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2020 BYB Tigers Prospects #6: LHP Joey Wentz just needs to stay the course

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The newly acquired southpaw brings quite a bit to the table.

Detroit Tigers Spring Workout Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Last July, the long awaited trade of Shane Greene netted the Detroit Tigers a somewhat toolsy outfielder in Travis Demeritte, and a left-handed pitching prospect — Joey Wentz. Trade history may not be on Wentz’s side, but he showed some skills in his sterling debut in the organization. Another step forward and he could be knocking on the door to Detroit this season.

BYB has Wentz has the fourth best pitching prospect in the system, behind only the three-headed monster of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal. Wentz is not quite at their level, but he certainly looks a potential future contributor to the Tigers rotation. And while he’s typically projected as more of a fifth starter, he’s still young enough to hope that he can surpass those expectations.

Background

The Atlanta Braves selected Wentz 40th overall back in 2016 as a prep arm from the state of Kansas. He already stood 6’5” tall and weighed 210 pounds. Capable of touching 95 mph in high school, that frame suggested there was more to come.

Wentz spent his first full season in 2017 at the Class-A level and dominated hitters several years older. He worked his way up in the Braves system to be a top ten prospect in their system, per MLB Pipeline, checking in at number seven.

Wentz hit a speed bump in 2018 at the Advanced-A level, as he spent much of the season hampered by an oblique injury and threw just 67 innings. His top velocity dipped into the high-80’s at times, and his strikeout rate dropped precipitously. Expectations for him were rolled back a little as prospect watchers waited to see how he’d rebound in 2019.

As it turned out, he got healthy and came out reinvigorated this season though it took time to really hit a good groove. Wentz looked rusty early in the season as the Braves moved him up to the Double-A level, and it took some time for the velocity and command to come around. However, by June, he was rolling. As June turned to July, Wentz racked up 35 strikeouts in a span of four starts and everything seemed to come together for him.

He became the centerpiece of the Shane Greene trade last July, and hit another gear after joining the Double-A Erie SeaWolves. Over five starts, Wentz posted a strikeout rate approaching 40 percent while trimming his walks substantially and allowing only six earned runs, good for a 2.10 ERA. After a down season in 2018, he rebounded in impressive fashion in 2019, and easily reclaimed solid prospect status within the Tigers’ top ten.

Strengths

Right now, Wentz lives off of his fastball-changeup combination and has decent command of both already. He’s sharper to his arm side, and ate right-handers up in his time with Erie by changing speeds away on the outer edge. FanGraphs projects Wentz to top out with above average command in time. His height and high arm slot produces a tough angle for hitters to begin with, and the changeup is developing into a real weapon that pulls his whole profile together.

Entering pro ball as a prep draft pick, Wentz was showing a fastball that could touch 95 mph. Those numbers dropped in 2018 as he dealt with the oblique issue, and he was in the high 80’s for parts of the year. However that rebounded with good health in 2019 and he typically sat 90-92 mph and topped out at 94 mph. Thus far, the extra heat many thought would arrive based on his tall, athletic frame hasn’t shown up, but the fastball does have some characteristics that help it play up beyond the pedestrian velocity.

The fourseamer has good riding life with a little late tail. Wentz has a spin rate only a little above average, but his high arm slot produces a heater with good straight backspin. There’s also some deception from his height and high three-quarters arm slot, and he throws with good stride length, balance and extension. As a result he’s able to go up top with the fastball for whiffs more than his velocity might lead one to expect. Without further gains in gas it’s unlikely to ever be a plus pitch for him, but it should play average with a bit more refinement.

Right now, Wentz’s changeup is often his best offering, and it consistently draws above average future grades. He has plenty of confidence in it, and will pair it liberally with the fastball while the curveball typically takes a backseat. The changeup has nice separation in velocity from the heater at around 80 mph, with good depth and some fading action as a result. When he’s throwing it well, his whole game comes together and will look better than the sum of its parts.

Combine his two best pitches with near average command, and you have a pretty useful left-hander. In time, that command is projected to be above average based on Wentz’s powerful, balanced delivery, and smooth arm action. He’s still only 22, and if 2019 is any guide, he’s still making solid progress in developing his game, so there’s also a chance he’s got another bump in stuff coming. If he can find a bit more velocity or refine his breaking ball into more of a weapon, there remains the potential for a mid-rotation starter here.

The most common projection for Wentz remains a fifth starter role. However, as a lefty with a good changeup and showing a tough angle to hitters, he could also find his niche in relief. Implementation of the three-batter minimum rule may boost the value of a reliever who can match up against a key lefty without fear of right-handed hitters batting around him.

Weaknesses

There isn’t a profile or scouting report that doesn’t mention Wentz’s injury-plagued 2018 season, and this one is no different. However, things look different on the far side of a strong 2019 campaign. The oblique issue explains the velocity drop and the inconsistency that carried over into the early part of his 2019 campaign. It’s notable that once Wentz got his legs under him, he was well dialed in from mid-June all the way to the end of the season.

For the most part, reports on his fastball are pretty good. The writeup of Wentz on Prospects Live, is not as glowing.

The fastball is below average. Not a ton of movement, some downhill plane, and pedestrian velocity. He did generate a fair amount of swings and misses on the pitch but that’s a product of the changeup and curveball.

So if the fastball plays up because of the offspeed pitches, that’s not the worst thing ever. We’d argue that the movement is actually pretty good as well. Wentz appears to have quite good spin efficiency and while the changeup is part of it, he gets plenty of whiffs and weak contact in the air against the fastball. The riding life helps the fastball and changeup play off of one another and is part of the reason Wentz generates his share of whiffs above the top of the strike zone and can sometimes badly freeze hitters with offspeed at the bottom of the zone as well.

The bigger question mark centers around the breaking ball. Wentz’s curveball has a slurvish tilt, with quality depth when he breaks off a good one, but it’s typically an inconsistent, below average offering . He has some feel for it, and knows how to use the curveball to give hitters a different look. It’s just not a pitch he can regularly lean on at this point. As MLB Pipeline mentioned in their write-up on Wentz, it needs sharper, more consistent break to become an out pitch.

Both of his secondary offerings, his changeup and curve, could be at least above-average pitches in the future. He could still stand to tighten his breaking ball a bit more. It has good shape to it, but making it a little sharper could help it become a true out pitch.

Overall, Wentz is probably limited to backend rotation projections unless he can take another step with the breaking ball. He went into this offseason stating that finding a better, more consistent breaking ball was his focus this winter, and we’ll have to see if he was able to make any progress this spring. The fastball and changeup with above average command should play decently at the major league level. It’s just a question of whether that’s enough to keep major league hitters in the park while he continues to tinker with his breaking ball.

If there’s any more velocity coming from Wentz’s big frame, 2020 should be the year we finally see it. Just modest gains with either his breaking ball or his velocity would boost him toward a mid-rotation ceiling. With a strong season behind him, look for Wentz to round into shape as roughly finished product this year. There is still some reason to hope he’s got another strong developmental step left in him at age 22, and may yet prove more than just a future innings eater.

So far however, things aren’t off to the most auspicious start in this regard.

Projected 2020 Team: Triple A Toledo Mud Hens

It wouldn’t be totally surprising if Wentz started in Erie again with a quick promotion if he does well. After a combined 25 starts at the Double A level across two systems, the Tigers might decide he’s run his course there, but jobs in the Toledo Mud Hens rotation are going to heavily contested this season. Joey Wentz pitched well overall, and impressed everyone with his entry into the Tigers’ system last summer. His feel for the changeup gives him a solid basis to advance up the food chain, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him to debut in Detroit this season.

Take a look at this Wentz changeup compilation from our friends over at Tigers Minor League Report as well.