Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski has received a lot of criticism in the past for his inability to build an effective bullpen, especially given the considerable resources at his disposal. Many blamed the bullpen for the team's demise in the 2013 postseason, and the subpar unit was a big reason why the Tigers were swept by the Baltimore Orioles in last year's American League Division Series. Over-reliance on one or two top-end relievers has gotten into the troubles, especially when those pitchers have faltered.
Other than picking up Joakim Soria's $7.5 million team option, the Tigers have not made any splashy moves to address the bullpen this offseason. However, I think Dombrowski deserves a lot of credit for adding a plethora of arms with upside. Between players currently on the 40-man roster and the seven pitchers on the non-roster invitee list, the Tigers have 23 pitchers vying for seven bullpen spots this spring. One of these pitchers is 25-year-old right-hander Tim Melville, a former top prospect who spent the first six seasons of his professional career in the Kansas City Royals' farm system.
Where did he come from?
Melville was drafted by the Royals in the fourth round of the 2008 amateur draft. Widely considered one of the top high school talents available, Melville's stock dropped due to high signing bonus demands. The two sides eventually came to a deal, but Melville didn't debut until the 2009 season. He allowed a 3.79 ERA and 4.37 FIP in 97 1/3 innings in the Midwest League, and earned plenty of buzz heading into 2010. Baseball America ranked him as the sixth-best prospect in the Royals' system, and John Sickels of Minor League Ball ranked Melville fourth. Sickels also ranked Melville as the 44th-best pitching prospect in baseball.
Melville struggled in 2010, allowing a 5.54 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 18 starts at Advanced-A Wilmington. The Royals sent the then-20-year-old back to Rookie ball after an undisclosed injury kept him out of action for a month, and he finished the year with a 4.97 ERA in 112 1/3 total innings in the Carolina League. Melville struggled at Wilmington again in 2011, allowing a 4.32 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 135 1/3 innings. Melville had fallen off of a lot of prospect lists at this point, including slipping down to 20th on John Sickels' rankings.
After a short stint at Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2012, Melville spent the next two years toiling around the lower regions of the Royals' minor league system. He only tallied 38 innings in 2012 and 2013 combined, and lost all of the prospect sheen he had shortly after his pro debut. The Royals threw Melville into the deep end in 2014, giving him 26 starts at Double A. He struggled throughout the season, allowing a 5.50 ERA and 4.53 FIP in 129 1/3 innings.
As a previously touted prospect, there is a lot of information available on Melville. Baseball America detailed some reasons to be optimistic when they ranked him as the Royals #6 prospect prior to the 2010 season.
With his raw stuff, Melville has the potential to be a frontline starter. His 92-93 mph fastball touches 95, with boring action that makes it effective against lefthanders. His fastball generates strikeouts, but it's most effective as a heavy pitch that forces weak grounders. His curveball is a true 12-to-6 downer that's a plus pitch when he can command it. He has a clean arm action and a pitcher's body that should give him plenty of durability.
Kings of Kauffman had some concerns about Melville's walk rate prior to the 2011 season, but they were still optimistic that the young right-hander could turn things around. Author Michael Engel ranked Melville the #25 prospect in the Royals' system that year.
Pre-draft scouting reports deemed Melville one of the top prep pitchers in the draft and lauded his size and stuff. He possesses a plus fastball that sits around 92-93 mph. His frame suggests that he could add velocity as he develops, as he’s only 20 years old. He also throws a 12-to-6 knuckle curve that he can throw with a range of velocity from 70-78 mph. His changeup is still coming – with his fastball/curveball combination, he probably didn’t really need a third pitch in high school, so that’s something to work on.
Kings of Kauffman author Jen Nevius grew a bit more pessimistic after Melville's poor 2012 season.
Melville’s fastball is a plus pitch but he doesn’t always command it or throw it was conviction. Scouts believed he can get better if the Royals allow him to throw a slider and two-seam fastball (he did throw a slider late in the 2011 season)
I’m not sure what’s next for Melville. First, he obviously needs to get healthy. Then he needs to get a better feel for his pitches. Maybe a move to the bullpen will help?
Surprisingly, the Royals have not given Melville a shot at bullpen duty yet. He made 26 starts at Double A last year, but walked 4.73 batters per nine innings. Win-loss records don't often reflect true performance, but Melville's 2-11 record in 2014 seems about right. Control issues have been a problem for Melville throughout his career, as he has walked over four batters per nine innings across his six professional seasons. He has allowed over a hit per inning while striking out 7.67 hitters per nine.
What should we expect from him?
Melville is an interesting addition to the organization. He is still relatively young and has a solid pitching arsenal. He was able to work in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball as a starting pitcher, and one would expect that his velocity improves with a move to the bullpen. Working out of the pen will also allow Melville to focus on one offspeed pitch, whether that is the hammer curveball he possessed at the beginning of his career or the slider he started to throw later on. If he can get a hold of those pitches and make some improvements to his command, he could potentially be a useful relief pitcher for the Tigers.
Unless he has a monster spring, Melville will not break camp with the Tigers. Like the other non-roster invitees that will be in Lakeland, the team has the luxury of stashing Melville in the minor leagues for a while. If and when one of these flawed-yet-promising arms breaks out, they will get a call to the majors.