The Detroit Tigers held their first workouts of spring camp on Monday. Baseball is back, my friends. Expectations aren’t high, but with so much change in the organization over the last six months, they can’t help but be more interesting, at the least. While pitchers and catchers are already working out, the official first workout is Wednesday, with the first official full squad workout set for Monday, February 20. However, it feels like things are already well underway in Lakeland.
An array of news stories followed the beginning of action as beat writers got their first interviews of the season, and the front office picked up reliever Matt Wisler on a minor league deal. Piecing together the bullpen is going to be one of the major stories over the next six weeks.
It’s been a pretty quiet offseason in terms of the major league roster, but new President of Baseball Ops Scott Harris has built in enough options that playing time at third base, catcher, and in the outfield should be competitive. The rotation lacks high end talent, but there is plenty of solid depth in place. The bullpen is likely to be even more of a project than usual, and a real test for pitching coach Chris Fetter and his staff. They’ve gathered together a lot of talented but flawed relief options, and they’ll need to find help from that group.
Whatever their record this year, the season is all about Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Matt Manning, and the rest of the Tigers young talent. Either they start getting more of the expected production, and the Tigers are a fun, scrappy young team that outperforms some of their projections and sees good development in their farm system, or things are going to look very bleak indeed.
Let’s just hope the Tigers have a healthy camp for once and hit the ground running on March 30, rather than blowing a tire early in each of the last two years. A fast start would be a good way to earn a little confidence and interest after a fairly quiet offseason for the new front office. Another disastrous start in April and May, and fans are going to be wondering about the coaching staff’s ability to get them prepared.
Tigers sign Matt Wisler
With Michael Fulmer signing with the Chicago Cubs, and Andrew Chafin inking a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the three best relievers on the 2022 Tigers club are now officially gone. They have plenty of interesting options, but little in terms of consistent proven performers. They’re really going to need some help from unexpected quarters, particularly out of the group of minor league free agent relievers they’ve added this winter. Trey Wingenter, Kervin Castro, Chasen Shreve, and Edwin Uceta all have a good shot with a strong performance in camp, and presumably Scott Harris will continue to sift for other options all throughout spring training.
On Monday, they added another interesting piece, signing 30-year-old right-hander Matt Wisler to a minor league deal with an invite to camp. Wisler was drafted out of high school by the San Diego Padres back in 2011, and broke into the league as a starter after being dealt to the Atlanta Braves in 2015. After two years as a decent backend starter, the Braves converted him to relief and traded him to Cincinnati, but his production was negligible until 2019. At that point, pitching for the San Diego Padres, he started cutting his fastball usage drastically, leaning fully into his excellent slider. He threw the slider 70 percent of the time in 2019, then to 83 percent with the Minnesota Twins in 2020, becoming one of the poster boys of the “throw your best pitch a lot” movement. By 2021, when he pitched for the San Francisco Giants with Scott Harris as their general manager, he was throwing the slider over 90 percent of the time.
Wisler pitched for Tampa Bay in 2022, but dealt with a neck strain which cost him some velocity and put him on the injured list for a month. However, it was the command of his slider that was the real loss. He was still effective in 2022, posting a 2.25 ERA, but his strikeout rate collapsed in the process and the Rays eventually DFA’d him upon his return from the injury.
If he’s fully recovered from the neck issue which bothered him most of the 2022 season, Wisler should be a really good pickup. He typically strikes out over 30 percent of batters faced, and doesn’t issue many free passes. An extreme fly ball pitcher, Wisler will give up some home runs, but he also gets a ton of easy outs in the air. He should be very comfortable out of the AL East and pitching in a spacious park like Comerica. With only a few relievers locked into spots in the Tigers bullpen, there is plenty of opportunity here and a healthy Matt Wisler will likely work his way into a late innings role.
Prospect non-roster invites
Four Tigers’ prospects will be in camp as non-roster invites, and each is worth keeping an eye on for different reasons. Infielder Colt Keith, our second ranked prospect in the Tigers’ system, heads the list and is going to have all eyes on him after a huge, but injury abbreviated, breakout season in 2022. Keith is set to start the year in Double-A and probably won’t be making his debut in 2023, but several other prospects do have a good chance to break through.
3B/LF Justyn-Henry Malloy, acquired from the Braves for Joe Jiménez, is our eighth-ranked Tigers’ prospect and finished his breakout 2022 campaign with a successful stint at the Triple-A level. While his defensive home remains an issue and will invite plenty of scrutiny this spring, Malloy outstanding plate discipline and approach have him just about ready to contribute offensively at the major league level. He should get a look sometime this season.
Catcher Dillon Dingler, ranked 14th on our newest prospect list, has spent most of the past two seasons at the Double-A level, and will be playing in Toledo and hunting his major league debut this season as well. While the catching group of Eric Haase, Jake Rogers, Donny Sands, and Marco Feliciano will be competing for major league playing time, Dingler isn’t far from his debut either. The bat has stagnated in the upper minors, but the defensive skills remain on track to make him a major league backup. There’s a fair chance we see him in Detroit later this season, at least as an injury replacement.
Finally, hard-throwing reliever Elvis Alvarado will have an opportunity to win a job in the bullpen this season. Alvarado has touched 102 mph with his fastball and has a solid slider to back it with. The problem is commanding those two offerings. If it clicks for him, he’ll have plenty of opportunity to earn a role with the Tigers.
The Manfred runner is here to stay
The runner on second rule in extra innings is now officially locked in as a permanent part of the rule set. ESPN reported the news on Monday afternoon. MLB’s joint competition committee unanimously voted to make the rule permanent.
Evan Drellich and Eno Sarris of the Athletic reported on another decision from the committee on Monday. Position players pitching will now be limited to extra innings, or when the leading team is up by 10 or more runs in the ninth inning. The trailing team can use a position player to pitch at any time, as long as they’re down eight or more runs.
The pitch clock, new step-off limits for pitchers, the banning of shifts, and the larger bases, will remain the biggest stories to watch in terms of the rules this year. Still, I would’ve preferred a compromise, perhaps playing the 10th inning the old fashioned way before going to the runner on second beyond that.
Around the horn
Akil Baddoo knows he’s got a fight on his hands for playing time in 2023. New starting pitcher Michael Lorenzen also has seven major league home runs, and still hopes to get some plate appearances in 2023. The Freep has a photo gallery from the first day of camp to peruse.
Outfielder Austin Meadows isn’t claiming to be in the best shape of his life yet, but he is healthy again after a tough season in which he dealt with COVID, vertigo, tendonitis in both Achilles tendons, and finally a battle with anxiety that ended his 2022 season. The Tigers need Meadows back on track this season.
The Athletic considers the biggest question for each team as spring camp begins, in terms of roster battles. Cody Stavenhagen of the Athletic Detroit says the third base job is the biggest open question on the Tigers’ roster. That checks out, though there is also an open outfield position and a competition to backup presumed starting catcher Eric Haase as well.
Here is a long video of the new LED systems being installed in Comerica Park. Between the scoreboard lights, and the rebuilt outfield walls, the park is definitely going to have a different look in 2023. Hopefully the team has a fresh new look as well.
Ben Clemens continues his FanGraphs series on exit velocity and how to use it to search for breakout candidates. Dan Szymborski examines the old fashioned challenge trade pulled off by the Oakland Athletics and Miami Marlins over the weekend. The two clubs exchanged former first rounders, as the A’s sent lefty A.J. Puk to Miami, while outfielder J.J. Bleday heads to Oakland. Sabermetrician Tom Tango looks to classify pitches by movement rather than by grip or other descriptor, coining the term Pitch Palettes to describe and group pitches.