The best solutions are often simple, yet unexpected.
The situation looked rather bleak. In the aftermath of Anibal Sanchez visiting the disabled list the Tigers were attempting to fill the void in their rotation with Robbie Ray and Buck Farmer. The returns were awful. It would all culminate in two awful games in Minnesota when Ray and Farmer were both pummeled by Twins batters and driven from the mound in less than two innings apiece.
The disaster starts necessitated change. The only question was where the Tigers would turn. Some thought that a trade was brewing before the August 31st waiver trade deadline to bring in a guy with a pulse to patch the situation. However it turned out that quietly making his debut in mop-up duty for Farmer in Minnesota was a the man who would fill the roll moving forward. Tigers prospect Kyle Lobstein pitched 5.2 relief innings that day -- allowing three earned runs -- but he showed enough to be the next man up.
Lobstein came to the Tigers in 2013 as an acquisition in the Rule 5 Draft from the Tampa Bay Rays (via a draft day deal with the New York Mets). Lobstein ended up pitching just well enough for the Tigers to decide to swing a deal to keep him instead of shipping him back to the Rays. The Tigers sent catcher Curt Casali to Tampa to complete the deal.
For the record, I didn't like that deal on the day it happened (I may have been the only one who cared!). It wasn't worth a protest but Casali seemed like a guy with a possible big league future. He was drafted by Detroit out of their NCAA developmental affiliate, Vanderbilt University. The Tigers love to draft Commodores and Casali joined the list in the Detroit organization.
Lobstein, on the other hand, seemed like a soft-tossing lefty with a very limited ceiling. An organization like Tampa with a cerebral reputation and a solid track record of developing pitchers had left Lobstein exposed to today's watered down Rule 5 Draft. If they weren't believers in protecting him, his value seemed low.
Turns out to have been a fairly even deal. Casali hit decently in the Tampa organization and also surfaced in the majors in 2014. He didn't hit at all in 84 plate appearances, but he's at least on the big league radar.
Meanwhile Lobstein did well in the Tigers system in 2013. He split the season at Erie and Toledo posting a 13-8 record with a 3.28 ERA and a FIP of 2.97. The big southpaw positioned himself to at least be a guy legitimately in the pecking order for a shot at the majors if things broke right in 2014.
The 2014 Campaign
Lobstein went to Toledo looking to pitch well and earn a big league shot. What he ended up doing was treading water for the most part. His ERA shot up over 4.00 for much of the season and his mediocre results didn't have him on many fan radars.
However underneath the ERA were some decent peripheral numbers. His ERA spike looked merely BABIP-fueled at a very high .360. Lobstein had actually cut his walk-rate from the year before to a level underneath his career rate while continuing to strike out his normal level of batters. FIP had him at a decent 3.45 on the campaign.
Then the call came from Detroit. The Tigers had a mess on their hands. If "chaos creates opportunity" then Lobstein had entered the right fray. The Tigers rotation needed help and they weren't in position to be very picky where it came from.
Lobstein's first start came against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park on August 28th. From a results perspective, his start went just great. First and foremost, the club won on Alex Avila's walk-off shot to the wall. Second, Lobstein managed to pitch around trouble all day even though he was behind in the count often early on. Lobstein relied on his defense and despite only inducing one swing-n-miss on the afternoon, he departed after six innings allowing only two runs (one earned).
Lobstein's second start would happen in Cleveland and suddenly he morphed into a different guy. If anyone was a little worried about his zero strikeout with only the one missed swing effort against the Yankees, those worries went out the window against the Tribe.
After allowing an early homer to Carlos Santana, Lobstein turned into the Crustacean Sensation (hat tip for that to somebody on Twitter). He fanned 10 batters in 5.1 innings with the help of a hefty 18 swing-n-miss pitches. Lobstein had the Indians baffled, holding them to two runs. He kept the Tigers in the game while Carlos Carrasco was doing similar bad things to Tigers hitters. Carrasco would also fan 10 on the night allowing his only run on a bases loaded walk to Avila.
But once again the Tigers were saved by late inning heroics as JD Martinez walloped a three run homer in the ninth to win it for Detroit off the shell-shocked Cody Allen. Another Lobstein start had ended with a victory.
Lobstein would next take the hill versus the Giants on a Sunday night ESPN game. It just felt like a big spot. The Tigers had lost the first two games to San Francisco and it just felt as though a sweep could send the Tigers reeling. Wouldn't you know it...Lobstein rose to the occasion again. Getting some run support to work with, he twirled 5.2 innings of one-run baseball at the Giants in a very nifty 6-1 Detroit win to salvage one in the three-game set.
The Tigers would go on to lose two of the last three games started by Lobstein. He actually pitched very well against the ChiSox in one of the losses with a 7-inning/2-run effort. The Tigers had no answer for Chris Sale....err....no...Chris Bassitt that night in a 2-0 loss.
Did Kyle Lobstein dominate in his 39.1 innings of work? No. Did he cement a role for himself moving forward? Not yet. But what he did do is help save the rotation from leaking copious amounts of oil every fifth day down the stretch. He exceeded expectations by a fair amount. Lobstein didn't "win" those first four starts by himself, but he also didn't do anything to lose them and plenty of folks probably expected he would when they saw a dude with a 4.07 ERA in Triple-A getting the call.
Admittedly, the high grade is for the results more than the process in this instance. Lobstein showed some ability but in the end he's a guy who throws 88-mph. His K-rate was a pedestrian 16.8% and while his walk-rate wasn't horrible he did pitch behind a bit too much. One wonders how many more good starts he had left in the tank before some numbers caught up with him. The Twins battered his stuff pretty soundly in Game 161, the only time Lobstein didn't really come through for the Tigers in September.
But that doesn't really matter now. The Tigers won the AL Central by an eyelash and Lobstein contributed at least an eyelash. For sure he contributed plenty more than those he replaced were providing. Lobstein will be remembered for that.
It will be very interesting to see what happens in 2015. I am skeptical if Lobstein has a real shot at even the fifth slot in the Tigers rotation. It's far more likely he's toiling at Toledo as the "6th or 7th" starter once again waiting his turn if the Tigers need to munch through their depth for spot starts.
The bullpen is a possibility as well. It's possible that Lobstein's stuff could "play up" in a relief role. He's never really pitched in relief at any level however. It would be a complete transitional move. But it's one that gets taken by pitchers every year. Given the volatility of the Tigers bullpen situation, Lobstein making that move can't be dismissed right now.
Depth is critical. Lobstein showed in '14 that he can be given those opportunities moving forward with at least some expectation of succeeding. After being acquired from Tampa, I expected nothing. He gave Detroit "something". He might just continue to do more of that.