In the 2021 amateur draft, the Detroit Tigers made a decided push to bolster their pitching pipeline. Five of their first six selections were starting pitchers, power arms all, with Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden leading the way. The system had gotten a little thin in pitching with the graduation of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning. However, the Tigers actually saw some nice progress on the pitching side in 2021, and the pitching depth in the upper minors was bolstered by the return of lefty Joey Wentz from UCL reconstruction.
Now, with former first rounder Alex Faedo due to return from UCL reconstruction this spring, a trade for a nice starting prospect in Reese Olson, and a breakout season from Beau Brieske, the Tigers do have some potentially useful starters in the upper minors. They still need rotation depth, but may be able to get more of internally if their young pitchers can tighten things up a bit. After an up and down season in his return to action last year, it will be Wentz who has the inside track due to his superior command and good changeup. His ceiling isn’t as high as Olson’s, for example, but he’s a lot more likely to be ready to contribute this season. That’s enough to earn him ninth place in our Tigers’ farm system rankings this year.
Joey Wentz is 24, and a Kansas native who was born in Lawrence. Good velocity, advanced pitchability, and a highly projectable 6-foot, 5-inch frame as a southpaw made him an intriguing prep prospect back in 2016. The Atlanta Braves put together a strong signing bonus to convince him to pass on college and selected Wentz in the first competitive balance round, with the 40th overall pick.
Unfortunately, the hoped for velocity has never really materialized. Wentz can run it up into the mid-90’s here and there, but he sits in the 90-93 mph band. He dominated his first full year of A-ball in 2017 but injury trouble limited him somewhat in 2018. The Braves moved him to Double-A in 2019 and he was putting together a solid season when the Tigers traded closer Shane Greene for him in July. Wentz came to Erie and promptly seemed to find another gear, dominating over his final five starts with a huge uptick in strikeouts.
Wentz went down for Tommy John surgery during the abbreviated spring training camp in 2020. He returned in 2021, and the Tigers built him up a while in extended spring training before letting him return to game action at the end of May. His early starts were pretty rocky, but by July he was starting to round into form. Wentz still had a few bouts of wildness that made his strikeout-to-walk numbers a little uglier than the reality, but by the end of the season he was pitching with more authority, had the feel for his changeup back, and looked much more in command of everything. Overall it wasn’t great, but returning from UCL surgery naturally takes time and the solid finish was a good sign for the future.
While he never turned into the high-powered lefty of the Braves’ dreams, Wentz has developed into a pretty funky pitcher to deal with. He lacks a really good breaking ball, but with a good changeup, good command, and a bit of an odd look to hitters, there’s still a pretty good chance that Wentz can be a useful depth starter at the major league level.
There aren’t too many tall lefties throwing straight over the top at hitters. Wentz combines an oddly straight, even cutterish, fourseamer with a very vertical arm slot, good extension, and plenty of deception. That’s not the kind of profile that bodes well for generating whiffs, particularly in the low-90’s, but Wentz does manage to tie up right-handers up and in more than one might expect as his fastball has some carry to it. He’s a little bit sneaky that way and sometimes benefits from the distinctive look early in his outings.
When he can establish the fastball in on hitters, which his command allows him to do well at his best, it opens up the outside of the plate and the bottom of the zone for his changeup and breaking balls. While his vertical approach angle would suggest that he should try using the fastball down at the knees more often, Wentz still pitches up quite a bit and gets a lot of weak contact in the air, but also gives up more home runs than the Tigers would like as a result. We’ll look for an adjustment in approach in that department this season.
Wentz’s changeup remains his best pitch, and along with his command, are the strongest pluses to his game. The change has good depth and velocity separation, and he can get a lot of off-balance swings and whiffs with it. He backs the change with a slower over the top curveball and a tighter slider with decent sweep. Neither was particularly impressive last season, but a pair of average major league breaking balls is within reach if he can refine them a little more. Wentz started getting better feel for the slider late in the 2021 season, but overall he still seems to be searching for the optimal breaking ball at this point.
The key to Wentz, is that if he returns to the level of command he had back in 2019, he’s going to be pretty close to a finished product. He’s shown the ability to be an effective starter, but not a dominant one, and his second season back from Tommy John is going to have a lot to say about his future. If he can put the whole package together, the Tigers will have a solid backend starter in short order. If not, Wentz may find himself moved more toward the sixth starter, long relief style role that Tyler Alexander has been filling for the club the past few seasons.
Projected 2021 team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Wentz reached the Double-A level and thrived back in 2019. It made sense to slow play him in his return to action last year, and the Tigers started him at A-ball, ultimately giving him 13 starts for Erie on a tight pitch count to finish the season. In 2022, the governor is going to be off, and the Tigers will expect Wentz to establish himself at the Triple-A level and ready himself to provide major league depth this summer. With a little more fine tuning, he should be up to the task.