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Tigers player preview: Drew VerHagen appears to fit into Tigers' long-term plans

VerHagen is no longer in major league camp, but there are signs that suggest the Tigers really like him as a starter.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Drew VerHagen got the shaft on the day of his MLB debut. With the Tigers slated to play a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians on July 19th, VerHagen was called up to start one of the games. Instead of facing off against Zach McAllister -- a pitcher who had a 5.23 ERA last year -- VerHagen was pitted against eventual Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. The result was predictable; Cleveland won 6-2 behind Kluber, who struck out 10 and nearly threw a complete game.

However, VerHagen showed promise, holding the Tribe to one hit and a pair of walks through his first four innings. He struck out four of the first seven batters he faced, and ended the fourth inning with a pair of trademark groundball outs. The Indians collected four hits and three runs in the fifth inning, turning a spectacular debut into merely a solid one.

Unfortunately, this was the end of VerHagen's season. A stress fracture in his lower back sidelined him for the remainder of the year, capping him at 115 1/3 innings in 20 starts. He allowed a 3.68 ERA and 3.70 FIP with a 2.52 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Triple-A Toledo before his call-up.

While his fastball can reach the mid-90s, VerHagen does the majority of his damage by generating a high volume of ground ball outs. He induced grounders at a 52.3 percent clip at Triple A last year, and allowed just five home runs. In fact, VerHagen has been especially stingy with the long ball throughout his career, allowing just nine homers in 268 1/3 innings.

Drew VerHagen heat map

Heat map via MLB Farm

Contract status

VerHagen has just 29 days of MLB service time on his ledger and is still considered a rookie. The Tigers have already optioned him to Triple-A Toledo, making it unlikely that he will reach arbitration eligibility after the 2018 season, as he is currently projected. The roster move burned one of VerHagen's two remaining minor league options. The team can now move him between the majors and minors at their leisure throughout the season (only one option is used per year). They will still have one option remaining for 2016 or beyond.

Stats and projections
Year IP W-L ERA WHIP FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
2014 (AAA) 110.1 6-7 3.67 1.29 3.70 5.14 2.04 0.41
Steamer 38.0 2-2 4.90 1.43 4.86 5.00 2.79 1.22
ZiPS 116.1 7-8 4.95 1.49 4.53 4.49 3.02 0.85

VerHagen has already been sent to the minors, but that actually may be a positive sign for his future with the Tigers. The Tigers are still looking at pitchers Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, and Buck Farmer as possible bullpen options for the 2015 season. On the other hand, VerHagen will primarily be used as a starter. The Tigers used VerHagen as a spot starter before those other three in 2014, and he has the highest upside of that group by a slim margin.

Part of the decision to send VerHagen down to the minors likely stems from his back injury that prematurely ended his 2014 season. He totaled 110 1/3 innings at the Triple A level, but could still use more time to develop his secondary pitches. We are a long way away from discussing the 2016 rotation, but I would imagine that VerHagen would be the front-runner for a fifth starter's role if the Tigers look to their minor league system.

VerHagen was voted our #7 prospect for the 2015 season, where he forecasted his return to the minor leagues prior to spring training.

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.

VerHagen will also be one of the first options the Tigers will look to if they need a spot starter or injury fill-in at any point.