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Detroit Tigers bullpen taking shape as Opening Day nears

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There are still spots available but the dance card is filling up quickly in the final week of camp.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

After a brief Summer Camp, the Detroit Tigers will announce their final decisions on the pitching staff by the deadline on Wednesday. With the season set to open on Friday, July 24 away against the Cincinnati Reds, we’re in the final approach to having major league baseball back in our lives.

Presumably, many of the bullpen decisions were already in ink when spring training came to a halt back in March. But with the expanded roster to start the season, there are potentially 11-12 spots available in the bullpen and a fairly wide-open field of pitchers who could still seize a spot with a standout performance.

While the roster size offers a lot of extra flexibility, the short camp and some of the rule changes are really going to challenge teams in putting together their relief corps. Many aren’t going to have their expected starting rotation ready to go. Others are going to be looking for an extra left-hander who doesn’t have terrible splits against right-handed hitters to counter the new three-batter minimum rule.

The Tigers themselves have already lost Jordan Zimmermann, while Daniel Norris has yet to report to camp as he waits to test negative for COVID-19. There are going to be holes to fill until the rotation comes together. They do have a few lefties to choose from, so that may not be issue initially.

The process of sorting out who likely staying in Detroit is made all the more difficult because we don’t have the usual trimming of camp down to the essentials of a starting active roster.

Pitchers spent nearly four months on the shelf with varying degrees of ability to stay sharp. While some had access to pro training partners and facilities, others were forced to make due with home workouts and light throwing. The Tigers have to weigh readiness into their calculations, and that’s hard to handicap from the outside.

Some of these decisions will be easy. But there are enough spots available that a strong finish to camp may be enough to boost a pitcher’s stock and get them on the active roster. Let’s take a quick look through the leaders and laggards in the Tigers’ Summer Camp and size up how the Opening Day bullpen should come together.

The Locks

As one might expect from a Detroit Tigers’ bullpen, this is a small group. Joe Jimenez has an apparent lock on the closer’s role, despite a shaky season last year. The big right-hander posted a 4.66 FIP on an ERA of 4.37 in 2019. The strikeouts continue to pile up, but Jimenez allowed too many home runs last year, and only occasionally had his breaking ball working consistently. In his third year as a featured part of the bullpen, it’s time for Jimenez to finally take the closer’s role and run with it. Early returns in camp have been lackluster, but when the season begins, Jimenez is going to have the ninth inning.

Buck Farmer, meanwhile, was the team’s best reliever once Shane Greene was dealt to Atlanta last July. Sub-4.00 FIP and ERA marks made 2019 easily his best year as a professional. After years of being plugged in wherever he was needed in the moment, the Tigers finally found a consistent role for him and Farmer thrived working the seventh and eighth innings. The development of his long absent breaking ball was the major development in his game. If he can carry that into this short season, his tough three-pitch mix and improving command bode well for further success in the setup role.

Finally, Rule 5 selection Rony Garcia is pretty much guaranteed to land on the Opening Day roster. He would have to be offered back to the New York Yankees otherwise. The 22-year-old has looked much better in camp than he did back in March, and has the pitch mix and experience to go multiple innings should the need arise. If his command is on, the Tigers will have an interesting weapon with a deceptive look. If not, he’s still easily stashed in mop-up duty while they evaluate how to proceed with Garcia in 2021.

Long Relief/Spot Starters

Right now, the Tigers rotation looks to consist of Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Ivan Nova, Michael Fulmer, and ultimately Daniel Norris once he’s gotten some work in with the taxi squad. For now though, they need something to fill in for Norris, and Fulmer is still getting settled in on his comeback trail from UCL and knee surgeries. He’s unlikely to be back to full power in the near future and the Tigers will want to manage his workload.

Factor in the potential for injury or positive tests for COVID-19, and the need for pitchers who can provide multiple innings of relief, or give them starts on short notice, is pretty obvious, particularly until Norris is back .

The rotation is going to feature at least one starter on a limited workload early on. Long relievers capable of making a spot start or “piggybacking” a starter in the middle innings are going to be required. Probably several of them. In addition, the three batter minimum rule is going to add value to left-handers that have a changeup or otherwise manage relatively modest splits.

Based on that, and how they’ve pitched in camp and in their work in Detroit, expect Tyler Alexander and Nick Ramirez. Both were unimpressive in Friday’s intrasquad action, but were effective in 2019 and have generally looked solid in camp.

Veteran lefty Hector Santiago doesn’t seem to have impressed much in either spring nor summer camp. While he might be serviceable enough to help out early in the year, a trip to Toledo or his release seem the likely outcomes without a standout performance over the final week.

Dario Agrazal can eat some innings with a decent sinker, and the Tigers liked him enough to claim him last fall last fall. However, his secondary pitches are mediocre and durability is probably his strongest selling point. He makes more sense as the “on-call” spot starter working out of Toledo.

Finally, Kyle Funkhouser is a once interesting prospect who topped out early and has been rather lost the past few seasons. A move to relief has been long in coming, but in his age-26 season it’s time to try it at the major league level and see if he sinks or swims. In his last Summer Camp outing he looked about as good as we’ve seen from him over the last few years. The fastball and slider were both moving fairly well, and he was able to locate them both. A new role could rejuvenate his hopes for a major league career.

The Tigers may let him get used to the rhythm of bullpen work a little longer before he gets the call, but he’s on the clock this year and needs to do something to remain relevant.

Middle relief depth

This group brings a lot of major league quality stuff to the table in flawed packages. Cisnero and Soto seem to have the most certainty, as they give the bullpen a power fastball from either side of the mound with solid breaking balls to match. The issue is, as you’d expect, locating said quality stuff. Neither has been consistent in the early going, but their best outings have certainly showcased the stuff to get major league hitters out in short outings.

Bryan Garcia was perhaps the Tigers best relief prospect when he went under the knife for UCL surgery in early 2018. Their sixth round selection in the 2016 draft after a strong junior season as Miami’s closer, Garcia didn’t quite look like himself when he returned to the mound in 2019, but has shown glimpses of his old self in camp this year. Garcia doesn’t really have a true plus pitch, but a quality three-pitch mix plays up due to his smarts and ability to locate. If he has his fastball velocity he could move quickly up the depth chart.

Nolan Blackwood and Shao-Shing Chiang have probably been the the two relief candidates whose stock has risen most.

Chiang was picked up after being released by Cleveland where he worked as a starter. Back in March he opened some eyes with mid-90’s heat and a pretty effective changeup. The breaking balls lag in quality, but he also may have an edge in the fact that he’s used to going multiple innings. The Tigers will value guys like that in the early going with the expanded roster and a hole in the rotation.

David McKay was added late in the 2019 season after the Seattle Mariners released him. McKay packs a tight high spin curveball but hasn’t shown enough ability to locate. With a fairly pedestrian heater, he will occasionally throw darts and drop jaws for an inning or two, but has never been able to stay locked in.

Beau Burrows is a former first-rounder and has looked better in summer camp after a rough spring training. His fastball-breaker combination could make him an effective steup man if he can find his groove in relief. The Tigers have used him in multiple inning outings, and with his starting experience it’s not impossible he could get a look right away if the coaching staff feels the need.

Blackwood is a sidearm slinger with a good fastball-slider combination against right-handers in particular. He chewed up right-handers in the Eastern League last year, and may be ready for the jump if used judiciously. Manager Ron Gardenhire likes to have a reliever or two with an atypical look, and Blackwood might fit the bill.

The final few relief candidates are on the outside looking in right now.

John Schreiber’s near-sidearm delivery and quality slider got him a look with the Tigers late last year. The need for a more impressive changeup was clear and that’s been Schreiber’s focus in the interim. So far he’s stuggled in camp and probably needs to get it going before the Tigers consider him. On the other hand, he’s pitched at the level before whereas Blackwood would be jumping to the majors almost straight from Double-A.

Castro has a nasty wipeout slider and a hard cutting fourseamer. He turned into a strikeout machine last season despite ongoing command issues, but so far this year he hasn’t been very impressive. The Tigers will be patient with Burrows, but the 25-year-old Castro needs to show something this year to retain his place on the 40-man roster.

The Prospects

Of the Tigers stockpile of high quality pitching prospects, Casey Mize seems most likely to get a look at the major leagues sometime this season. Franklin Perez has barely pitched in his three seasons in the organization, and the club is presumably more concerned with keeping him healthy than with trying to push him into a major league relief role. He is on the 40-man roster however, and his stuff looks relatively undiminished. Maybe he gets a bit of relief work at some point. Alex Faedo hasn’t been able to report to camp, which is too bad as a strong showing could’ve seen him get a look while the Tigers wait for Norris to return.

The Tigers may have no interest in calling up Matt Manning or Tarik Skubal this season. Manning hasn’t really taken a step forward in his looks in spring and summer camp, while Skubal was popping eyeballs with his stuff back in March, but remains on the 10-day injured list without having reported to camp. There isn’t much point if they’re only going to get minimal exposure. However, attrition and the outside possibility that the Tigers could post a competitive record for a while, could change those plans if either hits his stride and is throwing well with the taxi squad.

Finally, relief prospects Zach Hess and Alex Lange were both added to the taxi squad last week. Neither is really expected to do anything beyond continuing their development work. However, either could eventually be called upon once they settle in should the need arise.

Here’s our best guess

We’re invariably going to miss on a couple, but let’s take a stab at the Opening Day bullpen. The Tigers may well take as many of 12 relievers initially to help cover for the open rotation spot, but we’ll stick with 11.

Nick Ramirez, Hector Santiago, Dario Agrazal, and Shao Ching Chiang are all non-roster invitees, and would need a 40-man roster spot to join the major league roster. The removal of Jordan Zimmermann to the 45-day IL does open up an extra spot.

Give us your best guess at the Opening Day bullpen in the comments.

  1. Joe Jimenez
  2. Buck Farmer
  3. Rony Garcia
  4. Tyler Alexander
  5. Nick Ramirez
  6. Kyle Funkhouser
  7. Gregory Soto
  8. Jose Cisnero
  9. David McKay
  10. Bryan Garcia
  11. Shao Ching-Chiang