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Tuesday Tigers links: Great WBC outing earns reliever Duque Hebbert a Tigers contract

Meanwhile, Javy Báez puts the swim move on display, and the Tigers bullpen competition is still pretty wide open.

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2023 World Baseball Classic Pool D: Game 5 Team Dominican Republic v. Team Nicaragua Photo by Rob Tringali/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

With just over two weeks left until Opening Day, the Detroit Tigers roster battles are still just starting to take shape. While most of the everyday players are locked in, there are still plenty of question marks in the infield and for the fourth outfielder spot. Meanwhile the bullpen still feels largely up in the air with plenty of opportunities left for a pitcher to seize control of their destiny.

We’ll start with the World Baseball Classic first, as Team USA came through with a big win on Tuesday night. The early rounds of the WBC can be a little impossible to fully follow in the midst of spring training, but once we get to the quarter finals this is going to get really fun.

We’ll talk a bit of weird Javy Báez magic, a bad day in the Tigers’ bullpen competition, and a few other notes before wrapping it up with our usual around the horn section with a batch of notable articles and clips for your perusal.

Team USA

Skipper Mark DeRosa’s Team USA didn’t get off to a good start in the World Baseball Classic, and their backs were against the wall after a loss to Team Mexico on Sunday. However, a big win over Team Canada on Monday night kept their hopes alive. Starter Lance Lynn retired the side in the first inning and the bats erupted for a nine-run bottom of the first to seize control immediately and cruise to a 12-1 victory that ended in the seventh due to the WBC’s mercy rule, designed to avoid overuse of arms in lost causes.

Mike Trout put a cap on Team USA’s outburst with a three-run homer batting for the second time in a LONG first inning, but that stacked lineup was already off to the races. Plenty of hitters did damage. Trout, Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Trea Turner, and J.T. Realmuto is just the beginning of their offensive talent. Finding the pitching to compete has been the trick with most concerned about ramping up their workload in mid-March.

To advance to the quarterfinals out of Pool C, Team USA now has to make it two in a row with a win Wednesday night over Team Colombia.

Javier Báez makes another WBC memory

Team Puerto Rico’s run back in 2017 ended with a loss to Team USA in the finals, but one of the more indelible memories was Javy Báez’s no-look catch and tag on a steal attempt as he pointed back to catcher Yadier Molina the entire way. An iconic moment, for sure.

Starter José De León was really the star for Team Puerto Rico on Monday, spinning 5 23 innings of perfect baseball over Team Israel. The bullpen would continue the combined perfect game through eight innings as Puerto Rico won 10-0. De León’s career has been derailed for years by a series of injuries, so it was pretty cool to see the former prospect come through on a big stage for his home team.

As for the Tigers’ shortstop, Báez had a pair of doubles hitting fifth, scoring two runs and driving in a pair. However, it was this crazy swim move that had everyone marveling at his knack for a wild looking display of prowess. If only we could keep Báez in ludicrous mode during the regular season. Instead we’ll take the good with the bad.

Of course, one might also argue that it’s the first inning, with two outs and two runs already in courtesy of his own double. A single probably scores him either way, so that’s a wee bit aggressive for the potential reward. Can’t argue with the result, however.

Tigers sign Nicaraguan reliever Duque Hebbert

An interesting WBC story that ended up being a Tigers’ story was this striking display by 21-year-old Team Nicaragua reliever, Duque Hebbert. A complete unknown from a country not known as a baseball hot bed, Hebbert burst into fan consciousness with this brilliant inning of work, punching out Juan Soto, 2022 AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodríguez, and Rafael Devers in order.

As we’ve noted since his hiring, Tigers President of Baseball Ops, Scott Harris, never sleeps. The Tigers had scout Luis Molina on site, and he offered Hebbert a minor league contract right after the game. The 5’10” slightly built reliever showed a very good slider-changeup combination, and while his fastball currently sits around 90 mph, we’ll see what major league level strength and conditioning can do for him. Cool story either way as the signing was announced to Hebbert’s teammates on the team bus back to their hotel.

Shaky bullpen day for the Tigers

The Tigers split squad games against the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles were slated for bullpen games. With a little over two weeks left until Opening Day, the competition for several spots in the pen is still wide open, so this was a chance for pitchers to stake a claim. Instead, both games went somewhat badly, with the squad taking on the Rays in particular struggling to find the strike zone.

Beau Brieske, who has looked strong if not particularly sharp so far, was lit up for a pair of home runs by the Orioles. Left Zach Logue and right-handers Will Vest and Angel De Jesus were each tagged for a pair of runs as well. The Orioles launched six homers and won 11-7. On the plus side, Akil Baddoo and Ryan Kreidler hit their first home runs of the year, and Kerry Carpenter and Andre Lipcius stayed home with a double apiece. Prospect Izaac Pacheco also got into the act with an RBI single as the Tigers roared back late only to watch the bullpen crumble again in the eighth inning as the Orioles pulled away to victory.

The 9-5 loss to the Rays likewise had both good and bad. Spencer Torkelson ripped an RBI double to left in the first inning to score Cesar Hernandez and adding a single to his tally later in the game. Tork is looking very good so far, as is Riley Greene. Here’s hoping. Austin Meadows also doubled for his first extra base hit of the spring. Prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy doubled as well. And Eric Haase got his first start in left field of the spring, keeping that option alive for manager A.J. Hinch.

The big problem in this one was a three-run shot from Brandon Lowe against left-hander Tyler Holton, but Tigers’ pitching also walked seven batters. Four of them were issued by Kervin Castro, who has a couple strong outings to his name, but has been wildly erratic. On the plus side, Tyler Alexander put together a strong two innings of work. Lefty Chasen Shreve continued to impress with a pair of strikeouts.

We also finally got to see Aneurys Zabala, a hard-throwing right-hander who was signed as a minor league free agent in the offseason. He elected free agency as the Miami Marlins DFA’d him in December. Zabala was a bright spot, showing out impressively in his spring debut. He pumped triple digits and punched out a pair of hitters, also issuing one walk, in his inning of work. As you’d expect, locating the fastball has been a problem for him so he’s got to show something has changed.

Right now, Alex Lange, Jose Cisnero, and Mason Englert feel like the only locks for the bullpen. Miguel Diaz, Trey Wingenter, and Brendan White have all been good, but not overpoweringly so. Probably Jason Foley, Garrett Hill, Beau Brieske, Edwin Uceta, Tyler Alexander, and Chasen Shreve are all close, but none has staked an unassailable claim.

Some of the bigger arms in terms of raw stuff or experience, such as Kervin Castro, Matt Wisler, Elvis Alvarado, among others, just haven’t been able to impress much so far. Alex Faedo is re-working his arm path and unlikely to be much help early on this year. Trevor Rosenthal is a longer term project and we have no idea what he’ll look like when he starts ramping up. Still, it’s March 14. Things tend to look like this until the final week. Let’s just say there is plenty of opportunity if a couple pitchers can seize the day with a couple strong outings down the stretch.

Around the horn

Rule 5 selection Mason Englert is tracking to make the Tigers bullpen, and his story of overcoming tragedy and mental health issues makes him easy to root for. Cody Stavenhagen of The Athletic profiles Kerry Carpenter as he looks to build on last year’s breakout season. Finally, Motor City Bengals takes a look at three players currently playing themselves off the Opening Day roster.

Dan Szymborski looks at hitters with scary bust potential in 2023 for FanGraphs. Also for Fangraphs, Esteban Rivera looks at Shohei Ohtani’s deal with New Balance, and whether it could help return baseball to prominence in the endorsement world.

Jon Tayler examines Team Venezuela’s chances of surviving their pool, which includes the Dominican Republic and Team Puerto Rico, the “pool of death” as it were, as only two teams can advance. Venezuela will take on Nicaragua on Tuesday looking to extend their perfect record and put all the pressure back on the DR and PR. You can find all the standings and schedule here.

Either way, you know Miggy is having fun. It has been cool to see the love and adulation pouring down from the stands for the greatest Venezuelan player of all time.