Bob Wojnowsk: Tigers keep battling through injury curse crisis

Tribune Content Agency

DETROIT — We don’t believe in curses, right? I mean, they’re not rooted in science or séance. They don’t explain a series of seemingly unrelated mishaps, and they generally don’t afflict one random city.

But, how in the bleeping bleep do we explain this? The Tigers have been wrecked for most of a decade. And then, precisely upon the sighting of hope, they were doubly wrecked with injuries to their best two players, Riley Greene and Eduardo Rodriguez, further cluttering an already-packed injury list.

Yes, injuries happen, although it’s been a particularly gruesome year. Of all the misfortune that has befallen Detroit sports teams lately, this might be the most distressing, whether the Tigers show it or not. They beat Texas Wednesday, 3-2, and are still only two games out of first in the AL Central. They did it with an RBI single from Jake Marisnick, the guy just acquired to replace Greene, and with a solid start from Joey Wentz, who will be counted on more.

“You guys know the character of our team,” AJ Hinch said. “It’s frustrating to go through what we did. At the same time, the game was going to start at 1:10 and you gotta play, and you gotta play to win.”

That hasn’t changed, even as many other things have. The Tigers lost their brightest star, Greene, just as they were clawing up the ladder in a woefully wide-open division. The 22-year-old center fielder was the league’s hottest hitter in May, with a .365 average, and likely will miss several weeks because of a stress fracture in his left leg.

The day before, their brightest pitching star, Rodriguez, headed to the IL with something called a left finger pulley rupture, an injury previously confined to dusty medical journals. Rodriguez was 4-4 with a 2.13 ERA, third-lowest in the league, and was giving the Tigers (26-28) a chance to win every fifth game.

The same day, outfielder Matt Vierling hit the IL with low-back soreness. That forced the Tigers to scramble to acquire the 32-year-old Marisnick, a .228 career hitter, from the White Sox in a minor-league deal. He flew in from North Carolina, was popped into the center-field slot and collected two hits, including the game-winning single in the sixth.

“A lot of fun, a lot of energy here,” Marisnick said. “Everybody’s upbeat. It was a breath of fresh air to come in with a team that has this much energy.”

Marisnick took time to meet his new teammates, which is good, because some are still meeting each other. If you’re keeping score, sharpen your pencil. Also currently on the Tigers’ IL: Kerry Carpenter, Austin Meadows, Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Spencer Turnbull. That’s literally every touted or once-touted pitching prospect in the organization, out for varying lengths. Skubal and Manning may return fairly soon, and so could Turnbull. Mize is recovering from Tommy John surgery and likely is out for the year.

There’s no common thread, no reasonable explanation. I could irresponsibly revisit the curse angle and point out former Tiger stars Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer also have been plagued by injuries this season.

Hinch and GM Scott Harris have plugged as well as can be expected, but most teams can’t compensate for the decimation of a starting staff. A re-re-rebuilding team is taxed and tested even more. Of the Tigers’ six first-round picks from 2016-21 — Manning, Alex Faedo, Mize, Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Jackson Jobe — only Torkelson is unbitten by the debilitating bug. Faedo has returned from hip surgery and pitched decently. Jobe, 20, is recovering from back issues.

Zach McKinstry is the perfect example of the plug-and-play approach, acquired right before the season. Without Vierling and Greene, his role will continue to increase, and he’s been a walking machine, with a .400 OPS.

Hinch’s messaging is always calm, and he knows cursing about curses does no good. Although, hmm, the Lions are in the process of discarding theirs, and it might be looking for a new place to haunt. (There’s no evidence Bobby Layne ever played for the Tigers, by the way). The Red Wings and Pistons also severely lack lottery and injury luck.

“I just think of it like a person, when something bad goes on in your life,” Hinch said. “If you spend the next 48 hours dwelling on it, pouting about it, being pissed about it, in 48 hours, that same situation is there. … At the same time, we have to collect ourselves and figure out a different way. This is going to get better as guys get healthier.”

As depressing as it is for Tigers fans, it actually could be worse. For instance, the Tigers weren’t ready to win much this season anyway, and the bulk of their players should be healthy when it is time.

There’s another sliver of a silver lining. Rodriguez, 30, was going to be a potential trade piece at the Aug. 1 deadline. He has three-and-a-half years left on his contract but can opt-out after this season. He’s pitching at an All-Star level, although his trade value has been somewhat overblown, in my mind. He’s over-performing his seven-year track record, and the opt-out basically makes him a rental.

So, where’s the lining? If Rodriguez can’t come back for a while and doesn’t get much time to generate interest from suitors, he might opt to skip the opt-out and return. As an experienced lefty starter, he’d give the Tigers rotation balance going forward.

There, I found something encouraging — sort of. There’s also plenty to learn about these Tigers and how Harris operates. Guys like Torkelson, Javier Báez, Akil Baddoo, Nick Maton, McKinstry and Short will have more opportunities. Twenty-three-year-old right-handed prospect Reese Olson will make his major-league debut Friday against the White Sox.

The Tigers’ bullpen and the inimitable Alex Lange will be tested severely, and Lange was excellent again, shutting down the Rangers in the ninth. Perhaps Torkelson and Báez will find their home-run strokes. Perhaps the healing will be quicker than expected. Might as well wait and see what they’re capable of, before you cue the cursing.