Ron Gardenhire 'fired up' about Detroit Tigers' stud prospects making MLB debuts

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire got annoyed with all the questions.

About right-handed pitcher Casey Mize, lefty Tarik Skubal, third baseman Isaac Paredes and all of the other prospects waiting at the alternate training site in Toledo for a chance to play meaningful baseball in the big leagues.

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He didn't say he was frustrated, but you didn't have to ask him. His facial expression and somber tone of voice as he attempted to answers all those questions, even as he deferred to general manager Al Avila, were enough to make it clear.

On Monday, Gardenhire had a new perspective. As Mize, Skubal and Paredes boarded the team's airplane Sunday for a trip to Chicago for a four-game series against the White Sox, he knew he wouldn't have to struggle for answers any longer.

Because those prospects are now MLB players.

"Now you start thinking about it quite a bit," Gardenhire said Monday. "We're excited about having these young men get their first shot in the big leagues."

[ Tigers counting on Casey Mize, fellow top prospects to perform in shortened MLB season ]

Manager Ron Gardenhire talks to pitchers Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Tarik Skubal at practice during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.

The third-year manager gets his first look at Paredes in Monday's series opener, slotting him into the starting lineup, where he will bat No. 8 in the order and play third base. As shortstop Niko Goodrum remains day-to-day with a back strain, Willi Castro — a recent regular at third base with Jeimer Candelario now playing first — gets to play shortstop.

Goodrum's recovery shouldn't be a long process, so the Tigers will need to adjust how they use Castro and Paredes once he returns. But both will "get at-bats, that's for sure," Gardenhire said. "Sitting on the bench for three or four days, those guys really don't help you when they do that."

Despite two young infielders on the left side (Castro is 23; Paredes is 21), Gardenhire won't change his approach in using the shift, something the Tigers have implemented a league-leading 56.5% of the time.

[ Detroit Tigers use infield shifts more than any team. This is why they're doing it ]

"They're up to speed," Gardenhire said. "They work on those things in Toledo when they're down there. Although we're very limited on position players down there, they still work on the shifts. They also went through spring training when we gave them their cards and practiced it. They'll be fine."

Tigers prospect Isaac Paredes  hits during batting practice during spring training on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.

Paredes was called up due to first baseman C.J. Cron's season-ending knee surgery, giving the Tigers an expected boost at the plate. He slashed .282/.368/.416 with 13 homers and 66 RBIs in 127 games for Double-A Erie last season.

"I feel like he just doesn't ever get fooled," Skubal said about Paredes on Monday. "He knows the strike zone so well, it's actually incredible. Whenever I faced him in Toledo, it's like, 'I might as well just throw three strikes and hope he hits it somewhere (for an out).' There's no fooling him, no setting him up. He's very composed."

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As Paredes expressed his nervousness, Gardenhire doesn't want him to be. He told his prospects to soak in the moment. For their first appearances, they have nothing to prove.

"It's a big moment for them," Gardenhire said. "Go out there and see how they handle it. I've seen it go both ways. But that won't be the end of the season by any means. They're going to get plenty of opportunities there."

The next prospect he gets to watch is Skubal, who is slated to start Tuesday against right-hander Dylan Cease. Because Skubal, 23, had COVID-19 and missed summer camp, Gardenhire plans to keep him to 40-50 pitches.

Skubal tossed 40 pitches in his last intrasquad game in Toledo, and the organization isn't in a rush to stretch him out.

Pitchers Casey Mize, Sandy Baez and Tarik Skubal watch practice during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.

"Honestly, you just got to watch and see how he's doing," Gardenhire said. "We're going to protect him, obviously, but this guy's got good stuff."

Of Skubal's 24 minor-league starts last season, he made nine of them in Double-A, posting a 2.13 ERA, 1.016 WHIP, 82 strikeouts and 18 walks in 41⅓ innings.

Right beside Skubal for those starts was right-hander Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft. He will start against the White Sox on Wednesday and doesn't have a pitch limit. It has been determined he is more stretched out than his fellow prospect and can go beyond the fifth inning.

[ Detroit Tigers add Casey Mize & Tarik Skubal, but don't forget about fireballer Matt Manning ]

That alone gives Gardenhire relief, especially since one Tigers pitcher — Spencer Turnbull on Aug. 9 against the Pittsburgh Pirates — has pitched into the seventh.

"We're bringing up some great arms that can help us get into the second half of the game," Gardenhire said. "And we've all seen what goes on when you don't get in the second half with your starter. I hope these guys help us out, and for everybody to jump on board."

Mize, 23, accumulated 109⅓ innings in 21 starts between High-A Lakeland and Double-A last season. He had 106 strikeouts compared to 23 walks.

Jones to leadoff

With Goodrum out, the Tigers are going with center fielder JaCoby Jones in the leadoff spot against the White Sox. Gardenhire didn't want to move Jones from the nine-hole, but he is now forced to do so without a solidified man at the top of the order.

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Detroit Tigers' Jonathan Schoop, right, and JaCoby Jones celebrate after Jones hit an inside-the-park home run against the Chicago White Sox during the seventh inning at Comerica Park, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.

"I don't want him to change anything," Gardenhire said. "That's always been my biggest fear. Just keep doing what you're doing and swing. Hopefully, that's what he'll do."

In 18 games, Jones is slashing .315/.383/.722 with seven doubles, five homers and 15 RBIs.

Alexander, Norris to bullpen

With the additions of Mize and Skubal, who are expected to stay on the team for the remainder of the season, left-handers Tyler Alexander and Daniel Norris will continue out of the bullpen. They had a chance to crack the rotation but struggled, ultimately forcing the organization to pull up the pitching prospects.

[ Detroit Tigers' Daniel Norris back up to speed — even with almost no warmup ]

While they're going to be utilized in various relief appearances, Gardenhire will keep them in piggyback roles with Skubal and right-hander Michael Fulmer for the time being.

"Skubs is going to definitely be on a pitch count, Casey's going to go a little bit deeper than that as far as pitches go, so we'll have to have protection," Gardenhire said. "We need those people, good people for those situations. Binging them in to get a big lefty out or two. We'll use them, believe me.

"I hope we use them less. That'd be good."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content