How long should an organization wait until moving a starting pitcher to the bullpen? Should they give him every chance possible (and more), as the Tigers did with Casey Crosby? Or should they be proactive and identify the right guy immediately, as they did with new poll addition Joe Jimenez? Many pundits have mentioned Drew VerHagen as a potential bullpen arm, but a couple of solid seasons in the high minors have helped stave off the move for the time being. VerHagen could feasibly provide a fastball-changeup combination that would play well in the mid-to-late innings, but he could also improve his offspeed pitches and stick in an MLB rotation.
VerHagen is a 24 year old Texan listed at six feet, six inches tall and and 230 pounds. Another product of Vanderbilt University, VerHagen was selected by the Tigers in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. He was promoted aggressively, making eight appearances (six starts) at Advanced-A Lakeland the year he was drafted. VerHagen allowed a 3.67 ERA and 4.02 FIP in 27 innings, and did not work more than four innings in any of his outings with the Flying Tigers. VerHagen made quick work of the Florida State League in 2013, holding opponents to a 2.81 ERA and .567 OPS in 67 1/3 innings.
He moved up to Double-A Erie in June of 2013 and continued his success, allowing a 3.00 ERA and 3.69 FIP in 60 innings. VerHagen also showed an improvement in his command despite the superior competition, walking just 17 batters. He was even better in 2014, walking just 25 batters in 110 1/3 innings at Triple-A Toledo. VerHagen allowed a 3.67 ERA and 3.70 FIP in his first year at the highest level of the minors, earning a spot start for the Tigers on July 19th. He started his MLB career with four scoreless innings, but a three-run fifth doomed VerHagen to his first career loss. A stress fracture in his lower back ended his season after his MLB debut, but VerHagen says that he feels 100 percent and will be ready for the start of the 2015 season.
VerHagen's fastball is his best pitch, and one of the better offerings in the entire farm system. He works in the low 90s, averaging 91-92 miles per hour. However, he can get all the way up to 95 miles per hour in short bursts. His size and pitching motion help him generate a lot of sinking movement, which results in a very high ground ball rate. VerHagen induced a 52.3 ground ball percentage last season, and limited opponents to a 14.5 percent line drive rate. A true bowling ball of a pitch, VerHagen generates a lot of weak contact when he keeps the fastball down in the strike zone.
VerHagen was our #12 prospect last season, and Jordan offered up plenty of praise for VerHagen's fastball.
When watching a Verhagen start, the first thing I notice is that hitters never seem to get a good look at him, and rarely have a comfortable at bat. As I mentioned before, he elicits weak contact frequently, and that's definitely apparent, as his BABIP is only .250, very low for a ground baller. BABIP can be misinterpreted if you don't know what you're looking at, especially at the minor league level. It's important to take these numbers with a grain of salt, however, this low number been a trend so far in Verhagen's career, and if he continues to spot his fastball, I don't see any reason why that wouldn't continue.
As a ground ball specialist, VerHagen has never allowed many home runs. Opponents have hit just nine homers against him in his entire minor league career, along with 39 doubles and four triples. It takes multiple hits to beat him, which can become even more difficult if his defense is consistently turning double plays behind him. Adding to VerHagen's stinginess is the aforementioned drop in walk rate. Since he was called up to Erie in 2013, he has walked 42 batters in 170 1/3 innings, a rate of just 2.22 per nine innings. If he maintains that low walk rate in the majors while improving on the weaknesses listed below, it's not a stretch to say that VerHagen could become a poor man's Rick Porcello.
While VerHagen's fastball is a legitimate big league offering, his offspeed pitches still need some work. His changeup is the better of the two at this point, flashing above average at times. It was a bit more consistent in 2014, but left-handed batters still hit .300/.357/.410 against him at Triple A. He can generate some swings and misses with the pitch when it is on, as it has a nice fading action when he maintains a good arm speed. In his start against the Indians, VerHagen got four swing and misses on 13 changeups thrown. While that 30 percent whiff rate is unsustainable, the changeup is a vital pitch for him to develop if he is going to keep left-handed hitters off his fastball.
VerHagen's curveball is the worst of his three pitches, but reports suggest that it has improved a fair amount since he joined the Tigers organization. His curveball sits in the 70s, and averaged 75.2 miles per hour during his first MLB start. His velocity with the pitch was a bit inconsistent, ranging from 72 to 78 miles per hour. It is more of a "get me over" pitch at the moment, and may never earn a 50 grade (MLB average pitch). If he can turn the curve into a passable offering that he can consistently locate at the bottom of the zone, the change of pace and eye level it provides will help him stick in an MLB rotation.
It may not necessarily be a "weakness," but VerHagen does not generate a lot of swings and misses with his fastball. It has great sinking action, but VerHagen has struck out just 157 batters in 258 2/3 career minor league innings. He fanned just 5.14 batters per nine innings last season, and doesn't project to add a swing-and-miss offering as he develops his offspeed pitches. He can get by without a lot of strikeouts -- especially if he keeps missing barrels with the fastball -- but the lack of a true strikeout pitch will be something to keep an eye on.
Youtube video via Jordan Gorosh and MLB Farm
Projected team: Toledo Mud Hens
While VerHagen performed well at Toledo last season, his back injury and the logjam ahead of him will send him back to the minors in 2015. He has pounded the strike zone over the past couple seasons, and will look to continue refining his command in 2015. Look for VerHagen and the Tigers staff to emphasize the development of his offspeed pitches, which may lead to an ugly game or two on occasion. His changeup and curveball will determine what kind of career he has, but it's clear that VerHagen will be a major leaguer in some capacity in the very near future.
New addition: Joe Jimenez, right-handed pitcher
Originally from Puerto Rico, Jimenez went undrafted in 2013 thanks to some exorbitant salary demands. The Tigers signed him as an undrafted free agent and quickly moved the promising right-hander to a bullpen role. While the move to the pen seems puzzling given Jimenez's age and raw potential, it seems to have paid off so far. He has allowed a 1.81 ERA in 44 2/3 professional innings, and is currently impressing in winter ball. Fans on the west side of the state should get their first glimpse of Jimenez in 2015, as he will likely move up to Single-A West Michigan.