One player you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about this spring, is reliever Jose Cisnero. The big right-hander has pitched the late innings quite a bit in Grapefruit League action, but typically hasn’t faced opponents’ starting lineup as a result. Yet despite being a non-roster invitee with no spot on the 40-man roster, Cisnero is still getting regular reps in major league camp as spring training winds down. That tells you the Tigers like him.
Of course, the Tigers themselves will tell you they like him.
Cisnero has had a long road back to this opportunity. He was signed as an 18-year-old out of the Dominican Republic by the Houston Astros all the way back in 2007, yet hasn’t thrown a pitch in the major leagues since 2014. His peak came in 2013, when he posted a 4.12 ERA across 43 2⁄3 innings for the Astros in his rookie campaign. He was a hard-thrower who could rack up some strikeouts, but was still a little too wild for primetime.
The next spring, he was pitching for the Astros when he blew out his UCL, requiring Tommy John surgery. He returned briefly in 2015, but elected free agency in November of that year and was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Unfortunately, Cisnero didn’t make the team out of spring training, and couldn’t latch on anywhere else. He’s spent the past two seasons playing in Mexico and in the Dominican. The Tigers signed him to a minor league contract in November of 2018, and he’s done nothing but impress in spring camp.
Back in his major league days, Cisnero typically sat around 94 mph, relying heavily on a slider that averaged 86 mph. The stuff he’s featured this spring has been rather eye-popping by comparison.
The following gifs are from Cisnero’s save on Wednesday against Philadelphia. You’ll first see him spot a 97 mph two seamer at the bottom of the zone for a first pitch strike. That’s catcher Bobby Wilson on the assist.
The first fastball is well located, though probably a touch below the knees. Next, you’ll see him overthrow one at 99 mph and while his arm is late and he misses up and in, it’s right on the edge with a lot of tailing action.
Cisnero’s idea of a breaking ball these days streaks in there at 92 mph with cutter-ish movement. Maybe he calls it a Warthern slider, maybe it’s a cut fastball, cutter, slider, or what have you. Just look.
One way or another, that is a far different pitch from Cisnero’s old 86 mph slider from his Astros days. This one sails a little on him too, but after you’ve seen the tailing heater in the high-90’s, that’ll lock you up. Wilson wanted it down, and on the very next pitch calls for it again. This time Cisnero locates it perfectly at the bottom of the zone.
You don’t see the release, because the broadcast missed it, but you still get a sense of the downward bite on that sucker, and at 92 mph to boot. A quick perusal of the Toledo Mud Hens’ bullpen tells me there are maybe two guys with stuff that explosive. And while we haven’t gotten to see him much, his control has been good, with two walks to eight strikeouts in 7 2⁄3 innings.
Even back in his time with the Astros, Cisnero had good stuff, but still fringe command. Quite possibly that hasn’t changed, and if we see him in majors, perhaps he’ll just remind us of Angel Nesbitt or something. But, Cisnero looks trimmed down a little and more explosive off the mound than he did at age 25. The velocity is up, and the two pitches he’s showing having plenty of potential if he can continue to spot them. If he finally earns his way back to the major leagues after four years in the wilderness, he’ll be an interesting guy to cheer on, and just maybe, the legitimate power reliever GM Jeff Luhnow and the Astros once hoped they had on their hands.