One of the more difficult questions teams face when developing pitchers in the minor leagues is when to switch them from the rotation to the bullpen (or vice versa, in some cases). Starters are almost always the more valuable commodity, especially given the importance of rotation depth in the modern game. If a pitcher has the potential to be a starter, they should be given plenty of chances to do so.
But what is the cutoff point? Some pitchers simply profile better as relievers. Either because their raw stuff improves, or their command is subpar, or they don’t have a diverse enough arsenal to work through a lineup multiple times. The Detroit Tigers seemingly timed the switch perfectly with lefthander Jairo Labourt last season, who had a breakout year in the minor leagues. Likewise, one wonders if they could have squeezed a bit more value out of former prospects Andy Oliver or Casey Crosby had either been shuttled to the bullpen a bit sooner.
Detroit’s latest test case is righthander Sandy Baez. A hard-throwing Dominican who just reached Double-A in his age-23 season last year, Baez has the high-octane stuff teams crave in the later innings. He also has the build to handle a starter’s workload, and a pair of improving secondary pitches. Moving him to the ‘pen might be more of a “when” rather than an “if,” but the organization seems content to leave him in the rotation for now.
The Tigers signed Baez as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic back in 2011. He spent two years in the Dominican Summer League before coming stateside in 2014. That season, he posted a 3.06 ERA with a solid 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60 2⁄3 innings in the Gulf Coast League. He backtracked somewhat the next year in the New York-Penn League, allowing a 4.13 ERA while his walk rate rose to around three walks per nine innings.
It wasn’t until 2016 that Baez’s prospect status started to rise. He put up a modest 3.81 ERA and 18.4 percent strikeout rate at Single-A West Michigan, but did so while logging a career-high 113 1⁄3 innings and a career-low 5.9 percent walk rate. Hitters had a hard time squaring up his mid-90s fastball, resulting in just seven home runs allowed in 21 starts. He pitched another 98 2⁄3 innings across two levels in 2017, most in the High-A Florida State League. Baez continued to develop here, upping his strikeout rate to 24.7 percent while keeping his walk rate low. His 18.3 percent K-BB% was a career-best, and he held opponents to a 3.86 ERA. He earned the briefest of call-ups to Double-A Erie at the end of the year, and struck out 13 batters in two starts.
Baez’s best pitch is a power fastball, a true double-plus offering that could potentially reach elite (80-grade) levels if he transitions to the bullpen. TigsTown’s Mark Anderson notes that it touches triple digits at times, and the TigsTown staff ranked Baez’s heater as the best one in the system among starters.
Most evaluators expect Baez to eventually move into the bullpen, but there’s little debate about his fastball, which is a blistering offering that sits in the mid-90s, hits the high-90s multiple times a game, and stays firm late into his outings. If and when he moves to relief his fastball could play up even more and be a borderline elite pitch.
FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen also gave Baez’s fastball a 70 grade prior to the 2017 season, and praised him for throwing “a starter-worthy ratio of strikes.” MLB Pipeline has the fastball a half-tick lower, but they are typically very stingy about giving away double-plus and elite grades. Multiple sources, including Longenhagen, have noted that Baez’s fastball develops a bit more movement at lower velocities, which might be a point in his favor toward sticking in the rotation.
That Baez is able to maintain his velocity deep into starts is testament to his sturdy build. Standing 6’2 and weighing 180 pounds, Baez should be able to stand up to the rigors of a full MLB season as a starter. He has already logged 113 innings in a season, and was a nagging oblique away from eclipsing that total last year. He is a good athlete as well, though that hasn’t quite translated to smooth, repeatable mechanics quite yet.
Both of Baez’s secondary pitches lag far behind his excellent fastball. The changeup is the better of the two, and has become more consistent over the past year. MLB Pipeline graded it as an average pitch, saying “the bottom drops out of it when he throws it right.” TigsTown’s Mark Anderson notes that Baez actually throws two versions of the changeup, with the “fosh” change showing a splitter-like action. Both pitches still lack consistency, though his improved strikeout rate last season speaks to its development.
Meanwhile, Baez’s slider still looks like a below-average offering. MLB Pipeline’s 45 grade was nicer than their actual comments, while Longenhagen notes that he actually changes his mechanics somewhat when throwing it.
The curveball is short and Baez decelerates his arm to baby it into the strike zone, while his changeup feel hasn’t come. Baez’s delivery is direct enough to the plate that he throws strikes, but it also features some effort/noise that makes it hard for Baez to have surgical command.
While Baez has posted solid walk rates throughout his minor league career, the iffy secondaries and subpar command have limited his overall upside. The command, in particular, is a little problematic due to those inconsistent mechanics mentioned above. Those mistakes don’t tend to bite minor league pitchers when they’re coming in at 98 miles per hour, but they certainly will at the major league level.
Projected team: Double-A Erie Seawolves
As an amateur free agent signee who has taken a little while to develop, Baez is already on the 40-man roster and burning through minor league options. The 2018 season will be his second option year, and will soon put the Tigers under a roster crunch. Luckily, he’s not far off. Baez pitched 10 innings at the Double-A level last season and should spend most of 2018 in the Eastern League, continuing to hone his command and secondary offerings. A big season could put him in line for a 2019 debut — or even a cup of coffee this September — while a rough year might finally consign him to the bullpen for good.
h/t 2080 Baseball for the video