Gardy on Mize: 'I'd like to have him right now'

July 15th, 2020

DETROIT -- Jim Leyland had plenty of phrases and stories during his Tigers managerial tenure. One philosophy that stood throughout his time, however, consisted of three simple words: Give me talent.

He’ll concede experience, or team chemistry, or character, or leadership, or whatever. But give him talent, and he’ll beat you.

Those three words were a driving force behind many moves on his watch. In his first Spring Training with Detroit, in 2006, he not only announced that Justin Verlander would be in his Opening Day rotation despite Verlander having made just seven starts above Class A ball, but that Joel Zumaya would be in his bullpen at age 21 -- and would get some big outs for him. Later that year he put Andrew Miller in his bullpen, less than three months after the Tigers drafted Miller out of UNC.

Three years later, Leyland put 20-year-old Rick Porcello in his rotation. He also put 22-year-old Ryan Perry in Detroit’s bullpen, less than a year after Perry was drafted. Though Porcello hadn’t pitched above Class A, he was one of their five best starters in camp.

“I think the easiest thing is to say they're not ready. Anybody can say no,” Leyland said at the time. "I think they're very talented.”

More than a decade later, Ron Gardenhire finds himself in a similar position. Baseball has changed around him, especially regarding prospects, and the Tigers have, too. Detroit doesn’t have the "win now" mentality that it had back then, a pressure that permeated the organization. When the Tigers were trying to contend in 2009 with a lower payroll and Leyland entering the final year of his contract, Porcello so clearly outperformed the rest of the starting candidates in Spring Training that the Tigers essentially had to carry him if they were serious about winning.

The Tigers are looking down the road while embarking on a season in which a starter will get 12 starts at most while getting a full year closer to free agency.

Still, Gardenhire is becoming stronger in his praise for top prospect Casey Mize. It’s becoming clear, if it wasn’t already, that he likes the talent.

“I’d like to have him right now,” Gardenhire said on Tuesday, “but we know the protocol. We know what we’re trying to do here, step by step. But I just think he’s very poised, he knows what he needs to do and wants to do, and it’s fun watching him pitch. He’s in control, and he has a great plan on what he needs to do to be successful.

“He’s moving really quick. For me, it can’t be quick enough. I like him a lot.”

These comments are even stronger than the ones Gardenhire made about Mize during Spring Training. And the way Mize has approached Summer Camp, and the work he put in during baseball’s shutdown, have been noticed.

The Tigers' rotation has also changed since Spring Training. Daniel Norris is on the 10-day injured list; he said on Wednesday he’s awaiting negative tests to clear him from COVID-19 protocol. He might have enough time to be ready for the Opening Day roster, but for now his starting spot is up for grabs.

“If I know Chuck,” Gardenhire said, using his favorite nickname for Norris, “I don’t care what’s going on in his life, he’s throwing a baseball somewhere, and working out somewhere, and probably working out very hard. That’s my guess with him, because he’s nonstop. We have to wait and see when we get him back on the field, where he’s at.”

Michael Fulmer is the logical candidate to fill an open spot, having made two starts in intrasquad games after successful rehab from Tommy John surgery. But Fulmer is also still stretching out his arm, having thrown 57 pitches over three innings in a rocky start on Monday. This is essentially his rehab assignment to get him back to competitive baseball for the first time in 22 months.

“He’s worked really hard. I think we can all see that he’s in great shape,” Gardenhire said. “There’s options, depending on the health of the rest of the pitching staff. There’s all kinds of ways we could go -- opener, something like that, until he builds up. But he still has to build up everything innings-wise.”

Tyler Alexander is another option, maybe the strongest one. On the same day Fulmer threw, Alexander started for the opposing team and tossed three scoreless innings, with four strikeouts. He has looked strong all camp.

“He’s one of those guys you could go a lot of different ways with,” Gardenhire said. “You could stick him in the bullpen. You can stick him into the rotation. You can use him as part of an opener-type thing.”

Fulmer and Alexander give the Tigers more rotation options than they had in 2009, which likely leaves Mize off the Opening Day roster. But Mize could be the best starter to come out of the Tigers' Draft and development system since Verlander, which is why Gardenhire might get his way sooner than expected, if not at season’s start.

“As [general manager] Al Avila says it best, ‘At the end of the day, we’ll figure it out,’” Gardenhire said. “We’ll come up with the 30 guys that we’re going to go with, the few extra guys that they let us have, and try to put together a ballclub.”