Detroit Tigers' debate over prospect strategy more of a balancing act than you think

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press

I needed some help.

Earlier this week, Major League Baseball announced its plan for a 60-game 2020 season and Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila spoke extensively about the plan for their top starting pitching prospects.

Despite that, I still don't have a solid opinion on the big question that Avila faces: When should the kids get called up?

Matt Manning, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal aren’t MLB-ready yet, but they’re close. They need to pitch, even if there's no minor league baseball, as expected.

Pitchers Daniel Norris, center, Matthew Boyd, right, and Jordan Zimmermann talk to fans as they make their way to the field for practice during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.

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The Tigers' answer in 2020 will affect future seasons and the success of a rebuild meant to produce a World Series contender. Beyond that, there are several other questions entangled within that big one. With some help from some big-league sources, I'll try to untangle the knot that is the Tigers' 2020 season and, most importantly, beyond..

Let's start with the most immediate question: In a significantly shortened, “wide open” season, do the Tigers have a shot at the postseason?


Last season, they lost 114 games. They made modest free-agent additions on the offensive end, and that's about it. It wasn't going to be enough for contention in 162 games; 60 games doesn't change the equation that much. Maybe if the postseason had been expanded by three teams in each league, as one plan proposed, but, no — 2020 is not the year for the Tigers.

A September call-up?

Avila on Wednesday offered clues to what the Tigers would do: Add their top prospects to the 60-man roster (due Sunday), let them compete in camp and then on the taxi squad and see how things develop. Avila gave no indication they were serious contenders to start out of camp — but he left the door open for them making their debuts by the end of the season.

From left, pitcher Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning pose for a photo during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

That brings us to the next question: How should the Tigers manage their 2020 expectations? The answer will likely be determined as much by "trial and error" as it is by organizational philosophy, with all the  unprecedented uncertainty. For example, we're less than a month away from MLB's announced starting dates — July 23-24 — and the MLB execs I polled weren't optimistic of an on-time start, given the recent uptick in coronavirus cases nationwide.

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Manning, Mize and Skubal  are the organization's most important window to the future. Looking at them now, you can see a contender. Their arrival in the big leagues, though, is a door bringing that future to the present.

“Timing is so important,” one rival American League executive said. “Everything revolves around that timing.”

Not only for individual development, though. It’s also important in building a team and trying to ensure the pitching prospects peak while there are other players to support them, creating a true contender.

Those other complementary players include right-hander Alex Faedo and infielder Isaac Paredes. Beyond them, and not far away, is this year's top overall pick, Spencer Torkelson. But there’s an age gap of impact players between Torkelson and last year's top pick, 19-year-old Riley Greene. Even if Greene is MLB-ready by age 21, that's not until 2022.

So that's a target year. The next goal is to have them arrive fairly close together, with plenty of time remaining under team control, so you contend for years at a time.

Contract concerns

Avila has said service time won’t play a factor, but it absolutely has to; it's not about 2020, it's about 2026. When prospects start accruing MLB service time, their countdown to salary arbitration and, ultimately, free agency starts, too.

But that's well down the rebuilding road, which has a more immediate speedbump looming in 2021: The expiration of the baseball collective bargaining agreement.

In the next round of negotiations, the MLB Players Association is expected to fight against service time manipulation and for reducing the amount of service time needed for free agency. The Tigers' "sustainability" strategy could take a sudden hit two years from now.

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So, the Tigers will take things slow with their prospects in 2020, to avoid "spending" a year of service time.  But that’s almost like going only halfway. As multiple executives suggested — considering the Tigers' status at the bottom and the uncertainty of everything — playing the service time game properly, means waiting a few weeks into 2021 for a permanent call-up, too.

“Why risk it?” an NL executive said, suggesting a cautious and conservative way. “Keep your kids safe.”

The idea of safety, Avila said, is foremost in the team’s plans. But he’s often in a tough spot, unable to say what that truly means in baseball terms — that he doesn’t think the team can win in 2020 and that manipulating service times will help in the years afterward.

Crowded in the bigs

The Tigers know which way they want to go on this: In a perfect scenario, they don’t use the kids in 2020.

Manning, Mize and Skubal aren't the only players in uniform, either; there are five guys in their current starting rotation that aren’t stepping aside. We're looking at roughly two months of baseball; it would not be a surprise to see Jordan Zimmermann stay healthy that long or to see Ivan Nova stay serviceable for enough innings. Likewise, Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull should hang onto their spots if they’re pitching well.

Pitcher Spencer Turnbull makes a throw during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.

But contracts can't be all the Tigers think of (though I’d argue it should be their biggest concern). Another NL exec, whose team is contending after a short rebuild, argued for the importance of on-field work: “The No. 1 thing for me is what is the best thing for development, over service time and anything else.

“However they need to do that, that’s what they need to be focused on. I wouldn’t want to risk losing a year, but get them as many starts as possible within that, pitching in competitive games, even like what they did with Norris last year."

(Norris' final nine starts of 2019 lasted three innings each by design; in those 27 innings, he had a 3.33 ERA, a 1.000 WHIP and struck out 27 batters.)

“But my No. 1 priority is how to get through this year so they can contribute in a meaningful way next year,” the exec continued

And that's what nobody quite knows how to do yet.

An extended break?

Then there's the stop-and-start nature of the prospects' work this season, which raises this question: Would the Tigers be better off mitigating the injury risk by not pushing them any further in this season that wouldn't provide much work anyway?

Tigers pitcher Tarik Skubal gets ready to take the mound for the exhibition game against Southeastern University at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.

Consider the idea of them debuting in the big leagues after this year’s inconsistent schedule, experiencing a certain kind of adrenaline that can’t be matched in spring training, Double-A  or Triple-A games. Getting roughed up in an unfamiliar situation could damage their development. Success in that unfamiliarity might also be damaging, to the Tigers' long-term plans. Success, this year, doesn't add much, and potentially takes away from the chances down the line by shutting down the Tigers' chances of stalling on service time.

Then again, there is this simple reality: the Tigers' Big Three aren’t going to get much better if they don’t pitch competitively — there is upside in having them get their feet wet in 2020 and come into camp next season penciled into a starting job.

Does that upside outweigh giving up a possible extra year of salary arbitration or an early exit into free agency? Keep in mind that Manning, Skubal and Torkelson are represented by agent Scott Boras, whose clients almost always test free agency. Likewise, teams have been able to kick free agency down the road easier by offering a lucrative but team-friendly long-term deal to a player further from big money.

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A balancing act

But the uncertainty of the immediate future complicates everything regarding the decision to bring up the kids early.

It complicates the questions of health, both arms (endangered by sudden strains) and lungs (COVID-19 looms). It complicates the questions of contracts, both local (oh, that service time) and national (the CBA negotiations will be a doozy). In short, it complicates the risk that the Tigers have so diligently fought against over the past few seasons.

There are ways to mitigate that risk.

How well you think they can do it likely determines where you come down on calling up Manning, Mize and Skubal. How well the Tigers actually do it may determine how successful their rebuild ultimately is.

Contact Anthony Fenech at afenech@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.