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Tigers claim released Cardinals relief prospect Freddy Pacheco

The Scott Harris led Tigers continue to search high and low for talent, and that process is a story in its own right.

MLB: MAR 25 Spring Training - Nationals at Cardinals Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the clearest manifestations of a whole new way of doing business for the Detroit Tigers under Scott Harris has been the lengthy list of waiver claims and minor league free agent signings over the past five months. The “roster churn” as it were, is a good sign that the club is leaving no stone unturned hunting for talent and that they’re thinking longer term in their process instead of simply patching roster holes in the moment.

On Tuesday, they were at it again. The St. Louis Cardinals put right-handed relief prospect Freddy Pacheco on waivers and the Tigers immediately grabbed him with a claim. The 24-year-old packs a fastball that carries a double-plus grade from FanGraphs, and has a good slider as well. Like most relief prospects with big stuff, he’s struggled a bit with command or he’d already be a major league player based on his outsized minor league strikeout rates. Still, he was tracking with a chance to earn a high leverage role in the Cardinals’ pen this season until he experienced some elbow soreness this spring.

So he’s another project, but a project the Tigers might be better positioned to take on than St. Louis was as they look to contend in the NL Central this season. With Tarik Skubal moved to the 60-day injured list, they had the ability to add a player to the 40-man without cutting anyone loose just yet. They’ll now have a little time to evaluate Pacheco before any decisions are made about his immediate future.

Here’s a more complete look courtesy of St. Louis Sports Net.

It’s certainly possible that this is just a catch and release move, but Pacheco is undoubtedly very talented. The Tigers may just want to take a look at his medicals to determine whether they think he’s headed for surgery on the elbow or not. The Tigers have been rebuilding their medical and training staff as well as their rosters, front office, and coaching staffs, so Harris may be happy just to give them another project/test in evaluating a talented young pitcher with a bit of a murky healthy situation. The addition of biomechanics expert Robin Lund as an assistant to pitching coach Chris Fetter has also added another perspective in evaluating Pacheco’s issues and mechanics.

On the other hand, the initial reports on Pacheco’s elbow weren’t terribly dire for this time of year.

So we’ll see what happens. Maybe Pacheco needs a few months of rest and rehabilitation. Maybe it’s a serious tendon or ligament issue. Either way, the Tigers can simply add him to the 60-day injured list as well, opening the 40-man roster spot he’s currently holding back up. Or they check him out and decide to move on as well. Or maybe it’s not so serious, and the Cardinals were just feeling the roster crunch at this point in the spring and weren’t going to wait around to find out.

Ever since Harris took over, it feels as though the Tigers have been making claims or minor league signings on nearly a daily basis. On Monday, we saw right-hander Aneurys Zabala pitch in Grapefruit League action for the first time in a Tigers’ uniform. The Miami Marlins waived him in December and he chose free agency. The Tigers quickly scooped him up, and the reasons were evident as Zabala blazed 100 mph fastballs by hitters.

Last week they signed veteran relief ace Trevor Rosenthal to a deal as well. After dealing with UCL reconstruction in 2017, Rosenthal made it back to pitch pretty well for Kansas City in 2020, but then required thoracic outlet surgery in 2021. His 2022 comeback was derailed by further rehab and then a hamstring issue. The Tigers picked him up on an incentive laden minor league deal by selling themselves as a burgeoning pitching hub with top shelf medical and training staff, and Rosenthal presumably saw the club as a place well suited to helping him restart his career. They’ve worked out a careful progression that will likely take until late April to have him built up for major league action, assuming things go well.

Finally, on Monday the club signed right-hander Duque Hebbert to a minor league deal right after a World Baseball Classic game in which he dismantled three elite major league hitters in one inning. The 21-year-old Team Nicaragua reliever was essentially an unknown when he struck out Juan Soto, Julio Rodriguez, and Rafael Devers in order. The Tigers had scout Luis Molina on hand and they offered Hebbert a contract right after the game.

None of these players are necessarily going to make an impact. We’ve already seen plenty of minor league free agents struggle to make a strong impression this spring, though a few have bucked the norm in that regard as well. The Tigers aren’t suddenly going to become miracle workers. They’re just doing a lot more things the way top organizations do them, and for now that’s enough.

Hebbert needs to be built up to see if he can develop better velocity to go with a good slider-changeup combination on display in the WBC. Rosenthal’s lengthy medical history makes him a complete wild card. Pacheco’s elbow leaves his future in question, and while Zabala looked good in his first outing, he was released by the Marlins despite triple digit heat because he’s struggled to locate consistently. Projects all.

However, these are the good kinds of projects. Talented players with tangible skills that translate to major league success. Less of the modest sixth starter types or position players with career backup level ceilings on their talent. Stockpiling guys like this goes hand in hand with modernizing the Tigers medical, training, and coaching staffs. They seem to be living up to Harris’ dictums to leave no stone unturned to find talent and provide them with the support system to be their best. This is what a rebuilding Tigers club should have been doing more aggressively all along.

There’s another good reason to like the constant roster churn. Simply as an intelligence gathering operation on other organizations and other players, checking out lots of players in this tier can produce secondary gains. You get the players’ medicals and can compare with what other organizations may have told them. You get a chance to interview these players about the coaching they’ve received elsewhere, concepts discussed with them in pitch design, conditioning, mechanics, the works. There are opportunities to build secondary relationships, and as intangible as that may be, those connections and reputations can sometimes pay dividends if the organization can back up their sales pitch with tangible improvement. Even if the player ultimately moves on, leaving them with a strong impression of the organization, both staff and facilities, is good marketing for the Tigers.

As an old sales cliche’ goes, shake a thousand hands to earn one big sale.

The Tigers have been a pretty insular organization over the past decade or more. They’ve promoted staff internally rather than hunting for talent from other teams. They kept to themselves in terms of players too, making claims and trades here and there, but largely sticking to their own prospect pipeline and the recommendations of various contacts on a small amount of other teams. Beyond the issues with player development, scouting, and medical staff, they just seemed self-isolated from a lot of the trends and developments around the game, and they rapidly fell far behind in the scouting and player development revolutions.

Claiming and signing lots of castoffs with big tools and big injury or command issues isn’t going to turn the Tigers into a top shelf organization on its own. It’s just good process, long overdue, and a sign that the front office is constantly looking for talent, even in out of the way places, and trying to glean insight from all the other clubs in this era of escalating information warfare.

Now it’s on the analysts and coaches in player development and the medical staff to actually turn some of these players into quality major leaguers. Still, the thoroughness with which Scott Harris and his staff are hunting for talent is another positive sign in its own right. We look forward to a time when the Tigers are deep in minor league talent and can’t even fit too many project types on the roster. For now, the new front office is going about bulking up the deeper organizational talent level the right way and it’s good to see.