Lakeland, Fla. -- You can appreciate those who harbor doubts about the Tigers and their bullpen.
Their fans all but needed group therapy to recover from past trauma, some of it induced by Jose Valverde, some brought on by Joaquin Benoit and the October change-up he was sure would fool David Ortiz.
With those moments burned like a cattle brand into their psyches, it’s no wonder fans are leery about this 2014 relief corps.
Misgivings are natural. And, just maybe, they’ll prove unfounded, as long as Joe Nathan, Al Alburquerque, Bruce Rondon, newcomers Ian Krol and Joba Chamberlain, etc., cooperate. Anxiety will likewise vanish if a couple of rookies from Triple-A Toledo happen to arrive and behave satisfactorily at some point this season. One of the prodigies there is Corey Knebel, a right-hander with serious talent.
The other is — and hold the groans — a left-handed stud named Casey Crosby.
The Tigers are working hard to earn a dividend from Crosby’s power. So hard, they are shifting him from his old life as a starter to a new role in relief. He is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, and can throw a fastball 97 mph. He can also too often throw it to the wrong address.
Crosby started 13 games last year for Toledo before shoulder (a weary labrum) and elbow (bone chips) issues cut yet another of his seasons short. He pitched a grand total of 57.2 innings and walked 40 batters.
Stuff yes, control no
These are numbers that will turn a pitching prospect into a former pitching prospect unless he gets a handle on the strike zone. The Tigers’ remedy, long discussed, was to do something Al Avila had been urging for some time: pitch him in relief.
“One of the things different about moving from a starter to the bullpen is that, whether it’s your delivery, or control-and-command, you only have to maintain it for a very short period of time,” Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager, said in explaining his conviction about Crosby as a reliever.
“We’ll work with his mechanics, his delivery, and hopefully in short stints. Because he’s a guy with very good stuff, he can get away with a little less command.”
Crosby, you might remember, is no stranger to Comerica Park. He pitched in three games for the Tigers in 2012 and pitched, well, like a young man who needed more time on the farm (9.49 ERA).
But when you have the quality of pitches Crosby has, beginning with that high-caliber fastball, and when you are a left-hander on a staff that right now is looking at Krol and Phil Coke as its main contestants, the Crosby experiment is worth following.
He happens to buy the Tigers’ thinking.
He can forget about pacing himself, he said during a Friday conversation, and can throw at high throttle. And when relievers tend to get by with two pitches versus the three starters almost always require, he can work with his best two tickets: the fastball, and a curveball that he believes will be sharper — more of a “slideresque curve” as he called it.
“I can just focus more on the mitt (strike zone) and not on any outcome,” he said, explaining the difference between a starter’s and reliever’s psyche, all while he sat for a noon-hour chat outside the clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium.
He is 25 now and has been dealing with injuries since the year the Tigers drafted him, in 2007, when Crosby accepted $748,500 rather than a scholarship at the University of Illinois.
Will the bullpen transition work?
Doubts are permitted. Andy Oliver, you might recall, was another left-hander with marvelous pitches that visited various area codes. His wayward repertoire turned him from a blue-chip prospect to trade fodder. He never has made it in the big leagues.
It’s cruel, this big-league pitching biz.
But it still accommodates talent. And power. And when the two qualities sometimes align, you can unleash a very good performer. The Tigers are gambling. They want that Crosby investment to yet pay off.