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Eye On The Tigers: Detroit Rising Will Present Challenges for White Sox

Are the Tigers prepared to jump-start their rebuild by adding high-profile free agents this winter to augment a group of developing prospects?

Detroit Tigers
Photo: Tigers/Twitter

I’m going to be honest. I’ve really enjoyed the Detroit Tigers fall from grace. Growing up and becoming a Chicago White Sox fan in the ’90s and coming of age in the early 2000s, I only knew the Motor City kitties as a doormat. From 1994 until 2006, they didn’t have a single winning season.

When they came to the American League Central for the 1998 season after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ entry to the American League East, they quickly assumed their position as division bottom-dwellers. This all culminated in 2003 when they finished a paltry 43-119, one of the worst single-season performances in the history of the sport.

Then in 2006, when we were still basking in the glory of the White Sox championship the prior season, something changed. The Tigers all of a sudden got good, and they played a role in thwarting the Sox dreams of repeating. From 2010 until 2016, the Tigers were a perennial contender, winning four division titles and a pennant in 2012 (after which they were promptly swept by the San Francisco Giants). That 2012 division title still eats at me, as the Sox late September collapse killed part of my soul that I will never get back. Thus, seeing the Tigers descent into the baseball abyss has been glorious to watch.

However, this all could be coming to an end very soon.

Motown Makeover

Midway through the 2017 season, the Tigers had to come to the realization that their window of contention was over and it was time to retool. And boy did they go full bore in their efforts to rip things down to the studs.

They traded anything of value in sight, most notably franchise icon Justin Verlander. Detroit also found a way to tank enough to get themselves the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, which they promptly used on Auburn pitcher, Casey Mize. That would mark a string of three consecutive top-five picks, culminating with another No. 1 overall pick in 2020, which the team used to select slugger Spencer Torkelson out of Arizona State. For all the talk about the White Sox tanking efforts beginning in 2017, they were never able to pick higher than third in the draft. Meanwhile, their division rivals were able to land two No. 1 overall selections.

I’m not celebrating this; I’m simply stating factual information. The players Detroit selected with those picks promise to be the building blocks of the next successful Tigers’ core. Mize, 2019 first-round pick Riley Greene, and Torkelson all look to be fixtures in Motown with the latter two arriving in 2022, most likely.

As it stands right now, the Tigers have the No. 7 overall farm system, according to MLB.com. Their system is a little top-heavy with names such as Torkelson, Green, and 2021 first-round pick Jackson Jobe. However, the pedigree of these players cannot be denied and they should be making appearances in “The D” sooner rather than later.

The makeover hasn’t just come through the amateur draft and development system for Detroit, however. The Tigers were bold in their managerial search heading into the 2021 season, hiring the reinstated A.J. Hinch much to the dismay of a sizeable portion of the White Sox fan base. Hinch came into 2021 with a roster devoid of much impactful talent, but he was able to guide his team to a respectable 77-85 finish. The former World Series-winning manager was lauded for his ability to get the most out of his players in 2021 and playing an integral role in the development of youngsters such as Akil Badoo, Casey Mize, Jeimer Candelario, and Eric Haase.

Reinforcements On The Way?

During their last contention window, the Tigers routinely were the one American League Central team that acted like a major market franchise despite residing in the nation’s armpit. The Tigers ranked in the top 10 in payroll every year but 2011 during a stretch that went from 2007 until 2018, routinely ranking among the top five across the sport. That willingness to spend was attributed to late owner Mike Illitch and his desire as his final act on this planet to bring a World Series back to that hellhole of a city for the first time since 1984.

The major question facing this franchise will be, does Chris Illitch have the same desire to provide major-market finances to augment a core of potential star prospects? If the Tigers once again decide to act as a major market player for premium free agents, the White Sox contention window will face a daunting hurdle to overcome. And it appears that despite being not quite ready to challenge our Sox, the boys from Motown are prepared to begin augmenting their core from the outside.

Now, I think the Tigers have significant work to do to close the gap in the American League Central. However, going out and being aggressive in the free-agent market at this time would be a major step for this team. This is the exact type of thing the White Sox should’ve done during the winter heading into the 2019 season. Instead, their plan consisted of attempting to get Manny Machado on their terms and do nothing else. Adding premium talent to their roster now, despite not appearing ready to be a viable contender on the surface, should signal to the rest of the division and the American League that the Tigers are coming.

Aside from these two reports, I have long felt that one of the biggest prizes of this winter’s free agency, Carlos Correa, was destined for Detroit. There is an obvious connection with his former manager, A.J. Hinch, whom he reportedly loved playing for during their time in Houston. Additionally, the Tigers have not settled their shortstop position during this rebuilding process, and Correa would certainly accomplish that task.

Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

The Tigers deciding to open the checkbook once again and serve as a landing spot for premium talent would prove to be disastrous to the White Sox desire of a long contention window. Again, I’m not saying I think the 2022 Tigers will win the division. I am merely saying that this rivalry stands to be reignited in short order with the team from Detroit poised to serve as a thorn in the side of our Sox.

If the Tigers convert on one or multiple of their free-agent pursuits, coupled with the arrival of some of the aforementioned prospects, this team will no longer be a laughing stock. Continued development from current young talent at the Major League level such as Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning will also be something to monitor.

Tarik Skubal Casey Mize Tigers White Sox
Photo: Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press

While Skubal and Manning struggled in 2021, these are two pitchers that had prospect pedigree not all that dissimilar from the likes of Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease. We saw firsthand how each of those pitchers turned things around after initial struggles at the big-league level, and it can’t be ruled out with these arms.

Heading into 2022, the White Sox still look like the team to beat in the American League Central. But the Detroit Tigers appear as if they are preparing to awaken from their slumber. It is incumbent upon the White Sox brain trust and ownership (which is a terrifying notion) to keep their foot on the gas and continue pushing to assemble a team that should control this division for years to come.

Things promise to be a lot more challenging next season for the White Sox, and if the Tigers add significant pieces this winter they could very well be the surprise team of 2022.

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Former scrub JUCO pitcher

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