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Joey Wentz gets nod as fifth starter with Michael Lorenzen injured

The Tigers have a few more decisions to make over the final weekend of spring camp.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Joey Wentz was pitching too well this spring to keep him down long anyway. In the end, an injury to right-hander Michael Lorenzen left an opening for at least the first turn through the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation. On Friday, manager A.J. Hinch announced that Wentz will break camp with the major league club for the first time.

There isn’t a specific timetable yet for Lorenzen, and recovery from a groin strain is hard to forecast. It doesn’t appear that he’s going to be out too long, but if Wentz does the job well, one would imagine the Tigers would like to give Lorenzen all the time required to be 100 percent when he returns. So now it’s on Wentz to do the job.

The 25-year-old left-hander has had some additional eyes on him this spring because of the way he finished last season. Wentz got on a roll last summer and closed it out with a pretty strong five start stay in the Tigers’ rotation in September. He went on to pitch well in the Arizona Fall League and showed off a redesigned cutter that really tied his game together. He’s picked up right where he left off this spring.

Wentz still has a little trouble with the long ball and that’s carried over into Grapefruit League action so far. However, he’s also getting more whiffs and more strikeouts. At his best, the cutter has taken some of the pressure off of a fourseam fastball that is very good at the top of the zone for whiffs, but tends to get hit hard down in the zone.

Against lefties, he can play the cutter and his 80 mph curveball off one another, starting them on similar lines and bending them both away off the outer edge, using the fourseamer up for whiffs while pitching backwards. Against right-handers, the cutter gives him something to get in on hitters’ hands with, keeping them honest and opening up the outside corner down for his changeup and curveball. As long as he can limit the hangers, this basic approach gives him a good foundation for success.

Wentz has always struggled to keep his 6’6” frame organized on mound, and that’s the biggest key for him. For years we’ve seen him pitch really well for four or five innings only to fall apart and miss wildly for a couple hitters. Minimizing those incidents and learning to self-correct more quickly has been the biggest hurdle for him, and since last summer he’s finally gotten a better handle on the problem. He’s still no precision strike thrower and will issue his share of walks, but if he can avoid the breakdowns where he issues a walk or two and is constantly digging himself out of a hole in counts, Wentz will thrive.

The question right now is what happens when Lorenzen returns to the rotation? The Tigers wouldn’t have minded stashing Wentz at Triple-A early on to keep him stretched out, but he’s clearly got little left to learn in the minor leagues. If he can put together a quality start or two out of the gate, it’s just difficult to imagine sending him down for long. The Tigers don’t have a very strong left-handed presence in their bullpen and may need Wentz there, but Lorenzen is the one with plenty of relief experience.

For now, keeping Wentz and Lorenzen both stretched out makes sense, but if the Tigers can avoid rotation injuries over the first four to six weeks of the season, the situation could look very different. At that point they may have Tarik Skubal tracking for a return in June/July and two of the club’s best pitching prospects, our top ranked prospect, Wilmer Flores, and fellow right-hander Reese Olson, will have some Triple-A experience and could be pushing for their own major league debut.

Pitcher health will ultimately make a lot of these decisions. That’s usually how things go, but the Tigers will have some good problems in terms of pitching depth should they make it through April and May without too much trouble. There should be plenty of good competition for innings.

For now? Joey Wentz has an opportunity to make it very hard for A.J. Hinch to send him back down when Lorenzen is ready to go.

Fresh cuts

In other news on Friday, the Tigers announced that minor league free agent infielder Andy Ibáñez has been reassigned to minor league camp. Ibáñez never had the inside track to a major league roster spot, and we’ll see if the 29-year-old former Texas Ranger decides to stick around in the organization to wait for an opportunity or not. Presumably he can opt for free agency again sometime early in the season.

Right-handed reliever Will Vest was optioned to Toledo to work on his mechanics and his command. Vest was viewed as a likely starting member of the bullpen but a shaky spring and a lot of ongoing adjustments made it clear that he needs time to try and get everything back on track.

Finally, catcher Donny Sands, the third piece acquired in the Gregory Soto trade, was also optioned to Triple-A Toledo. With Jake Rogers looking pretty good in his return from 2021 Tommy John surgery, Sands had his work cut out for him to win a spot on the active roster. He does make for solid catching depth as the Tigers continue to work with him on his defensive game.

Eduardo on Opening Day

On Friday the Tigers also announced that lefty Eduardo Rodriguez will be their starting pitcher on Opening Day in Tampa Bay on Thursday. He’ll take on a pretty nasty left-hander in the Rays’ Shane McClanahan. Looking to put a rather lost and strange 2022 season behind him, the veteran will have the opportunity to set the tone for the Tigers’ rotation. He’s generally been very sharp this spring and can hopefully get off to a good start.

Final roster battles

The Tigers still have plenty of question marks as to how they’ll line up the bullpen. Beyond Alex Lange, Trey Wingenter, and lefty Chasen Shreve, no one has been consistently impressive yet this spring. Final outings this weekend will be a last chance for several relievers to stake a claim.

The real battles, are between Akil Baddoo and Kerry Carpenter for the fourth outfielder spot, and whether the Tigers will take two backup infielders into the regular season or not. Cesár Hernandez appears to have locked up a roster spot, but the Tigers could either take Ryan Kreidler as a sixth infielder who can handle a bit of outfield as well. Or they could take both Baddoo and Carpenter, perhaps using Carpenter in tandem with Miguel Cabrera in the DH slot.

Probably A.J. Hinch and Scott Harris already have their answers, but the final two Grapefruit League games this weekend will offer a final shot for several players on the cut line to re-state their case.