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2019 BYB Tigers Prospect #19: Sandy Baez looks to earn a spot in the Tigers bullpen

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Baez ran out of time as a starter, but he remains a potentially useful relief arm.

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Indians Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

Sandy Baez had a rather wild 2018 season, full of highs and lows. On the one hand, he made a memorable major league debut against the New York Yankees back on June 4th, tossing 4 13 scoreless innings. On the other, the big right-hander struggled with his command again, and by season’s end the Tigers had finally made the decision to convert him to relief. Even worse, that transition went quite poorly.

While that move was long foreseen, it was a disappointment for those who’ve held Baez as something of an under-the-radar favorite in the Tigers’ system over the past few years. Now 25 years old, Baez is running out of time to parlay his monster fastball into a major league career. Something will have to break his way in 2019 or he may struggle to hold onto his spot on the 40-man roster.

Background

Baez was a late bloomer by the standards of the international free agent market. The Tigers inked him to a deal back in 2011, when he was already 18, out of the Dominican Republic. Baez was a pretty raw physical specimen, but from the beginning the fastball was impressive. The organization was patient as he struggled to develop his secondary pitches, and Baez played four years in the rookie ball levels before reaching A-ball at West Michigan in 2016.

The Tigers were forced to add him to the 40-man roster after the 2016 season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. His time in West Michigan and then at Advanced-A Lakeland in 2017 was marked by success and solid numbers, but he continued to lean heavily on his fastball. It all finally blew up in 2018 when Baez made the jump to Double-A Erie. He threw 103 23 innings for the SeaWolves, and was rocked for 19 home runs, and a 5.64 ERA. By the time the smoke cleared, Sandy Baez found himself in the bullpen.

Strengths

Baez packs a huge fastball that has topped out at 100 mph. The upside here is pretty clear. More than any other reason, Baez has gotten a lot of leash from the Tigers because the heater is such an imposing weapon. He simply blew hitters in the A-ball levels away. But as you’d expect, he wasn’t able to carry that into Double-A, largely because his secondaries don’t command enough respect and Baez isn’t exactly a precision strike thrower.

In his brief major league stint this season, Statcast reports that Baez averaged 95.1 mph on his fourseamer. Baez has a quiet, easy delivery yet generates a deceptive amount of armspeed anyway. As a reliever, you can probably expect him to sit between 96-98 mph with a little extra in the tank. Major league hitters aren’t going to be dazzled, but he presents timing issues as well as serious gas to any hitter.

His spin rate is a little on the low side for fastballs with that kind of velocity. Altogether, his fastball looks more like a power sinker than a riding high spin fourseamer. But the combination of spin and angle, at that velocity, has regularly drawn double plus grades for the fastball from FanGraphs and other prospect sites. As a starter, that evaluation seemed a bit effusive, but as a reliever, Baez should be able to live up to it.

Baez also doesn’t have major control issues. He doesn’t issue too many walks and is around the zone, though better hitters who can handle velocity will lay off Baez’s heater. There was a good deal more hard contact and fewer whiffs when he moved up to the Double-A level this year. It’s an excellent fastball, but because his effectiveness relies so much on one pitch, he needs to improve his command to be able to thrive in the major leagues.

Weaknesses

Baez real weakness lies in the quality of his secondary offerings. There is added pressure on his fastball and on his command, because he doesn’t have another plus pitch to back it up. At age 25, progress on both his splitter and his slider stagnated for years, and only recently have those pitches shown signs of life.

He converted to a split-finger fastball as his changeup several years ago, and the pitch has improved to the point that it’s an average offering. Baez threw 39 of them during his short time in the major leagues this season. The average spin rate on it was an extremely low 1345 rpm, with an average velocity of 86.4 mph. That’s a little harder than you’d prefer, but the lack of spin really gives the splitter a lot of sink. Unfortunately, inconsistency and mediocre velocity separation from his fastball combine to limit expectations for it ever being a real weapon.

Finding a breaking ball has been the central struggle of Baez’s young career. He’s tinkered with various offerings over the years, and settled in with a revamped slider over the past two seasons. He got into a groove with it at times in 2018, and while it’s slower than average, Baez does get reasonably good depth on it. He had better command of the slider this season as well, but it still lacks the finish of a plus pitch.

He also likes to throw it for strikes, trying to freeze hitters waiting on the fastball. Some of those were effective at the Double-A level, but they flat out give me the willies imagining your average major league hitter at the dish. His whole arsenal might play better if he were more apt to locate at the bottom of the zone, but Baez tends to live up more than is perhaps advisable with his pitch mix.

Overall, it’s a narrowing path for Sandy Baez. The Tigers converted him to relief in June, in a bid to let him air out his heater and get the most from his best pitch. So far, the transition has been a rocky one. Baez posted an ERA over 6.00 in the second half as part of the SeaWolves’ bullpen. He fared no better in a stint in the Arizona Fall League. But there are still flashes of improvement, and enough potential, for the Tigers to remain very interested in Sandy Baez for at least one more season.

The Tigers hope that in 2019, they’ll see a Sandy Baez who can refine his fastball command a bit, and who storms out of the bullpen in attack mode. If he’s able to settle into a bullpen routine, and prepare himself for short, max effort outings, there’s still a decent chance that Baez can become a useful reliever. Able to turn it loose, his secondary pitches should play up a little. Imagine something roughly like good Neftali Feliz as a ceiling, and you get the idea.

Projected 2019 Team: Toledo Mud Hens

There is a lot of pitching talent in the upper levels of the Tigers’ farm system at this point. Baez has cracked the majors already, and should be expected to contribute at the major league level again this season. However, he probably won’t win a starting role in the Tigers bullpen this spring without a monster performance in camp. Look for him to form a pretty formidable Triple-A bullpen alongside pitchers like Zac Houston, Bryan Garcia, and John Schreiber, and be among the first called up to Detroit.