The Tigers have few strengths, but in the upcoming season, one of their better areas will be pitching depth. The team is carrying 30 pitchers on the 60-man roster and will probably feature most of them in the major leagues at some point during the season. The starting rotation is nearly set unless injury or illness takes hold of the situation, but the bullpen remains a wide open contest.
One player who could force his way onto the Opening Day roster is righty Shao-Ching Chiang.
The only pitchers assured a place among the relief core are Buck Farmer and Joe Jimenez, the pitchers entrusted with high-leverage situations once Shane Greene departed for Atlanta. With a large number of spots yet unclaimed and so many candidates to take them, the Tigers’ bullpen could take on any number of shapes depending on how each pitcher performs in Summer Camp.
Chiang has spend the entirety of his stateside league career in the Cleveland farm system, but he got beat up a bit last year in Triple-A. Being too old for priority prospect status, he was allowed to walk as a minor league free agent over the offseason and latched on with Detroit on a minor league deal.
He didn’t come to the team with much fanfare, but Chiang could be one of the missing ingredients to a more consistent late-inning effort in Detroit. He was never a standout as a starting pitcher, but a transition to relief may give his career new life. Failed starters are converted to pitch in relief all the time, of course, and it doesn’t work out far more often than it does. However, in Chiang’s case, there are some reasons to hope things will click into place when he’s utilized in shorter bursts.
For one thing, the problem with his arsenal was never his fastball velocity. In the climate of today’s game, a relief pitcher without significant oomph behind his heater will struggle to stay afloat, but that’s not a concern for Chiang. His velocity sits in the mid-90s and it flirts with 98 miles per hour when he dials it up. That’s more than enough to survive in a relief role.
Another facet of the situation is that a big part of the reason he struggled as a starter will be neutralized in relief; namely, the lack of a quality third pitch. Virtually anyone who wants to succeed as a starting pitcher needs at least three quality offerings, but Chiang only has two. He can’t consistently throw a quality breaking ball, but his heater pairs with a change-piece with good velocity separation and some fade to make for a quality one-two punch.
There are plenty of ways this plan could go wrong. There are frequent complaints that his fastball straightens out too much, and the velocity plays down a bit due to a lack of length and extension. The lack of a consistent breaking pitch means that Chiang will get slapped around when his changeup is off.
More importantly, his command wasn’t particularly good as a starter. One hopes that in short bursts he can find a groove and locate more effectively, but it’s far from a sure thing. Chiang features an upright delivery with a tight, short armpath and tends to get badly out of whack at times. He’ll look great for an inning and then lose his armslot completely for a few pitches. Perhaps, in short outings, he can find more consistency.
On the other hand, what do the Tigers have to lose by trying giving him a real shot? If he pitches well in Summer Camp, what do the Tigers have to lose by riding the hot streak? The Tigers themselves seem to be suitably impressed so far, and Chiang may have the inside track on a 30-man roster spot at this point.
Regardless of what comes about, Detroit gave themselves an opportunity to learn about Chiang when they signed the power righty over the offseason. So they may as well take advantage of the expanded active rosters to give him a decent look in late July and August. If they like what they see, they gained a useful player and gave up nothing in the process.
The Taiwanese hurler’s quest to earn a roster spot will be interesting to follow as the summer unfolds.