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Tigers player preview: Can Buck Farmer pitch out of the bullpen?

The Tigers have tried using Farmer as a reliever this spring, but the results aren't pretty.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers left no stone unturned in their search for a better bullpen this offseason. Save for signing a high-priced free agent like Andrew Miller -- one could argue Joakim Soria fits this bill -- they have acquired pitchers in just about every other manner possible. Minor league free agents? The Tigers had five of them in camp at the start of spring. Rafael Dolis and Alberto Cabrera are still in major league camp this morning. Returning veterans from 2014? The Tigers re-signed Joba Chamberlain at the start of the spring, and have pitchers like Al Alburquerque, Blaine Hardy, Ian Krol, and Joe Nathan around, for better or worse.

The Tigers have looked to their minor leagues for help too. Joe Mantiply drew a lot of press throughout the offseason, but the Tigers thought he could use a little more seasoning in the minors. Ditto Jose Valdez, who was optioned to Triple-A Toledo last week. Angel Nesbitt is still in major league camp, along with starters Kyle Ryan, Kyle Lobstein, and Buck Farmer.

Things aren't looking promising for Farmer, though. He's already at a disadvantage because he throws right-handed, and his numbers are far from impressive. His ERA sits at 6.14 after a scoreless inning against the Atlanta Braves yesterday, but that didn't stop Lynn Henning from firing off a tweet about Farmer's fading chances at making the roster.

A starter throughout his career, Farmer made four outings for the Tigers last season. He kicked off his MLB career with two starts, one a win against the Pittsburgh Pirates. After he was recalled when rosters expanded in September, he finished the season with a pair of appearances out of the bullpen.

Most pitchers see an uptick in velocity when the move from the rotation to the bullpen because they are no longer required to pace themselves to get through a batting order multiple times. Farmer's average fastball velocity rose from 93.5 miles per hour to 94.8 miles per hour when he moved to the bullpen in September. His changeup saw a similar bump in speed, and his slider velocity rose by almost three miles per hour.

Buck Farmer pitch velocity

However, that increase in velocity seemed to flatten out his fastball. The average horizontal movement on that pitch saw a sharp decline, meaning he was not getting as much tailing action as when he was starting.

Buck Farmer horizontal movement

Is this why Farmer has struggled this spring? That's difficult to say. Radar gun readings in Florida have been iffy at best, so we can't get a sense of whether Farmer is airing out his fastball or not. We also must consider that Farmer is still quite inexperienced, with just 28 2/3 career innings above Single-A ball under his belt. Perhaps he is just struggling against tougher competition, which we also saw when he was starting at the major league level last year. This analysis is also based on a very small sample of innings and pitches thrown, though the movement trajectory of his fastball makes sense.

Contract status

Farmer has 47 days of MLB service time on his ledger, putting him on track to reach arbitration after the 2018 season if he remains in the major leagues for the next three seasons. He is a sure bet to be optioned to the minors, though, so don't expect him to reach arbitration until around 2020. Farmer still has all three of his minor league options remaining.

Stats and projections
Year IP W-L ERA WHIP FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
2014 (A) 103.2 10-5 2.60 1.11 2.78 10.07 2.08 0.52
2014 (MLB) 9.1 0-1 11.57 1.82 5.81 10.61 4.82 1.93
Steamer 60.0 3-4 4.46 1.36 4.42 6.80 3.10 1.14
ZiPS 93.2 6-8 5.67 1.50 5.29 6.82 3.27 1.63

There seems to be little doubt that Farmer, our #6 Tigers prospect for 2015, will be optioned to the minors at this point. The only question that remains is where he will begin the season. In his tweet above, Lynn Henning suggested that Farmer will be sent to Triple-A Toledo, just a short drive away from Detroit. However, Tony Paul of the Detroit News estimates that Farmer will be sent to Double-A Erie to work with pitching coach Mike Henneman, who was the architect of the excellent West Michigan Whitecaps rotation in 2014.

Either way, Farmer has plenty to work on. He was able to overwhelm hitters in the lower minors, something that most experienced college pitches have little trouble with. He struggled with his command once he got out of A-ball, however, walking 13 batters in 28 2/3 innings at Double A or higher. Opponents also had little trouble timing him, hitting .287/.369/.461 with four home runs in that stretch. Expect Buck to spend most of the year in a minor league rotation with a September call-up on the horizon, as he is still less polished than the other starters he has been competing with this spring.