The Tigers have long been known for their love of hard-throwing pitchers. They have featured Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer in their rotation for the last several years. New acquisitions Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene both averaged nearly 95 miles per hour with their fastballs last season. Even the recently departed Rick Porcello was expected to eventually have a fastball that sat in the mid-90s when he was drafted in 2007.
This is even more apparent in the bullpen, where fastball velocity often comes at the expense of command. Tigers fans are instantly reminded of Joel Zumaya, whose 100 mile per hour fastball took an exorbitant toll on his arm, prematurely ending his career. Fernando Rodney and Jose Valverde both had their runs as the team's closer with high octane fastballs. Bruce Rondon is the new king of velocity in Detroit, but Al Alburquerque, Luke Putkonen, and Josh Zeid can reach back for 95 mile per hour gas when necessary.
Rafael Dolis could be a challenger to Rondon's crown. Armed with a fastball clocked as high as 98 miles per hour at the major league level and in the triple digits in the minors, Dolis has the kind of power arm the Tigers covet. He supplements that fastball with a wicked slider that can miss bats with ease. He was never able to harness his raw stuff adequately when pitching for the Chicago Cubs, and is now looking to scratch his way back into the big leagues.
Where did he come from?
The Chicago Cubs signed Dolis, an amateur shortstop, out of the Dominican Republic in 2004. They converted him into a pitcher early on, and he made his stateside debut in the Arizona Rookie League in 2006. He was originally used as a starter, but he came up lame six starts into his 2007 season and underwent Tommy John surgery. Dolis returned in 2009 and allowed a 3.79 ERA in 99 2/3 innings for the Daytona Cubs of the Florida State League. He spent another three months in Daytona during the first half of 2010, then moved up to Double-A Tennessee in July. He allowed a 4.07 ERA and 3.97 FIP in 55 1/3 innings.
Dolis made four starts at Double A to start the 2011 season, but was moved to the bullpen before his next outing. This is where everything seemed to click. He allowed a 3.22 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 72 2/3 innings, earning a late season call-up with the Cubs. Dolis tossed 1 1/3 scoreless innings in a late September matchup against the San Diego Padres to finish his season. Dolis was praised as the Cubs' future closer heading into the 2012 season, and was ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the system by Baseball America. He made the major league roster after allowing one run in 10 innings during spring training.
That performance would not last, though. Dolis allowed a 5.68 ERA and .732 OPS in 25 1/3 innings in April and May, and was demoted to Triple A. He would shuttle between the minors and majors for most of a season, even spending time in the Arizona Rookie League while rehabbing a knee injury. At the end of the year, he allowed a 6.34 ERA for the Cubs with 24 strikeouts to 23 walks in 38 innings. He missed most of the 2013 season with a forearm strain and was released at the end of the season. Dolis only pitched four innings in the San Francisco Giants system in 2014.
Dolis is a 27-year-old right-hander who relies on a power two-seam fastball and slider. The two-seamer sits in the high 90s and generates a high ground ball rate; in 44 1/3 career MLB innings, Dolis has induced ground balls at a 63.1 percent clip. Opposing batters have swung and missed at the slider at a 17 percent clip in the majors, but he has just 25 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings. His strikeout rate isn't much higher in the minor leagues, and is nearly eclipsed by a walk rate of almost five per nine innings. Command has been Dolis' biggest issue throughout his career, resulting in more walks than strikeouts at the big league level.
John Sickels of Minor League Ball wasn't ever all that high on Dolis, ranking him 13th in the Cubs system in 2011 and 15th in 2012. John explained his skepticism prior to the 2012 season.
Could rank as high as 10th if you aren't concerned by his poor strikeout rate in Double-A. Power sinker could get him significant major league innings in 2012 but will need better command to close. I don't like him as much as some other people do, but upper-90s sinkers are rare.
John Arguello of Chicago Now was smitten with Dolis in August of 2011, going far enough to label him the number two international prospect in the Cubs' system.
Dolis is the Cubs top closer prospect and has the potential to make Carlos Marmol exendable. He throws in the upper 90s and has hit 101 mph. He also throws a mid 80s slider. At 6'4", 220 lbs he has an intimidating presence on the mound. His biggest weakness is command and control, but he has made some strides in that area. There's a good chance we may see Dolis this September.
Banished to the Pen contributor Matt Trueblood, who also profiled Tigers NRI Alberto Cabrera, had some concerns about Dolis' slider and pitching motion prior to the 2012 season.
Liabilities: His slider is not yet a dominant enough partner for the heater. He does not miss as many bats as one might hope for in a pitcher with his profile, and he walks a lot of batters. The injury that led to his operation was no fluke, either: His delivery is rife with oomph, and not necessarily in a good way.
Baseball America was more complimentary of Dolis' pitching delivery, and explained a potential reason for the low strikeout totals in their 2012 prospect handbook (via View from the Bleachers).
Dolis reminds scouts of Marmol, and the similarities became more striking when he became a full-time reliever in 2011. He can make hitters look silly with two pitches, a 93-100 mph fastball with heavy sink and a mid-80′s slider with hard bite. His stuff theoretically should have played up in shorter stints, but Dolis’ strikeout rate dipped to a career-low 5.9 per nine innings. That’s because he focused so much on his command, his biggest shortcoming, that he pounded the bottom of the strike zone and generated tons of ground outs rather than strikeouts.
MLB.com ranked Dolis as the #7 prospect in the Cubs' system after the 2011 season, praising his ability to generate weak contact en route to his short call-up that season.
What should we expect from him?
For a guy with so much raw talent, the lack of strikeouts Dolis had in minor league action is really concerning. He has just 313 strikeouts to 197 walks in 394 1/3 career minor league innings, a 1.59 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The high walk totals can be forgiven if his strikeout rate is equally high -- Al Alburquerque has made it work -- but seven strikeouts per nine innings is far too low for someone with Dolis' velocity.
While his live arm is intriguing, Dolis is little more than a lottery ticket. If he can put everything together and get major league hitters out, he has the potential to be a dominant reliever. However, the fact that no one -- not even the Tigers -- took a chance on Dolis after the Giants released him last May speaks volumes. It will take a special set of circumstances for Dolis to make the Tigers roster on Opening Day, but a strong showing in Toledo could earn him a call-up later in the year.