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Henning: Tigers’ ills, ironically, invite a pitching debate


Lakeland, Fla. — Al Avila, the Tigers' general manager, was at TigerTown on Thursday sorting through options as he worked to patch a starting rotation that is 80% depleted.

Correct. Four of manager AJ Hinch’s five starters are on the injured list.

Tarik Skubal, please be careful.

Casey Mize is gone because of an elbow sprain. Matt Manning is rehabbing his sore shoulder at Toledo. Michael Pineda is shelved for six or so weeks with a broken finger.

After leaving Wednesday’s game against the Rays at St. Petersburg, Avila was busy Thursday getting info from doctors on his latest starter casualty, Eduardo Rodriguez, who has a right-side muscle issue that appeared as if it would keep Rodriguez out “for a while,” in the Wednesday words of Hinch.

Tyler Alexander had been the replacement for Pineda when Pineda wasn’t ready to begin the season, and he, also, is missing because of elbow ills.

"I am working on player movements and waiting on information," Avila texted Thursday, referring specifically to Rodriguez and Manning, who — oh, man — had an early exit from Thursday’s rehab outing at Toledo.

Avila followed up a few minutes later with a text in which you could almost hear him exhale:

"With Manning, it was nothing arm- or shoulder-related. He was light-headed and did not feel well.”

Reassuring news there, although with the Tigers, this overall pitching attrition has been going on for a while. Remember that a year ago, not long after throwing a no-hitter, Spencer Turnbull departed for Tommy John surgery. One of the hottest, hardest-to-hit pitchers then in the league will not throw in an MLB game until 2023.

This isn’t only the Tigers’ issue, of course. Pitchers everywhere have problems. Even a man who has been astonishingly healthy through his big-league years, Max Scherzer, was looking Thursday at a six- to eight-week hiatus with an oblique strain.

But, in an ironic way, it raises for debate a question specific to big-league draft strategies.

Does it pay to select pitchers, at least early in the first round, of the MLB Draft?

Hitters tend to be harder to find than pitchers — so much so that MLB clubs acknowledge that you'd better get sticks early in a draft, or risk not getting them at all. Pitchers more often can ascend from a draft’s deeper rounds.

Taking pitchers early also is risky for reasons the Tigers have made clear during their star-crossed spring.

Mize, the draft’s first-overall pick in 2018, hasn’t pitched since April 14 because of his elbow problems.

Manning, another first-rounder, hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since April 16.

Meanwhile, Skubal, a ninth-round gamble, has become the team’s ace. Beau Brieske, a 27th-round prayer, has been on a rocket ride the past year and has, on balance, pitched adequately since he was brought in as emergency help.

Wilmer Flores is the most overpowering pitcher on the Tigers' farm. He is 21 years old. He wasn’t even drafted —  the Tigers signed him as a post-draft free agent after he threw a season of junior-college baseball.

More than pitching

A constant is that this team continues, annually, to search for bats and position help.

The entire Tigers infield, apart from first baseman Spencer Torkelson, came by way of either free agency or trades.

The Tigers’ starting outfield — at least the one Hinch was supposed to have greeted on Opening Day — likewise is the product of trades or free agency, with one exception: Riley Greene, who, like Torkelson, happens to have been an early first-round pick.

Note that Greene has been gone since April 1 because of a broken foot. So, it’s not as if hitters or position talent are immune to mishaps.

But factor in the Tigers’ catching — trades and free agency, again, nothing homegrown — in tandem with the rate at which pitchers tend to break down and you wonder if there’s something to the argument made that selecting pitching versus hitting early simply is a low-percentage play. That’s especially poignant in May of 2022, when the Tigers are 29th among 30 MLB teams in OPS, besting only Oakland.

Even with all their knocked-out starters, and after a couple of rough games at Tampa Bay, the Tigers have been holding things together with the 11th-best pitching in all of baseball.

It’s a separate discussion, perhaps, this premise that hitters should be the priority over pitchers early in a draft. And there are counter-arguments, for sure.

Remember that a man named Justin Verlander was taken by the Tigers with the 2004 draft’s second-overall turn. He is headed to the Hall of Fame.

So, too, is Scherzer, who was a first-round grab (11th overall) in 2006 by the Diamondbacks.

Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers firebrand who is Cooperstown-bound, was taken four picks ahead of Scherzer in 2006.

So, it’s probably not wise to set in stone some rigid, inviolate policy against going for arms early. Even a resistance to that greatest of all gambles, opting for a high school pitcher, can blow up on a team, as Kershaw and others make clear.

Consider, also, that latching onto a first-round bat doesn’t guarantee a guy will factor into future big-league lineups. The MLB Draft archives are jammed with failures there.

It’s simply a case where arms tend to be more plentiful than bats, and impact bats tend so often to be first-rounders.

The Tigers don’t necessarily agree or disagree. They followed their consciences last July in going for another arm — a prep arm at that — when they snagged Jackson Jobe in the draft’s third-overall slot. Jobe was considered so overpowering, so compelling, the Tigers stuck with their conviction that an 18-year-old loaded with talent was a mandate at No. 3.

They passed on a player the Tigers earlier were thought to be waiting for: Marcelo Mayer, a prep shortstop from San Diego, who the Red Sox promptly took at fourth overall.

Jobe hasn’t been second-guessed by the Tigers’ deciders. He will be throwing here Friday at Marchant Stadium and has been progressing, for the most part, smoothly.

But note that Mayer is batting .343 at Single-A Salem, with a .397 on-base percentage and .923 OPS. Neither are the Red Sox second-guessing Mayer, who they were glad to grab once the Tigers passed.

Meanwhile, the Tigers try to survive. Pitchers are on the sidelines. Bats are cold.

Avila was busy Thursday trying to find replacement parts for his rotation. His team’s hitters, he hoped, would begin to find a pulse.

It probably wasn’t a day to debate anything except the brand of beverage a baseball GM should imbibe when his starters, and a team’s early record, were in mutual misery.