Jair Jurrjens is the most recent Tigers-centric example of of the volatility of pitching prospects, and why some people believe in the phrase "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect." He debuted for the Tigers in 2007, amassing a 3-1 record and 4.70 ERA in seven starts. That offseason, the Tigers flipped him to the Atlanta Braves in the ill-fated Edgar Renteria deal. Jurrjens made the deal look even worse by going 47-32 with a 3.34 ERA over the next four seasons.
However, instead of progressing further as he reached his late 20s, the wheels started to come off the Jurrjens bandwagon. The Baltimore Orioles, who signed him to a minor-league deal during the offseason, designated the 27 year old for assignment today. Jurrjens must now clear waivers in order for the Orioles to maintain his rights.
The question is simple: should the Tigers claim him?
The answer, naturally, is much more complicated.
Jurrjens has made 18 appearances in the Orioles' organization this season, 16 for Triple-A Norfolk and two for the Orioles. Of those 18 appearances, 17 were starts. Only one was a relief appearance, in which he threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings against the New York Yankees.
While starting pitching depth is always nice to have -- and Jurrjens wouldn't be a bad reclamation project for the organization -- I'm more interested in that 18th appearance. Could Jurrjens provide an upgrade to the Tigers' bullpen?
At first glance, the numbers aren't pretty. Jurrjens is 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA in Triple-A this season, and he allowed four runs in five innings in his lone MLB start. He is striking out less than five batters per nine innings in Triple-A while allowing over a hit per inning.
Looking deeper, however, the potential is still there. Jurrjens has six strikeouts in 7 1/3 big league innings this year, and he is walking just 2.28 batters per nine innings in Triple-A. He is also keeping the ball in the park, having allowed just five home runs in 94 2/3 innings in the minors this season. Norfolk's park may be slightly pitcher friendly, but the league itself is one of the more home run-rich leagues in the minors. Regardless, allowing less than 0.5 home runs per 18 innings is impressive. As a result, Jurrjens' fielding independent pitching (FIP) sits at a healthy 3.64 on the year.
One thing worth pointing out is that Jurrjens has struggled with runners on base in 2013. In Triple-A, Jurrjens has held opponents to hitting just .251/.288/.381 with the bases empty. When runners reach base, that line jumps to .325/.365/.472. This isn't an ideal trend for a relief pitcher, but it could also be statistical noise. His walk rates and home run rates have remained consistent with runners on base, and his BABIP with runners on base is 60 points higher (.345) than with nobody on (.282).
The biggest risk here is Jurrjens' health. The Orioles originally planned to sign him to a major league contract, but downgraded their offer to a minor league deal after seeing his physical results. There haven't been any updates on his health since, but given that he has logged nearly 100 innings so far this year, I don't see any reason to be too cautious going foward.
With only a few weeks remaining until the trade deadline, the Tigers don't have the luxury of experimenting with Jurrjens before making a trade. That said, the two moves don't have to be mutually exclusive. Claiming Jurrjens will be easy -- the Tigers already have a spot open on their 40-man roster -- and the cost is minimal. Even if Jurrjens doesn't have an impact out of the bullpen next season, he's still young enough to provide rotation depth in 2014 and beyond if the Tigers move of their starters this offseason.
Sure, some of this is wishful thinking. Jurrjens is a former Tigers prospect, and given the negative feelings associated with his departure -- and the subsequent failure that was the 2008 season -- it would be nice to salvage something out of that transaction. Above all, however, it gives the Tigers another cheap bullpen option that could have a positive impact down the stretch in 2013.