin Stewart to Jeimer Candelario, the Tigers have plenty to sort through in a relatively short window. That this will unfold without fans and with reams of COVID-19 related protocols and uncertainty should make it all the more intriguing.
Still, baseball is finally here. For the first time in a while, that’s reason to (cautiously) celebrate.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.