While he was not the team's MVP in 2014, I think it's safe to say that the Tigers would not have won their fourth consecutive AL Central crown without Kyle Lobstein. Stepping in for an injured Anibal Sanchez, Lobstein helped deliver four important victories in six starts down the stretch. Starting pitching depth can never be overstated, and it was because of this depth -- Lobstein was one of five starters to make his MLB debut with the team in 2014 -- that the Tigers were able to make it back to the postseason.
At 25 years old, Lobstein is approaching the upper limits of his prospect eligibility. Some lists may not even consider him eligible at this age, while others rank him thanks to his still-intact rookie status. Lobstein pitched 39 1/3 innings at the major league level last season, and while his 4.35 ERA and 1.25 WHIP aren't overly impressive, his individual performances were. Lobstein allowed a 3.10 ERA and struck out 20 batters in five crucial starts down the stretch. The Tigers won four of them, propelling them to their fourth straight division title.
Lobstein was a second round selection out of high school by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. He progressed quickly through the low minors, but got hung up at Double A where he allowed a 4.06 ERA and 1.87 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2012. The Rays opted to leave him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, and the Tigers moved to acquire him via the New York Mets. The Tigers eventually sent catcher Curt Casali to the Rays to finish the deal. Lobstein showed a lot of improvement in 15 starts at Erie in 2013, and has largely been at the Triple A level ever since.
Lobstein's upside is limited, but his steady progression through the farm system sent him flying up the rankings. He was ranked 30th on our list last season, but has moved as high as sixth on Baseball Prospectus' 2015 rankings.
While prospect evaluation should never be entirely based on results, Lobstein's results are his biggest asset. In particular, Lobstein has already accomplished the biggest hurdle of all: getting hitters out at the MLB level. He struck out 10 hitters in a start against the Cleveland Indians last year, but primarily succeeded by mixing pitches and changing speeds. This has been Lobstein's MO as he moved through the minors, and it will be how he stays in the majors. A classic finesse lefty, Lobstein is the kind of pitcher that will give teams fits at times and get lit up on occasion as well.
Lobstein's arsenal is nothing special, but his changeup and slider are both effective pitches. His changeup sits in the low 80s with decent fading action. As Jordan noted last year, Lobstein throws it from the same arm slot as his fastball, making it a much more effective pitch when he is able to pinpoint the heater. Lobstein's slider sits in the mid-80s, and he showed enough confidence to throw it against both left and right-handed hitters in 2014. He also flashed a curveball that induced a 20 percent whiff rate against left-handed hitters at the MLB level, though in a very small sample.
One of the things that has limited Lobstein's upside is a relative lack of fastball velocity. Scouts expected him to develop more velocity as he developed physically, but that did not seem to happen. Lobstein's fastball averaged 89 miles per hour in his short MLB stint last season, and he can run it up to the low 90s at times. His delivery is relatively smooth, which actually works to his disadvantage with the low velocity. Unless Lobstein's command is pristine, he won't fool many hitters at the big league level. He has given up 493 hits in 460 2/3 career innings at Double and Triple A, indicating that he will allow plenty of hits in the majors as well.
Jordan expanded on Lobstein's fastball in last year's prospect countdown.
He has some issues commanding the fastball at present, although the control is relatively solid. As a touch and feel lefty, in order to compete at the highest level, he's going to have to have excellent fastball command. If Lobstein had some funk or deception, he'd probably be able to get away with more fastballs that weren't on the edges...
...If Lobstein can improve his command profile on the fastball, and continue to refine and trust the change up, he's got a chance to be an innings eater in the majors. At the very least, he's going to get minor league hitters out with ease.
While it's hard to call this a weakness for a player who has already made it to the major leagues, Lobstein's overall arsenal will limit his upside. He has very little projection remaining -- his floor, present level, and ceiling are all about the same -- and will likely spend time moving between the rotation and bullpen for an MLB club throughout his career. He doesn't generate enough swings and misses to be a mid-rotation starter, but his three-pitch profile and ability to change speeds makes him more valuable than a simple LOOGY.
Video via MLB Prospect Portal and MLB Farm
Projected team: Toledo Mud Hens
Thanks to his performance last season, Lobstein had a leg up in the competition for the fifth starter's job in 2015. Then, the Tigers traded for Shane Greene. Lobstein and company will likely spend the majority of 2015 in Toledo, biding time for an injury in Detroit. A spectacular spring could result in Lobstein moving to the bullpen for the season a la Drew Smyly in 2013, but a larger list of left-handed candidates and LOOGY-er Kyle Ryan also in the rotation indicates that Lobstein will stay a starter for the time being.
New addition: Angel Nesbitt, right-handed pitcher
Nesbitt had a breakout year in 2014, allowing a 1.48 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 66 2/3 innings between Advanced-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. Reports indicate that he finally showed an increase in fastball velocity, rising up into the high 90s at times. A prototypical fastball-slider power reliever, Nesbitt's strikeout numbers increased as he started throwing more smoke. Nesbitt was added to the 40-man roster this winter after going unprotected in last year's Rule 5 draft, and should make his MLB debut in 2015 barring a setback.