From day one, the 2017 season has felt like a do-or-die situation for the Detroit Tigers. With an aging core and a subpar farm system, they face a harsh reality: win or rebuild. Should things turn south and force the Tigers to sell at the trade deadline, one can always look at the prices other teams paid for top talent as a reason to believe in a quick turnaround. The Chicago Cubs acquired shortstop Addison Russell in a trade for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammell in 2014, and now he (Russell) is an All-Star. The Tigers turned a similar trick when they acquired three-fifths of their current starting rotation for David Price and Yoenis Cespedes in 2015.
Things can even work out on a smaller scale. Last season, the Minnesota Twins traded over-performing infielder Eduardo Nunez to the San Francisco Giants for lefthander Adalberto Mejia. The 23-year-old Mejia isn’t a top prospect by any means — though he snuck into the back end of Baseball Prospectus’ 2015 list — but has the potential to be a capable fourth or fifth starter. This is a perfect match for the Twins, a team desperate for young pitching to pair with their talented young bats.
The Tigers will get their first look at Mejia on Saturday, and things are looking a bit dire after losing four games in a row. They are only a game behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, but could really use a win to snap their recent skid.
Detroit Tigers (8-8) at Minnesota Twins (8-8)
Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Target Field
SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Matt Boyd (2-1, 3.77 ERA) vs. LHP Adalberto Mejia (0-1, 4.05 ERA)
Game 17 Pitching Matchup
Mejia hasn’t done much of consequence at the major league level since arriving in the Twins system. He made his MLB debut last August and allowed a pair of runs on five hits in a long relief appearance against the Kansas City Royals. Sandwiched around that outing were some solid performances at the Triple-A level, where he shined in 2016. He allowed a 4.20 ERA in 40 2⁄3 innings for the Sacramento River Cats, San Francisco’s Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. This doesn’t look great in a vacuum, but the PCL is a very hitter-friendly league; Mejia’s 3.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio is more indicative of how he performed. As expected, he lowered his ERA to 3.76 in four starts at Triple-A Rochester, Minnesota’s affiliate.
Mejia’s only two starts in 2017 have come at the major league level. He was roughed up a bit by the Chicago White Sox in his first outing, allowing three runs (two earned) in just 1 2⁄3 innings. His second start was much better, however, as he limited those same White Sox to one run on four hits over five innings. He has a simple four-pitch mix spearheaded by a 92-93 mile-per-hour four-seam fastball he throws roughly 50 percent of the time. It generates a higher-than-average spin rate, so expect a number of lazy fly balls if he spots it well at the top of the strike zone. He also throws a slider and changeup, both in the low 80s, and the occasional two-seamer around 92 mph.
Key matchup: Brad Ausmus vs. traditional bullpen roles
I have been content with manager Brad Ausmus’ bullpen usage for most of the season so far, but his rigidity cost the Tigers on Friday night. After Justin Verlander walked the bases loaded and gave up a two-run single, Ausmus went to rookie Joe Jimenez following a Kyle Ryan-induced groundout. With the game still in the balance, Ausmus would have done better to go to “setup man” Justin Wilson, perhaps even before bringing in Ryan. Wilson has been the Tigers’ best reliever by a wide margin, with zero hits allowed in 7 1⁄3 innings. Had Wilson escaped the jam, then the Tigers could have gone to Ryan, Jimenez, or other relievers in clean innings to start the seventh and eighth.
For all the praise the Indians have drawn for using Andrew Miller in a fireman-type role throughout the 2017 postseason, the trend does not seem to have caught on. Yes, there are dangers of overusing top relievers over the course of a 162-game season, but a situation like this — while mired in a three-game losing streak, no less — was one where Ausmus needed to be more flexible.
“Need” is a strong word to use less than three weeks into a 162-game season. That said, the Tigers could really use a win on Saturday. Their current four-game losing streak has turned a promising road trip into one fans would like to forget. With a rough schedule in May looming, the Tigers can’t afford to fall too far off the pace this early in the season.
Luckily, the 2017 club doesn’t have the same holes in its starting rotation that last year’s team did. Boyd may have been viewed as the No. 5 starter heading into the season, but he has been one of the team’s bright spots thus far, first start notwithstanding. He flummoxed the Twins at Comerica Park 11 days ago, and could do so again on Saturday.
Boyd plays the role of stopper and snaps the losing streak.