DETROIT -- Spring Training always provides a glimpse into the future, from the warm sunshine in Florida to the crack of the bat and the pop of the mitt on the field. When the Tigers take the field in Lakeland later this month, though, the big vision will be of a future well beyond Opening Day on March 26.
When Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal take the mound, they won’t be competing for Opening Day rotation spots, not unless something goes haywire. When Isaac Paredes steps in the batter's box and stares back at the pitcher, he won’t be eyeing a roster spot when the Tigers head north in a month.
And yet, their presence on the big field at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, donning the Olde English D, will be a headline event. They’re a big part of the future that the Tigers are selling, and they have been throughout the rebuilding process. It’s not an imminent future, but a glimpse of those prospects in big league camp brings that future a lot closer than it has been.
As general manager Al Avila put it during the Tigers’ Winter Caravan last month: “The future, the light at the end of the tunnel, is getting a little brighter.”
Nineteen of the Tigers' top 30 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, will be in Major League camp, including 10 of the top 11. Some, like shortstop Willi Castro, catcher Jake Rogers and reliever Bryan Garcia, made their big league debuts with Detroit last summer. Others, like Paredes and center fielder Derek Hill, were automatic additions, having been added to the 40-man roster to protect them from December's Rule 5 Draft. Still, others like Mize, Manning, Skubal and Joey Wentz received non-roster invites to get a taste of big league camp before they will likely head to Triple-A Toledo in April.
In past years, the Tigers haven’t been afraid to give an untested prospect a chance to break camp with the club. Jim Leyland famously proclaimed in 2006 that he was bringing Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya with him to Detroit. Three years later, Leyland did the same with a 20-year-old Rick Porcello, saying he was one of the five best starters in camp and deserved to head north despite never having thrown a pitch above Class A Advanced ball.
This time, the Tigers are downplaying that possibility. For starters, Avila and manager Ron Gardenhire are trying to foster an atmosphere of accountability for young players after so many struggled in Detroit on the way to a 47-114 season last year.
“We want to start putting a good team on the field, and we want these kids to continue to develop,” Gardenhire said. “It’s a dicey little thing to do, but to sit there and say, ‘Well, you’re a young kid coming up and you’re still learning,’ that’s good and fine, but you still have to go out there and play. You have to start getting it done. And that’s what we want to see. We want to see them getting it done on the field and earn their way through this thing, rather than it just be gifted to them.”
Gardenhire also has the benefit of a Major League rotation that already has some upside. Matthew Boyd has arrived at Spring Training and shown improvement in each of the last three years, from winning a rotation spot in 2017 to sticking in the rotation in '18 to becoming an ace last year. Spencer Turnbull is hoping improved strength and conditioning will help him show more of the high-powered, high-strikeout first-half form that impressed evaluators last year. Daniel Norris posted a 2.25 ERA over his final eight starts, all three-inning performances, and will be freed from innings restrictions this year.
Beyond that, the Tigers don’t want to rush more prospects to the big leagues in the way Rogers was last July.
“Where we’re at right now, I would say no, probably not that great of a chance,” Avila said. “I think it would be our preference to [have them] start at Toledo, have good years in Toledo, and at some point during the season, we can bring them up and they can get some experience. And then we can go to the following Spring Training at that point, and it’s a whole different ballgame.”