The Tigers' rotation was in trouble late in the 2014 season. With Justin Verlander not pitching well and Anibal Sanchez on the disabled list, the Tigers were looking to the minor leagues for pitching depth. Robbie Ray had a couple of solid starts in May, but faltered in a late season call-up. Buck Farmer looked good in the first few innings of his MLB debut, but quickly found himself in over his head. The two combined to allow 11 runs in consecutive starts against the Minnesota Twins in late August, a pair of games that could be considered the low point of the Tigers' season.
There was a bright spot in that second game, though. Kyle Lobstein came on in relief of Farmer and pitched 5 2/3 innings. He allowed three runs on four hits with four walks, but the performance earned him a start against the New York Yankees five days later. Lobstein allowed two runs (one earned) on four hits in six innings, and the Tigers won 3-2. That victory was the first of four consecutive Tigers wins with Lobstein on the mound. He allowed a 3.10 ERA in his first five starts -- he was a victim of lackluster run support in his fifth start, a 2-0 Tigers loss -- striking out 20 batters to eight walks.
It's a bit hyperbolic to call Lobstein the "savior" of the Tigers' rotation, but they probably would not have claimed their fourth consecutive AL Central title without his solid performance down the stretch. Lobstein earned a 'B' in our offseason report card series for exceeding expectations down the stretch.
Did Kyle Lobstein dominate in his 39.1 innings of work? No. Did he cement a role for himself moving forward? Not yet. But what he did do is help save the rotation from leaking copious amounts of oil every fifth day down the stretch. He exceeded expectations by a fair amount. Lobstein didn't "win" those first four starts by himself, but he also didn't do anything to lose them and plenty of folks probably expected he would when they saw a dude with a 4.07 ERA in Triple-A getting the call.
Lobstein was voted as our #9 Tigers prospect for the 2015 season, but that ranking is primarily based on his high floor. He has already cleared the ultimate prospect hurdle by both making and succeeding at the major league level, but doesn't project to add much more value. He doesn't have the raw stuff of more highly touted prospects, and relies on command and deception to get hitters out. His ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes is what made him successful in 2014.
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.
Even though he made six starts for the Tigers in 2014, Lobstein has just 33 days of MLB service time on his resume. Like the other starters that made their big league debuts last season, Lobstein is currently slated to reach arbitration after the 2018 season and free agency in 2021. However, the Tigers are likely to burn one of Lobstein's two remaining options this season, pushing his arbitration clock even further into the future.
Stats and projections
Lobstein's fate for the 2015 still remains to be determined, but the Tigers have been looking at him as a potential bullpen arm since the start of spring training. It seems like the Tigers will take two left-handed relievers north in April, with Tom Gorzelanny all but guaranteed one of those spots. However, a long reliever might not be needed, as the Tigers are working on stretching Gorzelanny out to multiple innings. They may still take Lobstein or Ryan on as a true swingman, but Ian Krol and Blaine Hardy are also in the mix.
We should see the bullpen drama start to unfold in the next few days. Sunday's games against the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals mark the Tigers' final split-squad date of the spring, and the Tigers are off on Monday afternoon. With fewer games left and the major league starters stretching out to more innings, there are fewer opportunities to get minor league starters like Farmer, Lobstein, and Ryan into game action. My semi-educated guess is that Lobstein will start the season in Triple A, joining Drew VerHagen as one of the first options when the Tigers need a sixth starter in 2015.