It’s funny how quickly things change in baseball. At this time last year, many Detroit Tigers fans were worried about Justin Upton. While he had finished the 2016 season with a flurry of home runs, he struggled for the better part of that season. With five years and more than $100 million left on his contract at the time, few people expected him to live up to expectations, let alone perform well enough to exercise his opt-out clause at the end of the 2017 season.
Then 2017 happened. Upton had perhaps the most consistent year of his career, and one of his best all-around seasons since he finished fourth in NL MVP voting in 2011. The Tigers couldn’t follow suit, though, and traded Upton to the Los Angeles Angels just prior to the August 31 waiver trade deadline. With Upton likely to opt out at the end of the season, it was a savvy move by general manager Al Avila to recoup something for the star outfielder.
Turns out, this trade could look pretty good down the road. In return, the Tigers received two minor league pitchers. We already profiled righthander Elvin Rodriguez, who has added velocity over the past year. However, the immediate return is righthander Grayson Long, a 23-year-old righty who had a strong season in the Angels system last summer.
Long was drafted out of high school by the Seattle Mariners back in 2012, but he opted for college instead. After three impressive years at Texas A&M, Long was drafted by the Angels in 2015. He struggled in his first taste of pro ball, but was hardly allowed to get comfortable — he logged just 19 2⁄3 innings in 12 appearances. He spent a large chunk of the 2016 season dealing with biceps tendonitis, which limited him to just 65 innings across three levels. However, the majority of that playing time came at Single-A Burlington, where he posted a 1.58 ERA and a 28.1 percent strikeout rate in 40 frames.
Once healthy in 2017, Long took off. He made a few starts at High-A Inland Empire, striking out 14 batters in 12 innings before he was promoted to Double-A Mobile. Long made 23 starts for the BayBears, compiling a 2.52 ERA and 3.07 FIP in 121 2⁄3 innings. He struck out just under a batter per inning and walked fewer than three batters per nine, resulting in a solid 14.9 percent K-BB%.
Standing 6’5 and weighing 230 pounds, Long is built to eat innings. The biceps issue that plagued him throughout the 2016 season is the only significant injury he has experienced in his college or professional career, and he bounced back without trouble in 2017. He combines his large frame with an easy, repeatable delivery that helps him keep the ball around the strike zone. He doesn’t have plus command, but was able to limit walks against more advanced hitters in Double-A last season.
Long doesn’t have an electric arsenal, but he has three solid offerings that he can throw for strikes. His fastball, considered a league average pitch by MLB Pipeline, sits in the lower 90s during starts with little effort decent life. He can ramp it up to 95 mph at times, and would comfortably sit in the mid-90s if transitioned to a bullpen role. He has shown flashes of being able to command the fastball better than his other pitches, and it can potential show as an above-average or even plus offering when he spots it well.
Long’s slider and changeup have received mixed reviews. MLB Pipeline considers his slider his best overall pitch, a potential above-average offering. TigsTown’s Mark Anderson also graded it above-average, but noted that Long “lacks a true swing-and-miss offering.” Our friends at Halos Heaven graded Long’s changeup as a plus offering, while back in 2016, FanGraphs’ Dan Farnsworth graded Long’s changeup just a hair better than the slider. Others have said it needs a little work, though.
As a relatively polished college arm coming off a great season in Double-A, Long doesn’t have any glaring flaws. However, his overall profile is more solid than sexy, and he doesn’t project to be much more than a back-end starter at the major league level. His fastball has solid velocity and decent life, but doesn’t explode like you would expect from a pitcher with Long’s enormous frame. His high fly ball rate hints at a fairly high spin rate on the pitch, but we can’t say for sure.
Both of Long’s secondary pitches could also use more refinement. As noted above, Long’s slider isn’t a real swing-and-miss offering. Multiple sources have said it’s a useful pitch, but no one thinks it will ever become a true weapon. The same goes for the changeup, which most feel needs a little more work than the slider. The changeup, in particular, is key for Long’s ability to stick as a starter; if he can develop that into an average (or better) pitch, it improves his ability to keep lefties at bay at higher levels.
Projected team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
After a full season at Double-A, there isn’t much projection left for Long. He will spend most of the year in Triple-A continuing to refine his command and secondary pitches, and could be called up to the majors at any point should a Tigers starter suffer an injury. If things go well, we could see Long competing for a starting job in 2019, if not sooner. If not, there’s still time. Given his quick ascent through the minors, Long will still have three minor league options to burn after this season, leaving room for error if he struggles at Triple-A this year.
h/t Baseball Census for the video