Henning: Tigers seek bullpen relief down on the farm

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Pitcher Jairo Labourt flourished at Double A Erie but struggled with the strike zone in a brief call-up with the Tigers.

True to their all-too consistent ways in 2017, Tigers relievers were in marching step with the rest of the roster’s cast.

The Tigers bullpen was rather bad. Worse than bad, to be precise.

Tigers relievers were alongside their starting brethren in finishing last among 30 big-league teams. The bullpen’s ERA was 5.63, a broad leap beneath the Mets, who finished 29th at 4.82. Detroit’s WHIP was 1.57, blowing away the Mets’ next-to-worst mark of 1.49.

A chilling question the Tigers front office, not to mention new manager Ron Gardenhire, will ponder in coming weeks is how matters might be repaired ahead of the 2018 season.

Good luck there.

Much of the cast looks as if it will return. And some of them offer hope, if not near-guarantees of competence, beginning with closer Shane Greene.

Rookie prodigy Joe Jimenez had early, as well as late, wobbles but looked as if he will be on board to help in 2018. Daniel Stumpf was snared from the Rule 5 hatchery and produced reasonable numbers that could easily be copied next year.

Warwick Saupold was by no means a shutdown source, but in pitching multiple innings, often serviceably, he showed he could be of value in 2018 when, if a scary rotation doesn’t cooperate, he stands to work overtime.

Look elsewhere at the season-ending digits and arranging a seaworthy bullpen in 2018 becomes a more frightening chore.

Alex Wilson is perhaps the Tigers’ best hope and best bet to be next year’s prayer answer.

He ballooned to a 4.50 ERA in 2017, with a .279 opposing batting average and 1.37 WHIP. It’s likely Wilson was simply worn out after pitching in 66 games. The problem is that no one expects next year’s relievers to be any less taxed than they were in 2017 when Justin Verlander was on hand for five of the regular season’s six months.

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Drew VerHagen is now officially a reliever and fared a bit better in the bullpen than he did in his quest to become a starter. But his ERA as a reliever was 4.91 and enemy hitters batted .296 against him. Still, he has an arm that could find comfort and prosperity in a relief niche, especially given the in-and-out nature of so many pitchers who can have widely divergent numbers from year to year.

Blaine Hardy was hard to figure out in 2017, although it might have helped had he not spent much of his spring and summer negotiating the I-75 detour, commuting to and from Detroit and Triple A Toledo. He finished the year with a 5.35 ERA but in April had a 2.84 ERA. Soon after he and Toledo became frequent partners and he never re-established any rhythm during his Comerica Park call-ups.

That leaves some less-than-golden oldies for the Tigers to decide upon: Bruce Rondon, Chad Bell, Jeff Ferrell, and Kyle Ryan, who spent most of 2017 with the Mud Hens and never really showed the promise on display in earlier seasons.

Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, will almost certainly sign one or two relievers this offseason. And there will be arms, for sure, on the free-agent market.

Right-hander Adam Ravenelle is pitching with the Arizona Fall League's Mesa Solar Dogs.

Names to at least consider: Dillon Gee, Brian Duensing, Jake McGee, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Luke Gregerson, Tyler Clippard, Sergio Romo, Tony Watson, Steve Cishek, Zach Duke, Bryan Shaw, Juan Nicasio, Mike Minor, Joe Smith, Brandon Kintzler, Yusmeiro Petit, Fernando Abad, Peter Moylan, Anthony Swarzak, Craig Stammen, or even old Tigers friend Al Alburquerque.

Avila’s problem there is two-fold: The Tigers are trying to lose payroll pounds and don’t have a lot of money to spend, anywhere. Also, many of the above will have plenty of options that perhaps won’t include a rebuilding Tigers team.

A third option is at least something the Tigers can dream about, emphasis on dream.

Young relievers are one of the farm system’s healthier assets.

Jimenez offers the most potential. But he remains 22 years old, and his month-by-month ERAs were consistent with that final blotch: 12.32.

It’s still reasonable to believe one or two kid pitchers now gestating on the Tigers farm will be sufficiently ripe to earn a turn with the Tigers in 2018.

Among them:

■ Bryan Garcia, 22, right-hander: It isn’t easy going from low Single A, to high Single A, to Double A, to Triple A, within the span of a single minor-league season. For Garcia to have pulled off that four-brim hat trick says lots about his stuff, which could, and probably should, find its way to Detroit early in 2018.

Garcia was a sixth-round pick in 2016 from the University of Miami and has looked like a steal since his first taste of professional baseball at Single A Connecticut that summer of ’16.

His two-season stats: 2.20 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 100 strikeouts and 21 unintentional walks in 73-2/3 innings. His only blip occurred after he was shipped to Triple A late last summer and in 14 games had a 4.05 ERA and 1.35 WHIP.

“I imagine he’s fairly close,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president for player development. “One of the things you’ve got to keep in mind is that guys rarely go from prospect-to-performer immediately.

“There are potholes and hurdles along the way. Often it takes experience. Garcia certainly is very close as far as getting there (Detroit). And he gives you a lot of confidence. He’s mature, he throws three pitches (including a mid-to-high-90s fastball), and he throws a lot of strikes.

“He obviously did very well in his first full season (2017), but that exponential jump to the big leagues is unlike anything he’s seen. But I am confident. He throws quality strikes, and you don’t see any negatives with this guy. For him, experience is the biggest factor.”

■ Jairo Labourt, 23, left-hander: He was doing so well early in 2017, walking only 10 batters in 44⅓ innings at Single A Lakeland and at Double A Erie. He had struck out a whopping 58 in that same stretch.

He was one of the farm’s 2017 glory boys.

Then he was shipped to Toledo and a fireball lefty who yet could become a hitter’s menace was reunited with his old strike-zone issues. He walked 23 batters in 22 innings with the Mud Hens and walked seven more in a six-inning audition with the Tigers.

“You try and explain, and then they see it, how it gets more challenging at Triple A,” Littlefield said. “The defense gets better. The hitters are better. They take more pitches. They don’t swing out of the zone as much. And these are the adjustments a guy like Labourt has to make.

“He only has to keep in mind where we were with him,” Littlefield said, a reference to Labourt’s earlier control issues. “There was such improvement last year. He was very impressive for so long, and he’s still not a finished product.

“We’ve got to keep working with this guy. He’s got above-average big-league stuff.”

■ Zac Reininger, 24, right-hander: Reininger’s triumph wasn’t so much making it to Detroit for a 10-game cameo. It was the fact he pitched so brilliantly at Erie and Toledo a year after Tommy John surgery.

He has a high-90s fastball and a slider that should steadily sharpen. And if it does, the Tigers could have a special-delivery gift for their 2018 bullpen.

Reininger’s lesson from his stint in Detroit not only is that he must throw strikes. Quality strikes are the mandate. He walked only three batters in 9⅔ innings. But he was slapped for 16 hits, often because he was lagging in the count.

“He’s got to stay in the zone and develop consistency with that slider,” Littlefield said. “But, remember: He just came off that (Tommy John) injury. Those challenges are things you expect. What you can see is that there is major-league development to finish off and improve upon.”

■ Adam Ravenelle, 25, right-hander: Patience, patience. The Tigers have been wallowing in it with Ravenelle, who was their fourth-round pick in 2014 after he had helped pitch Vanderbilt to a college baseball championship.

He has had illness and injury and, most of all, trouble mastering home plate.

Even after a couple of appearances for the Mesa Solar Dogs in this autumn’s Arizona Fall League, Ravenelle’s issues are, small sampling aside, evident: two games, 2⅔ innings, two hits, one walk.

“He’s got to get to that point of sticking the fastball where he needs to and throwing that slider on 1-and-0 and throwing it for a strike,” Littlefield said. “It’s just something he hasn’t been able to do consistently.

“He’s a great-looking kid. Got those long levers (arms, legs). And he throws a tough slider. But it’s all about strikes and consistency of stuff.”

■ Mark Ecker, 22, right-hander:  Ecker was taken a round ahead of Garcia in 2016 (Texas A&M) and could yet be his match. He was fine during his turns at Lakeland (1.24 WHIP) and Erie (1.28) and struck out 81 batters in 61⅔ innings.

He walked 24, which wasn’t terrible, but speaks to some smoothing that needs to happen at Erie, and perhaps Toledo, in 2018.

“Remember, this was his first full season, and he had a real nice year,” Littlefield said. “He’s got good stuff. He’s not as physical as some (6-foot, 180), and sometimes that relates to angles. But he’s got a good slider and he throws strikes.

“He’s kind of a pitch-maker. We’ll see how he performs next year.”

■ Zac Houston, 22, right-hander: Since the day he signed with the Tigers in the summer of 2016, after the Tigers snagged him in the draft’s 11th round following his junior year at Mississippi State, Houston has done nothing but pitch — well.

He has worked at Connecticut, West Michigan, and Lakeland. His two-season numbers: 2.17 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, .134 opposing batting average, with a stunning 91 strikeouts in 58 innings. He has unintentionally walked 27, a figure that must thin down.

“This is a big man,” Littlefield said of a Louisiana native who goes 6-5, 250, “and he has a slider that can be effective. His numbers, of course, are off the chart.

“He has a little different kind of a funky delivery, and ability to release out front. It makes him deceptive. Plus he’s got velocity (95-plus).”

Houston hasn’t changed habits after joining the Solar Dogs in the Arizona Fall League. He has pitched in three games, worth four innings, striking out six, walking none, and allowing but two hits.

■ Gerson Moreno, 22, right-hander: He might have the most core talent of any young Tigers reliever. He can throw 100 mph and destroy hitters with secondary pitches still being honed.

But he is on the tender side, as his mid-year promotion to Erie confirmed, when Moreno walked 25 in 50 innings and saw his ERA jump to 6.43. He, likewise, is in class at the Arizona Fall League and has been fine: 3⅓ innings, two hits, one walk, four strikeouts.

Moreno will continue his apprenticeship next season at Erie, as will, to varying degrees, a corps of young Tigers relievers. They’ll get their chance soon enough. Necessity likely assures it.