Going into spring training, the Tigers announced that they would be open to the idea of looking at their minor league starters -- Kyle Lobstein and Buck Farmer, namely -- as potential bullpen options at the big league level. The Joba Chamberlain signing effectively stuck a fork in Farmer's chances of making the major league roster, but there is still a fierce competition for the final bullpen slot. Left-handers Blaine Hardy and Ian Krol appear to be the frontrunners for that role, but Kyle Ryan is making a push to make the Tigers' Opening Day roster.
Spring training stats don't mean much, but performance is still important. Ryan has been excellent so far this spring, allowing just two hits and two walks in six scoreless innings of work. He is one of five Tigers pitchers who have made multiple appearances this spring without allowing a run, and his 0.67 WHIP is second only to starter Alfredo Simon.
Ryan has snuck into the conversation because of the uninspiring performances seen from both Krol and Hardy. Krol reportedly touched 97 miles per hour on the radar gun during his first outing, but has otherwise struggled. He has given up runs in two of his five outings, and has walked four batters in five innings of work. Hardy's 7.71 ERA is even higher than Krol's, but he does have a pair of perfect innings under his belt. The two walks he issued in his last outing were his first of the spring.
Ryan doesn't have overpowering stuff, and his fastball regularly sits in the high 80s as a starter. However, in a brief stretch of relief work last fall, he showed an uptick in fastball velocity. He averaged 92 miles per hour with his fastball out of the bullpen and got as high as 93.8 miles per hour at one point.
Ryan wasn't overly impressive at Double-A Erie last season, allowing a 4.55 ERA and 4.44 FIP in 126 2/3 innings. He posted a solid 2.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but allowed more than a hit per inning, including 1.07 home runs per nine innings. His stat line was more impressive in a month's worth of starts at Triple-A Toledo, but a .221 BABIP was a big reason for his 3-0 record and 1.64 ERA in 33 innings.
Ryan threw six shutout innings in his MLB debut on August 30th, and remained with the club after rosters expanded on September 1st. He worked four scoreless outings in relief before getting touched up for three runs in 1 1/3 innings in his final appearance of the season.
Ryan has just 30 days of major league service time on his résumé, and still has three minor league options remaining after being added to the 40-man roster the day of his MLB debut. At this point, the 23-year-old left-hander would not even hit arbitration until after the 2017 season, and that's only if he remains on the Tigers' roster for all three years. Odds are he will be optioned once or twice along the way, delaying his service time clock even further. We may very well see Miguel Cabrera hit free agency before Ryan.
Stats and projections
Ryan was voted as the #13 prospect in the Tigers' system this year, a ranking I thought was a bit higher than his skill set warranted. While Ryan does a good job of limiting walks and using his secondary pitches to keep opposing batters off balance, his arm slot sets him up for failure against right-handed batters.
Ryan has some great numbers against left-handed batters in the minor leagues, but right-handers have hit him without much difficulty. Righties have hit .283/.326/.417 off him in five minor league seasons, including 13 of the 15 home runs allowed last season. Ryan's delivery allows right-handers a long look at the baseball, and his below average changeup is not a deterrent for hitters sitting on his fastball. Developing the changeup further and improving his numbers against right-handers could be the difference between eventually winning a starting job and a permanent move to the bullpen.
Unlike other position battles, Ryan isn't at a disadvantage because of his contract status. Both Hardy and Krol have minor league options remaining, and the only barrier between Ryan and a roster spot at this point is the organization potentially wanting to use him as a starter. While Ryan isn't quite the pitcher that Drew Smyly is, his predicament should be viewed in the same light. Ryan is currently out-pitching both Hardy and Krol by a wide margin, and should be awarded a big league roster spot because of his performance.