As spring training approaches, the offseason — and the acquisitions sprinkled over the last few months — may be a little blurry for Detroit Tigers fans. While there may not be much in the way of position battles to concern ourselves with, it’s still good to know where things sit as the team arrives in Lakeland two weeks from now. With spring training just now getting underway, we here at Bless You Boys are going to refresh your memories as to who you can expect to see hanging around the friendly confines of Joker Marchant Stadium.
Of all position groups lined up to kick off spring training, the pool of relief pitchers is, as always, the largest. At least 24 pitchers will take the mound, though with only one or two spots potentially open to competition. The foundation of the Tigers’ Opening Day bullpen is easily identified, but there remain questions about the final couple spots. Apart from the likely suspects, there are a few outside candidates who could work their way into a role if everything breaks their way.
Five players here are basically locks to fill major bullpen roles right out of the gate. The remaining two spots will probably be a revolving door throughout the season as usual. There’s also the question of whether the relievers will compete for seven spots at any given time, or six. The likelihood that one of the Tigers’ surfeit of starting pitchers begins the season in a relief role seems pretty high at this point.
Francisco Rodriguez: The Tigers’ closer is one of few who have little to worry about. While he was quite effective in 2016, he did so by getting more ground balls rather than the whiffs that afforded him his “K-Rod” moniker. He is still a solid candidate to have a good year, but it wouldn’t be too surprising if he started getting hit harder this season. Just hope the proposed strike zone changes don’t go into effect in 2017. K-Rod has remade himself at least three times in his career already. We’ll see if he has any more wrinkles to add to his game this season.
Justin Wilson: After an outstanding start, Wilson was rather wobbly on the mound for much of last summer. He lost his breaking ball, and then suffered some elbow inflammation leading to a rough August and September. The talent is obvious, and Wilson took another nice step forward in lowering his walk rate last year. Sustaining that would go a long way to having a consistent 2017 campaign. If he is healthy, he should once again be a weapon in the late innings.
Shane Greene: Circumstances might eventually earn Greene another shot at the rotation. For now, it’s safe to put him down as the Tigers’ preferred setup man. Greene dealt with some after-effects of his 2015 injury last year. But, as he usually does when healthy, he showed off his dynamite stuff. He worked up and down in the zone with both types of fastball, and when his breaking ball was sharp he looked incredible. The numbness associated with Greene’s ulnar neuritis seems here to stay, but two years removed from surgery, hopefully Greene can get back in a groove and fulfill his obvious promise.
Alex Wilson: As the Tigers’ workhorse over the past two seasons, Alex Wilson has been one of the more consistent relievers they’ve had in recent memory. He has spun 143 innings for the Tigers with an ERA near 2.50. A significant chunk of those innings have come in the seventh and eighth innings. Wilson found the feel on his slider at a few points in 2016, and his overall strikeout rate was up. His walk rate, however, regressed from elite to merely quite good. The Tigers would love to see Wilson’s strikeout-to-walk ratio improve again, but we would happily accept more of the same, thanks.
Bruce Rondon: Of the first five, Rondon is probably the least certain to make the Opening Day roster, but it would probably take a pretty rough spring to keep the fireballing righthander in the minors. While he has not yet blossomed into the dominant reliever the Tigers once hoped, he showed flashes of it in 2016. He also seemed to take a step forward in his maturity and craft on the mound under Francisco Rodriguez’s mentorship. We saw him mixing in a fine changeup on occasion, and varying his delivery times to keep hitters off balance. Hopefully, Rondon’s career finally has traction, and he can take it into another gear this season.
Mark Lowe: It was a long, rough grind for Lowe in 2016. While he found a modicum of respectability in the second half, the first half was unspeakable. After a shaky but decent April, Lowe erupted with one of the worst outbreaks of dinger-itis you will ever see. Mercifully, the Tigers eventually moved him far away from meaningful games. In the season’s final weeks, Lowe pitched quiet innings in nearly decided games without incident. Still, it inspires no confidence heading into the 2017 season. The Tigers owe Lowe $5 million, and he will need to prove this spring that the money isn’t much better spent in clearing his roster space.
Daniel Stumpf: Stumpf is the first of three lefties the Tigers are likely to deploy throughout the season. He’s also the least familiar. As a Rule 5 pick this offseason, the Tigers will either give him a shot in the majors on Opening Day or cut him loose. At his best, Stumpf runs a pretty nasty sinker up into the mid-90s. He backs it with a decent but unremarkable slider/changeup combination. He will need to post strikeout totals closer to those he had in Double-A to hold the Tigers’ interest. If he has a nice spring, the Tigers may choose to give him a shot in April rather than waiving his rights back to the Kansas City Royals.
Kyle Ryan: For much of the 2016 season, Ryan did a nice job as a situational lefty and occasional long man. He rode a 56.1 percent ground ball rate and snuffed the long ball, allowing just two in 55 2⁄3 innings. He still doesn’t have the kind of breaking ball to picture him in a late innings role, but has enough funk and feel to limit damage. He has a minor league option remaining, and should see work throughout the year in similar roles to last season. However, that option may guarantee him a trip to Toledo if Stumpf has a good spring.
Blaine Hardy: Hardy had a bit of a lost season in 2016. At times, he was a victim of the roster jam in the pitching staff. He was also outpaced most of the season by Ryan, who earned the innings that could otherwise have been Hardy’s, who never really found a groove. A disastrous five-run inning against the Royals in mid-June earned him a trip to Triple-A Toledo for most of the summer. He had a few major league appearances in August and September where he looked much better, and he will be in the running for a situational lefty spot. Most likely, he will be one of the Tigers most intimately acquainted with the I-75 construction zone by season’s end.
Victor Alcantara: Of the final five 40-man roster candidates, not one has much chance of having an impact in 2017. Alcantara was the Tigers’ acquisition in the Cameron Maybin trade, and is likely still too raw to find his way to the majors this season. Plenty of questions remain as to whether he ever will. A starter last season, Alcantara seems destined for the bullpen, possibly in Double-A Erie to start the year. It would take a striking improvement in his command for him to make it to major leagues this season.
Chad Bell: Bell is another lefthander with a chance of seeing some major league action in 2017. However, that remains an unlikely scenario without some fairly catastrophic injury issues to the Tigers’ crop of southpaws. He came to Detroit in the deal that sent catcher Bobby Wilson back to the Texas Rangers. Bell is already 28 years old, and doesn’t quite hit 90 miles per hour on the radar gun. A touch-and-feel lefty, the Tigers converted him to relief last season. He will line up behind the lefthanders previously mentioned in the bullpen hierarchy, and likely spends the majority of the season in Toledo.
Jairo Labourt: Once you get beyond Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Justin Wilson, Labourt has the best raw stuff of any lefthander in the system. However, “raw” describes Labourt just as well in sum total. He features mid-90s gas and flashes an outstanding breaking ball at times. However, his control is still a work in progress, and the feel for the secondary pitches comes and goes. He has the arm to compete in the majors already, but unless he harnesses it all for a long stretch of time, he won’t be making a major league debut in 2017. Simply progressing to the high minors and having some success there would qualify as a solid year.
Warwick Saupold: The Australian righthander surprised observers with a bit of a breakout in 2017. TigsTown was impressed enough to name him the Toledo Mud Hens’ Pitcher of the Year. Saupold saw a nice boost in his velocity, and mixed two types of fastballs to keep hitters off his admittedly mediocre breaking ball. He earned himself a September call-up, though a late season arrest after an incident at a bar put a bit of a black mark on a nice season of progress. Saupold will likely see a call-up or two throughout the season, but without another big step forward, he’s pretty far down the pecking order.
Joe Jimenez: Of the non-roster invitees, there is really only one name on everyone’s radar. Jimenez backed up his stellar 2015 with a monster 2016 campaign, dominating his way from High-A Lakeland all the way to Triple-A Toledo. His delivery features some deception and excellent extension, allowing an already explosive fastball to play even better than its high-90s velocity would suggest. The slider remains somewhat inconsistent, but is a plus pitch when his feel is good. Look for Jimenez to refine that pitch, and his changeup, throughout the season and become a real weapon for manager Brad Ausmus. The Tigers are taking it slow with Jimenez, so he would need a monster spring to break camp with the major league roster. Either way, his time is coming soon.
Edward Mujica: Mujica is familiar as a long-time journeyman reliever who enjoyed one real standout season as the St. Louis Cardinals’ closer in 2013. Since that point, he has regressed to his control artist ways while his whiff rates have steadily declined. The 32-year-old would need a real resurgence to make the Tigers’ 25-man roster coming out of spring camp. It’s far more likely that he has a mediocre spring and is released prior to the start of the season. He is a familiar name, but his days of usefulness at the major league level are presumably at an end.
AJ Achter: Achter is another offseason minor league signing. The Michigan State product posted a solid ERA for the Los Angeles Angels in 2016, but his peripherals were uniformly awful. The 28 year-old has never shown consistent control, and completely lost his strikeout ability in his first extended major league stay last season. He relies on a middling two-seamer and a quality changeup for success. Unless there’s a major change coming, Achter is organizational depth and nothing more.
Angel Nesbitt: Nesbitt cleared waivers after the Tigers released him this offseason. He went unclaimed and has been outrighted to Triple-A Toledo. The righthander has some feel for manipulating the movement on his mid-90s fastball, but has never come up with a functional out pitch in the upper minors. The Tigers gave him an shot at a setup role in 2015, but that did not go well. Nesbitt is now too old to be considered a real prospect. He will have another chance to impress the Tigers in 2017, but may be one of the first players moved in the event of a roster crunch at the Triple-A level.
Adam Ravenelle: Beyond Joe Jimenez, Ravenelle is probably the most intriguing of the non-roster invitees. The Tigers fourth round pick in the 2014 draft, Ravenelle comes with a Vanderbilt pitching program pedigree. He features an explosive two-seam fastball thrown from a very low three-quarters arm slot, and can scratch triple digits on occasion. However he still has little idea where it’s going. That arm slot, velocity, and a slurvy breaking ball make him fairly effective against right-handed hitters. He will need a good changeup and much better command to start balancing his splits. In short, he’s a project with good potential at this point, and will need to take a big step forward to be any help to the Tigers in 2017.
Ruben Alaniz: This Texas native came up in the Astros organization before the Tigers acquired him last summer. He put together a nice showing at the Double-A and Triple-A levels last season, ramping up his strikeouts and lowering his ERA substantially as compared to his earlier work. His plus pitch is a curveball, but his command is still a long way from major league ready. The chances of seeing him in Detroit this summer are quite slim.
William Cuevas: A former Boston Red Sox international free agent signing back in 2008, Cuevas appears destined to convert to a relief role with the Tigers. He struggled to carry over his strikeout ability into the upper minors. Cuevas had a very brief stint in relief for the Red Sox in 2016. Another cup of coffee is a decent possibility this year. Still, he will need to find his strikeout touch and improved command to make any real impact with the Tigers this season.
Jeff Ferrell: Ferrell blossomed in relief during the 2015 season, earning his first trip to the major leagues. Ferrell has a mid-90s fastball and a solid curveball/changeup combination that served him well in the upper minors. Diagnosed with bone chips in his elbow in 2016, Ferrell had a platelet-rich injection in August, and his rehabilitation appears on schedule. If healthy, he seems a likely call-up at some point this season.
Logan Kensing: Tigers fans saw a decent amount of Kensing in 2016, but almost any amount seemed too much. Kensing’s fastball/slider combo just isn’t quite enough at the major league level without excellent command. It has been nearly a decade since he was a decent looking prospect in the Marlins organization. He is another guy the Tigers will probably call up at some point, but he’s pretty deep in the barrel of options at this point.
Dustin Molleken: Like Kensing, Molleken is in his early 30s, but never even cracked the major leagues until 2016. He has decent swing-and-miss stuff, but has never consistently commanded it. If he hits a good stretch in Toledo, the Tigers may have a bit of use for him, but he is unlikely to make a real impact.