Why didn't Detroit Tigers call up Casey Mize? A deeper look at the factors at play

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire teased about Sunday's mysterious "TBD" starting pitcher. It had been that way for a couple of days — Spencer Turnbull on Thursday, Michael Fulmer on Friday and "TBD" on Sunday. That's where Dario Agrazal would have pitched, had he not been placed on the 10-day injured list. Maybe it was still set for reliever Rony Garcia, who looked "fantastic" in his MLB debut as an opener last week.

Or — this is where it becomes intriguing — the open spot on the lineup card would be filled in with nine letters: Casey Mize.

"I can't announce anything until my general manager makes a statement," Gardenhire said Friday, "and then we go from there."

Those words gave the Tigers two logical options. One being left-hander Daniel Norris, who is returning from a positive COVID-19 test and has spent more than a week at Fifth Third Field in Toledo with the reserve squad.

[ Tigers prospects training in secret in Toledo: Here's how they're growing, bonding ]

The other: Mize, a prospect in Toledo everybody is gushing about as the Tigers are off to a 5-3 start (the equivalent of about 14-8 in a 162-game schedule). The No. 1 overall pick from 2018 put together a 2.55 ERA, 106 strikeouts and 23 walks in 109⅓ innings across 21 starts with High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie last season.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Casey Mize throws during a live batting practice session at Comerica Park, Monday, July 6, 2020.

Either way, Gardenhire put the decision on his general manager. After all, he isn't allowed to say much about Mize anymore, claiming he always gets in trouble when he does. On July 14, Gardenhire said: "I'd like to have him right now. He's moving really quickly for me, and it can't be quick enough."

But on Saturday, Gardenhire tossed out another hint.

[ Tigers stuck in wait-and-see mode over Cardinals' COVID-19 outbreak situation ]

"I think you guys kinda have a pretty good feeling about it," Gardenhire said Saturday, "but we haven't made an announcement yet."

Sound the alarm. Surely, that must have meant the esteemed Auburn product was set to make his MLB debut.


Saturday's game was postponed because of rain, forcing a Sunday doubleheader against the Reds to conclude the series. Detroit picked Garcia, the Rule 5 pick, in a limited role for the first game and Norris in the second.

"That's why we're not really making any announcements," Gardenhire said before Saturday's scheduled 1:10 p.m. game. "We're on a day-to-day basis here. We gotta make sure everything is OK before we make the announcement. Maybe (Tigers general manager) Al (Avila) will make it later on."

Detroit Tigers pitcher Casey Mize and catcher Brady Policelli talk to pitching coach Rick Anderson during summer camp at Comerica Park in Detroit, Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

Nothing turned out OK, thanks to the rainout, positive COVID-19 tests from the Cardinals (the Tigers' upcoming opponent) and two seven-inning doubleheaders in a four-day span.

Would Mize have received the call had it not been for the aforementioned scenarios?

"That's not my department," Gardenhire said Sunday. "We needed a pitcher for the game, and Daniel Norris is the next guy in line. He's the one that's been here, done it. Al, we talked about it, and that's the guy."

Maybe we will never truly know, but that's how the Tigers got here — boasting the arms of Garcia and Norris while Mize continues to wait in Toledo.

[ This is perfect team for Casey Mize, other prospects ]

What's next for Mize?

Service time seemed the be the problem, but Avila denied that was the case.

"I'm not going to get into that, because really, that's not a thought process for me right now," Avila said July 20. "My thought process right now is putting a team on the field, keeping the organizational depth where it benefits us as we move forward throughout the season.

"When we feel that our young players are ready to come up and contribute, we will bring them up at the right time that we feel they're ready, and we feel that we have the biggest need."

[ Nerves, sweat and a phone call: How Casey Mize became Tigers' top pick ]

Tigers pitcher Casey Mize walks off the field after pitching during the intrasquad scrimmage Thursday, July 9, 2020 at Comerica Park.

When the Tigers began the season July 24, they had to keep Mize off the active roster for about six days to keep him from being credited with a full year of MLB service. By doing so, the franchise adds an extra season of control, making Mize a free agent in 2026 instead of 2025. 

Usually, collecting 172 days in the 187-day season counts as one full year of service time. With this 60-game schedule, each day in the 2020 season is prorated to approximately 2.78 days of MLB service time. Players need six years of service time to reach free agency and three years to reach salary arbitration (except in select cases, but we'll get to that).

[ Mize keeps inching closer to Tigers' starting rotation ]

On May 1, 2025, Mize will turn 27 years old and likely be in the prime of his career. The Tigers don't want to lose him after that season because of one early start in 2020 in a season that might not mean much for the Tigers. (Likewise, if Mize doesn't get called up at all this year, this becomes a debate in April 2021, with free agency possibly delayed until after the 2027 season.)

Tinkering with service time isn't something an organization will openly admit — they're obligated to make a "good faith" effort to call up players when they're ready under the the letter of the collective bargaining agreement — but there is a notable benefit to waiting.

Why 'Super Two' matters

Typically, players must amass three full years of MLB service time to become eligible for arbitration. "Super Two" status, however, gives some players arbitration eligibility before then — if the player ranks in the top 22% in service time among other two- and three-year MLB players.

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

"Super Two" status usually applies to players with two years and at least 130 days of service time. Last year's threshold was two years, 115 days, an abnormally low cutoff. But remember,  it's prorated this year.

A regular season's 130 days translates to 47 days in a 60-game season. This means if Mize is on the roster for 47 of the 67 days this year, he would almost certainly become "Super Two" eligible and go to arbitration a year early. The Tigers have some experience with this: Left-hander Matthew Boyd was a "Super Two" player after the 2018 season, though he avoided arbitration with a one-year, $2.6 million deal in January 2019.

Mize is set to make less than $600,000 a year before he hits arbitration, with likely seven and eight-figure playouts coming afterward, so nixing the possibility of "Super Two" status would argue for keeping him in Toledo for a bit longer this season — roughly into mid-August.

But, again, the Tigers can't acknowledge service time concerns, lest they get hit with a grievance down the road, as the Cubs were with their handling of Kris Bryant's service time. And so, we check in with him in Toledo, still.

"Mize, he comes in and threw the ball fine," pitching coach Rick Anderson said Thursday about Mize's status in Toledo. "It's just a matter of down there, we're keeping him stretched out like (Tarik) Skubal, (Matt) Manning, all the kids. Keeping his innings there. He's doing fine."

What are other teams doing?

The Tigers aren't the only team debating when to call up a top prospect; the Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals have each have faced the same call — though two of the three made sure to wait at least six days to call up their prospects. 

For the Blue Jays, it was right-hander Nate Pearson, drafted 27th overall in 2017, who made his debut last Wednesday. He gave up two hits and two walks in five innings with five strikeouts.

Meanwhile, the White Sox called up second baseman Nick Madrigal, the No. 4 pick in Mize's 2018 draft class, on Friday. He went 0-for-8 in his first two games before breaking through with a 4-for-5 game (all singles) on Sunday.

Pitcher Casey Mize during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

The Royals allowed right-hander Brady Singer, the No. 18 pick in 2018 (and once projected to the Tigers at No. 1 overall) to begin the season at the big-league level. He has a 3.60 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 10 innings.

[ Once projected to the Tigers at No. 1, Royals' Brady Singer now faces them ]

That brings us back to Mize, who may not get the call up until 2021. That would keep the 23-year-old from free agency until after the 2026 season — unless the Tigers wait until May to call him up. Then again, he could join the team next month, avoiding "Super Two" status.

Gardenhire is withdrawn, and that's understandable if his boss doesn't want him to give away too much information. The organization's line is that they're waiting until Mize is ready. But even if Mize's 98-pitch no-hitter in his Erie debut last year wasn't enough, there was his carving up of Miguel Cabrera on three pitches this July in summer camp.

What does Mize think?

"I would love to go compete against big-league hitters and try to get as much experience as I can this season," Mize said July 6 in summer camp. "To prepare to make a run in 2021."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold