There's hope on the horizon for the Detroit Tigers.
At least they think so, after calling up a slew of prospects to debut in 2020.
They were delighted when Casey Mize made the playoff-bound Chicago White Sox look clumsy by taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning. And in Isaac Paredes' 10-game hitting streak. And, once again, when Tarik Skubal ignited his robust heater for strikeouts. Even Daz Cameron displayed essential defense and end-of-season offense resembling that of his father's 16-year career.
Willi Castro secured his role at shortstop and led the team with a .349 batting average. Needing a breakthrough in his career, Jeimer Candelario prevailed by hitting .297 with seven homers. Reliever Bryan Garcia went from a recovering Tommy John hopeful to an effective closer with a 1.66 ERA.
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This season wasn't as bad as last year's 114-loss debacle, right?
"I tell the players, 'Look, if we're not getting better, we're getting worse,'" interim manager Lloyd McClendon said, hours before the 3-1 loss Sunday to the Kansas City Royals. "The challenge every day is to come to the ballpark, learn something from a physical and mental standpoint and get better. I think our guys mastered that challenge."
Yet the Tigers (23-35) still disintegrated at the end of the season, losing 19 of their last 25 games to miss the expanded playoffs and finish in last in the AL Central for the fourth time in six years.
Because as refreshing as those players were to watch this season, other moments weren't so good. Now the organization goes into the offseason wondering what to make of the shortened season and just how long it will take to escape the rebuild.
"Really close, to my expectations," Miguel Cabrera, who led the squad with 10 homers and 35 RBIs, said Friday. "I think we're really, really close to going to the next step, trying to go out there and win games. I think it's time to go out there and start to win games."
But figuring out which path the Tigers will take is dicey.
The 60-game season presented challenges: COVID-19 protocols, postponements because of virus outbreaks and racial injustice protests (and, of course, rain), manager Ron Gardenhire's retirement and a season with minor-league games. And everyone's result came in a small sample size — possibly opening a can of worms the organization fears most.
Can Castro hit .300 (or even come close) in a 162-game season? Does Candelario's 1-for-23 slump to end the season show his true self? Will Mize and Skubal — each looking lost at times — shake off their woes? Is Cabrera's 10-for-27 stretch in his final six games a sign of better production?
Those are just some of the many unanswerable questions that put the Tigers at crossroads.
"The fact is, you still have to trust your eyes, see what you see and report what you see," said McClendon, a candidate for the open managerial position. "Whether it's a 60-game stretch or a 162-game stretch, what you see is what you see. You have to evaluate honestly, and then put it on paper."
One observation the Tigers can't miss is that the rotation didn't do enough. The combination of Spencer Turnbull (3.97 ERA), Skubal (5.63 including Sunday's relief appearance), Matthew Boyd (6.71), Mize (6.99) and Michael Fulmer (8.78) led to the starting rotation's MLB-worst 6.37 ERA — second-worst in franchise history.
The Tigers believe Turnbull will advance into a frontline starter, and that's easily justified by his repertoire. Meanwhile, command problems doomed Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. Leadoff homers plagued Boyd, and Fulmer was limited in his outings as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery.
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To further cloud the forecast, the team could impose an innings limit next season. A pitcher who threw just 50 innings in 2020 is unlikely to be able to crank it up to 180-plus innings in 2021 without risking injury.
Still, the organization remains confident, hoping these struggles were just the product of small sample sizes and an unusual late-July start to the season.
"Most of our guys are starting to get their man muscles," McClendon said. "They're bigger, stronger, faster, smarter. They know the league a lot better. It's time to start getting after it."
That leaves plenty on the to-do list before postseason aspirations become realistic.
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First, the Tigers have a new manager to hire — the choice will determine whether the rebuild thrives or forces the organization back to the drawing board.
They need strong second-year appearances from rookies, and remaining top prospects Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Matt Manning must make developmental strides. If the foundations of this drawn-out project, namely Mize, Skubal, Greene and Torkelson, fail to meet expectations, the rebuild will stall.
But what's important is the Tigers think they can see the finish line, which is something the franchise couldn't say in 2019. That makes this offseason monumental and one that will have significant implications for years.
"It goes back to defining what success is going to be," McClendon said. "Where do we set that bar? For me, we have to set that bar high. I think this club has made great progress. The rebuild is almost over with. Now it's time to start winning ballgames."
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com 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.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers at crossroads after 2020 season: 'Rebuild almost over'