The Detroit Tigers are set for a very quiet offseason. Once most of the major league free agents are signed, the team will probably add a few inexpensive players from the remainder bin. And we’ll likely see a player or two—Ian Kinsler, for example—traded away. However, there are also some fairly interesting minor league free agents out there, and the Tigers have already signed three of them.
Al Avila struck early, signing pitchers Kevin Comer, Mark Montgomery as well as utilityman Nike Goodrum to minor league contracts. Comer was certainly a pitcher on people’s radar as an interesting young starter who had just run out of time in the Houston Astros’ system. Montgomery had been a well thought of relief prospect in the Yankees system.
On Monday, the Tigers also announced the signing of Ryan Carpenter to a major league deal. He, Comer and Mark Montgomery graded out as three of the better pitchers in the minor league free agent class. The KATOH projection system, which projects minor league players’ success in the majors, placed all three among the top minor league free agents available this offseason. While none are likely to make waves in Detroit, there is a bit of intrigue, and the possibility of a breakout for each.
At 27 years old, the 6’ 5”, 210 pound lefty is too old to be a prospect. But he also wouldn’t be the first long levered pitcher to find his command later on in his 20’s. Carpenter was drafted out of Gonzaga by the Tampa Bay Rays with their seventh round pick in 2011. He’s always had solid control, and the past two seasons has finally found his strikeout touch in the upper levels of the minors.
Carpenter maxed out at 167 innings in 2015, and threw 156 for the Alburquerque Isotopes in the Pacific Coast League in 2017. In a notoriously hitter-friendly circuit, Carpenter allowed just over a home run per nine innings, and struck out 161 hitters to 39 walks. A stats only version of KATOH was impressed, rating him as the best minor league free agent this offseason, and projecting 2.9 fWAR for him in the majors.
Carpenter’s delivery looks like someone crossed Madison Bumgarner with Andrew Miller, but his stuff doesn’t match up to those comparisons. His long-armed delivery produces a fastball that tops out in the low-90’s. Carpenter has thrown a pretty average curveball-changeup combination throughout most of his time in the minors. They can play up from the angle and deception of his long crossfire delivery, but neither is a very notable offering.
The step that led him to a fine 2017 season in Triple-A was the progress of his slider which allowed him to give left-handed hitters another look from the curve. Carpenter finished with a 4.15 ERA on the year, but finished with a strong second half and perhaps a bit of a velocity bump. Those developments raised his profile enough that Carpenter isn’t going to fly under the radar. He’ll probably have better options than to sign with the Tigers, but no likelier path to making his big league debut in 2018.
Among minor league free agent pitchers, KATOH pegs Comer as the sixth best option available, estimating a value of 1.4 fWAR for him. He was released from a rather full Houston Astros’ system at season’s end, and the Tigers snatched him up quickly. Comer is one of the few players on these lists who was a high end prospect once upon a time.
In 2011, the Toronto Blue Jays went over slot to sign Comer out of high school with the 57th overall pick. The New Jersey product elected to forego his commitment to pitch for Vanderbilt to sign with the Blue Jays. He was then traded to the Astros in the same deal that sent Joe Musgrove to Houston.
At the time, the big right-hander was throwing in the high 80’s, but was projectible for much more. His advanced mechanics and 6’3, 215 pound frame, combined with a cold weather background, led most to expect substantial velocity gains as he filled out. The real attraction was his hard spike curveball which was very advanced for his age.
Comer never worked out as a starter, and the Astros finally converted him to relief in 2016. His strikeout rate took a big leap forward to about 26 percent, which he sustained in Triple-A in 2017. His walk rates have remained a bit on the high side, and running consistently high BABIP numbers and line drive rates in the minors leads me to guess that his fastball isn’t as lively as one would like.
Considering that he already washed out as a starter before he reached Triple-A, Comer probably doesn’t have much of a ceiling left. However, he’s still just 24-years-old after six seasons in the minor leagues. If he can find enough in his fastball to support a more curveball heavy approach, there’s still a chance he could prove a useful reliever.
The 27-year-old Montgomery is a former Yankees’ relief prospect. He has posted consistently high strikeout rates—over 30 percent at both Double-A and Triple-A levels—in the minor leagues, but never managed to dial in his command. Acquired last season by the St. Louis Cardinals, Montgomery had a good season for the Memphis Redbirds, and really got the walks under control.
Montgomery is predominantly a fly ball pitcher, and gets a lot of weak contact in the air. In 66 2⁄3 innings in 2017, he posted a 2.43 ERA and 3.30 FIP. He features a low-90’s fastball and a nasty slider that led many to predict a bright future as a Yankees’ relief ace. Montgomery was ranked as high as 10th on FanGraphs’ 2013 ranking of the Yankees’ farm system, but never quite took the next step with his command. If he can sustain the improvements he showed for the Cardinals, the Tigers may have a solid relief prospect on their hands.
Minor league free agents are the bottom of the barrel as far as acquisitions go. It’s very unlikely that the Tigers have found a diamond in the rough here, but it does happen. The three pitchers the Tigers have added represent some of the best arms available on the minor league free agent market, and KATOH’s projections back that assessment. It’ll be up to their player development system to try and crack the code with one of them, and produce a useful major league pitcher.