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A bounce back season from Kervin Castro could boost a needy Tigers’ bullpen

With three of their top relievers gone, the bullpen needs reinforcements. A rebound season from Castro would help.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at San Francisco Giants John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

One of the first things we learned about Scott Harris was to expect ravenous sampling from the waiver wire and minor league free agent pool. So far, that characteristic has been the most obvious expression of the new Detroit Tigers front office’s approach to roster building through a quiet first offseason to date. Just in the past two weeks they’ve picked up Zach Logue and catcher Marco Feliciano, released Bligh Madris, who they’d previously claimed, signed Castro to a minor league deal, and then traded cash for Tyler Nevin, releasing Logue again in the process.

Of all this tier of players, recent minor league signing right-hander Kervin Castro could have the most impact in 2023. On the other hand, the way this is going he could be released within a week, but there is reason to think Harris really is interested here beyond his constant sifting of the back of the roster and minor league depth options.

The 23-year-old reliever, like several of the Tigers’ additions so far, is well known to Harris. The young right-hander out of Marcuay, Venezuela, incidentally the hometown of Miguel Cabrera, signed with the San Francisco Giants as a teenager back in 2015. That was long before Harris entered the picture as the Giants general manager, but he’d eventually have a front row seat for Castro’s breakout 2021 campaign.

Castro blew out his elbow and had UCL reconstruction surgery at age 17, but reemerged as a talented young reliever in his first foray in short season A-ball in 2019. Castro continued to progress rapidly despite the lack of the 2020 minor league season, impressed in fall instructs, and hit the ground running during an aggressive assignment to Triple-A Sacramento in 2021.

Across 44 innings, Castro struck out nearly 33 percent of the hitters he faced, and his performance led the Giants to promote him to the majors in September. He performed well enough down the stretch to earn a look at the postseason. At that point, he looked like a strong setup man and a potentially key piece of future Giants’ bullpens.

What made Castro so appealing and effective was a tough fastball-curveball combination with a few traits in particular that made him a difficult look for hitters. Castro had well above average riding action on his fourseam fastball, and averaged close to 95 mph with the ability to run it up into the high-90’s when desired. The lack of horizontal movement on the heater also gave it a bit of a cut fastball look, and with top shelf extension and easy armspeed and this was a tough pitch for hitters. Castro was throwing 75 percent fastballs, yet getting tons of whiffs around the top of the zone, and plenty of weak contact.

The heater was complimented by an 80 mph curveball with pure 12-6 action. The break on the curve isn’t even particularly sharp, but it paired very well with the fourseamer in small doses. The pitch drew a superb 40 percent whiff rate in his limited 2021 action, and was a pretty good example of a breaking ball that mirrors the fastball spin and has similar hop out of the hand. Despite its underwhelming movement profile, the curve almost worked as a changeup for him.

Castro will dump a cutter in there against a lefty from time to time, but it isn’t really a notable offering. Both the fastball and the curveball lost a little active spin in 2022, and presumably tuning those two pitches up and trying to get his timing back will be the main focus of the coaching staff. If Castro can get his stuff dialed in and command the fastball, he doesn’t need a whole lot more to be a useful setup man, but a disappointing year leaves that all in question heading into the 2023 season.

In 2022, Castro’s velocity was down a little despite no particular injury issues. He lost movement on his primary offerings, and his command suffered as well. The Giants sent him to Triple-A Sacramento to begin the season, and he just never got it going. Finally at the end of July, the Giants DFA’d him, and the Cubs picked him up. Despite flashes of his 2021 form, it didn’t come together with the Cubs either, and they eventually designated him as well.

That is the Kervin Castro the Tigers will be trying to recapture. Watching his work from 2021, it’s easy to see why Harris is happy to place a small bet that the Tigers pitching coaches can help him get back to that level. Best case scenario Castro bounces back and the club has a nice setup man at low cost. With a fairly depleted bullpen, taking numerous shots like this will be mandatory, giving Fetter, Juan Nieves, and new assistant pitching coach Robin Lund some projects to work on. However, if the Tigers are going to build on what will hopefully be a better, or at least deeper, starting rotation in 2023, they’ve got a lot of work remaining this offseason.

The Tigers bullpen could use the help

With Michael Fulmer and Andrew Chafin still looking for free agent deals, and Jiménez gone to Atlanta, the offense isn’t the only unit that needs reinforcement. The 2022 Tigers bullpen didn’t put up standout numbers as an overall unit. They were roughly middle of the pack compared to the rest of the league, but had enough quality relievers to give A.J. Hinch plenty of options to handle the late innings in winnable games. If they can’t replicate that next season, additions like Matt Boyd and Michael Lorenzen to the rotation might be a wash as far as total run prevention.

Of course, if the club is going to put together a good bullpen, they’re going to have to do a good bit more than add a few project arms on minor league deals. Certainly they have talented if unproven relievers in Alex Lange, Gregory Soto, Will Vest, and Jason Foley. They have a few interesting possibilities in the upper minors, and they have a host of fifth starter types like Garrett Hill, Alex Faedo, Rony Garcia, that would perhaps thrive in the bullpen. Still, if the goal this season is to develop tradeable talent while not putting an absolute dud of a team on the field, the relief corps needs some serious help, not just a handful of interesting project arms.

The Tigers are going to need to add some relief help in free agency. Since they appear unwilling to spend on bats, but also don’t appear to be starting over from scratch, investing a little money in the bullpen would be an efficient way to give the team a chance. That may not be as simple as signing Fulmer and Chafin to two year deals, but they definitely need another experienced hand, if not two or three, to help put a reasonably competitive team on the field.

Still, they’re also going to need to polish up a gem or two along the way. Kervin Castro makes for a decent bet to be one of them. Hopefully Harris can find a handful of arms like this for the Tigers to work with before spring camp begins.