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Tigers ink right-hander Michael Lorenzen to a one year contract, per report

Scott Harris is serious about his rotation depth.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Oakland Athletics Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers bulked up their starting rotation once again on Wednesday evening. Reports emerged that President of Baseball Operations Scott Harris is signing long-time Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Michael Lorenzen to a one-year deal worth $8.5 million, with another $1.5 million available in incentives. The deal is not yet official, and is pending a physical. Lorenzen should assume the final open spot on the Tigers’ 40-man roster.

The 30-year-old right-hander was drafted by the Reds back in 2013, and spent most of his career in that organization. Initially a fairly hard-throwing starting pitcher, many of Lorenzen’s best seasons came out of the Reds’ bullpen from 2016-2021. He earned a little extra notoriety for his .195 ISO in 147 MLB plate appearances, generally as a pinch hitter against lefties. In 2022, he finally reached free agency and signed a one-year deal from a Los Angeles Angels club that badly needing starting pitching depth and was committed to using Lorenzen in that role.

After a good start to the season, Lorenzen struggled more in June and eventually went on the injured list with a shoulder strain, missing most of July and all of August. He returned and was good over his final five starts, blanking the A’s in two consecutive starts with 15 punchouts in 11 total innings. Overall he threw 97.2 innings, making 18 starts, with a 4.24 ERA and 4.31 FIP.

Under the hood

Lorenzen’s game has always been built on a mix of mid-90’s fastballs. He moved away from his sinker in 2020-2021, leaning heavily into his high spin (2439 rpms) fourseamer, but last year with the Angels he brought the sinker usage back closer to a 50/50 mix. The fourseamer averaged 94.6 mph, which is still above average for a starting pitcher, and Lorenzen still has the high 90’s gas in his tank when he really needs it.

Neither fastball was hit much in 2022 despite pedestrian whiff rates. Lorenzen tended to lean on the fourseamer a little more against lefties, and the sinker in on the hands of right-handers. Both fastballs get above average horizontal break, with the sinker dropping seven inches more than the fourseam on average with some deviation. The fourseam ride is a little mediocre despite a good spin rate and gets only 90 percent active spin on average. The Tigers may believe they can tweak that and differentiate the two fastball types a bit more.

Lorenzen doesn’t have an eye-popping slider or changeup, but both of them are quality pitches. His 90 mph cutter has rarely been as effective, and he’s basically ditched it and his curveball both. Really though, stuff isn’t the issue. He’s never been much of a strikeout artist, but gets plenty of ground balls and just doesn’t get hit that hard. Despite pitching in Great American Ballpark all those years, he’s never had notable home run issues. The problem has generally been walks, which don’t gel well with a fairly high contact profile.

The Cincinnati Reds are a club that has started to catch up in terms of pitch design and modern pitching development in recent years. We’re big fans of Chris Fetter and Juan Nieves’ work, and look forward to new assistant Robin Lund joining the pitching braintrust, but there may just not be much more meat on the bone here. On the other hand, the Angels are not noted for their pitcher development at all and Lorenzen largely worked in a relief role in Cincy. The job and the tools required for starting are a little different. The Tigers may have a little something to help him squeeze more out of his game.

Michael Lorenzen 2019-2022

Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 ERA fWAR
Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 ERA fWAR
2019-Reds 83.1 3.66 24.8 8.2 0.97 2.92 1.3
2020-Reds 33.2 3.87 23.8 11.6 0.80 4.28 0.5
2021-Reds 29.0 4.17 16.8 11.2 0.62 5.59 0.2
2022-Angels 97.2 4.31 20.7 10.7 1.01 4.24 1.0

Scott Harris believes in rotation depth

The 2022 Detroit Tigers’ offense was the worst in baseball, scoring just 557 runs. So it’s certainly surprising that Harris’ first moves have been to shore up a rotation that appeared to be among the least of the organization’s worries. Lorenzen, like Matthew Boyd, is a perfectly fine signing for depth in a vacuum, but in the context of the current roster the combination of them both is a little surprising.

The Tigers currently have Eduardo Rodriguez, Spencer Turnbull, Matthew Boyd, Matt Manning, and Rule 5 selection Mason Englert slated for the starting active roster. We’ll assume lefty Tyler Alexander is bullpen bound. Lorenzen makes six starting pitchers, assuming that’s how they’re going to use him. He seemed dead set on returning to starting last offseason, and the price the Tigers paid would suggest they see him in the same light.

However, the Tigers do have quite a bit of quality depth that now appears relegated to the minor leagues. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but pitchers like Beau Brieske, Joey Wentz, and Alex Faedo have already handled the Triple-A level and then acquitted themselves decently well in their major league debuts in 2022. Perhaps they’ll use Faedo in the bullpen and keep Brieske in Toledo with the third best pitching prospect in the organization, Reese Olson.

Clearly we’re in for talk of “open competition” this spring, but the fact remains that of the current six in the rotation, only Manning can be optioned to the minors, though certainly Englert could simply be released or used in a swingman role.

Wentz in particular pitched well and in refining his new cutter late in the season, looked to have really leveled up and continued to show good command of his whole arsenal in dominating the Arizona Fall League in October to build up his innings count on the year. Maybe Harris just isn’t buying it yet, but the big lefty appeared to set to earn a role with a good spring camp, particularly from an organization that appears fully back in development mode.

Obviously the strategy with Boyd and Lorenzen is to get them off to a good first half, and then seek to add farm system depth by trading them in July. At that point, the younger pitchers will have their say and hopefully Tarik Skubal is also back on the mound beyond the All-Star break. You can’t go wrong having lots of starting pitching depth, and perhaps the strategic side for Harris lies in ensuring that the Tigers don’t deal with the disappearance of half their projected rotation in April once again. The stability provided by a deep pool of starters could help them avoid the out of the gate collapse in April and May that has marked manager A.J. Hinch’s first two seasons in the captain’s chair. Assuming they can also improve the lineup.

Final thoughts

During Al Avila’s tanking years, he did occasionally pick up a starter who was decent, but the Tigers weren’t really in position to develop pitching at that point, and they never leaned into the idea, nor had much success. It feels like Harris has begun by executing what is a fairly common strategy among wise rebuilding clubs. Stockpile players you have a chance of improving or at least getting quality production from, and then deal them for prospects.

You’re not getting any blue chippers that way, and you have to actually be good at developing players in some capacity for it to work, but the strategy is sound. With better scouting and development in the organization now, hopefully they can do this more effectively than the previous front office. At least the Tigers should begin the season in better shape on the pitching front. The possibility of a deal for one of their other starters this winter also remains in play.

While it’s easy to understand the reasons for Harris putting together this much starting depth, the actual investment is still surprising considering that they have about half a major league lineup on the roster at this point. With the reported incentives, the Tigers have potentially committed over $20 million to a solid pair of backend starters. Meanwhile, they’ve non-tendered four of their top seven hitters from 2022 and trimmed Jeimer Candelario’s projected $7 million salary from the roster. Certainly that’s a dubious distinction considering the actual production of Candelario, Harold Castro, Willi Castro, and Victor Reyes, but the fact remains that the offense is possibly worse right now.

We have to assume that Harris is not just going to let the offense completely die on the vine. The big bats are off the board, but there are still some potentially useful hitters available. The trade market still seems the most likely place for Harris to work, even if he does settle on a reclamation project like Brian Anderson or Edwin Rios at third base. If he could deal a pitcher for another quality prospect he likes, perhaps he’d feel more comfortable dealing from the farm system to add a bat. One way or the other, it isn’t going to do the 2023 Tigers much good to be loaded with starting pitching with an offense shot full of holes.

Hopefully Harris has some tricks up his sleeve to improve the offense. We still have two months until pitchers and catchers report. Hang in there.