As recently as three years ago, Tyson Ross was one of the more underrated young starters in the game. Unfortunately, his best work came in lost seasons for the moribund San Diego Padres, and he then went on to lose nearly two full seasons to injury. Ross turned things around in 2018, pitching his best baseball in years, but he still isn’t drawing much attention around the hot stove. As a result, he could make an interesting addition for the Detroit Tigers this offseason.
The Padres brought Ross back last year hoping to catch him on the rebound and deal him in July. For three months, things were going well. Ross was very good into June, leaving the Padres licking their chops in expectation of a nice trade return. However, Ross came completely unglued in early July, crushing his trade value at the worst possible time. He rebounded a bit late in the month, and was eventually claimed off of waivers by the St. Louis Cardinals. He wasn’t great for the Cards, but certainly settled down, compiling a 3.70 ERA in the second half despite mediocre peripheral numbers.
Even among the lower tier of starting pitcher free agents this offseason, there’s a hierarchy. The raw stuff of Garrett Richards will draw interest despite his UCL surgery this season. Former Boston Red Sox lefty Drew Pomeranz was a popular breakout candidate as recently as 2017, and should draw interest from numerous teams looking for temporary help in their starting rotation. Trying to sign him just to flip him to a contender in July may cost more than it is worth.
Ross feels like he may be a cost-effective alternative. He isn’t going to completely slip under the radar of the many teams in need of pitching, but he doesn’t seem to be attracting a high level of interest, either. MLB Trade Rumors didn’t list him among their top 50 free agents, and he doesn’t show up on USA Today’s top 57 free agents list either. His injury history and declining velocity are going to scare contenders away from signing him as anything more than depth. That may make him affordable to a team like the Tigers.
Ross could do well in Detroit
The saving grace for Ross is his slider. In his prime years, he resembled Pirates righthander Chris Archer, with heavy doses of mid-90s fastballs with above-average spin rates and nasty sliders. Ross’ fastball has declined a bit, but his slider remains a very effective put-away pitch. He has also augmented his fastball with cutters to a modest degree, but still largely relies on the fastball-slider combination against hitters on either side of the plate.
The velocity decline is a concern, though. Ross averaged 93.5 miles per hour on his four-seamer as recently as 2015. Last season, he averaged just 90.8 mph. That’s not ideal, especially for a short-striding pitcher who gets below-average extension despite his 6’6 frame. Per Statcast, the perceived average velocity of his four-seam fastball last season was just 89.78 mph. For that to work, you have to have factors like command, movement, deception, or funk, to really succeed.
Luckily, Ross does retain above-average spin rates on both his fastball and slider. While he doesn’t use his height to full effect, it still gives him some angle to work with. Ross consistently posts low fly ball rates and high line drives rates. Even though he keeps the ball down and in the park, he will give up strings of solid base hits at times. With mediocre walk rates, he allows his share of baserunners. His strikeout rates are below average as well, and that won’t be helped by a move to the American League. Still, based on his work last season, Ross has enough in the tank to be effective, if not good, as long as he can stay healthy.
Ross posted a 4.15 ERA and 4.39 FIP last season, though if you Porcello-out his numbers in the month of July, both those marks would be roughly a full run lower. Ross gave up a pretty equal split of home runs to right and left-handed hitters, but lefties overall did most of the damage, compiling a .368 wOBA against him. The fastball and slider allowed him to largely dominate right-handed hitting, but the lack of a third pitch leaves him with a fairly obvious weakness to lefties.
Ross will be three years removed from thoracic outlet surgery next spring. While he’s had minor issues since, there’s an argument to be made that Ross still trending upward in terms of rebuilding his strength and endurance. He threw 149 2⁄3 innings this season, after tossing just 49 1⁄3 in 2017, and showed a little uptick in velocity late in the year. Still, heading in his age 32 season, he’s just not going to regain what he’s lost from his fastball.
Typically, American League clubs are wary of veteran starters with declining velocity who have spent their career in the National League. The specter of Jordan Zimmermann’s time in Detroit may lurk in the minds of the Tigers’ executives. There’s also a somewhat extensive injury history to consider. However, Ross is likely to be closer to the Tigers’ budget than some of the more attractive options. That’s the bottom line. And his 2018 season provides a bit of optimism about his outlook next year.
The Tigers are in a spot where picking up a starter of dubious durability is a risk they can absorb without much issue. They don’t have expectations of winning to begin with. Particularly if the risks allows them to acquire a reasonably effective starting pitcher at a bargain price. They’re looking for someone to throw 120-50 innings of respectable baseball on the cheap. They would prefer someone with the potential to take advantage of American League hitters’ unfamiliarity, have a good first half, and become legitimate trade bait. By these criteria, Tyson Ross may prove the perfect fit for the Tigers this offseason.