Henning: This Angel of an arm can wing it for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Angel Nesbitt has a mid-90s fastball and command of three pitches.

Lakeland, Fla. — Serious issues, most of them, are turning Detroit's way 21/2 weeks before the Tigers break camp in Florida and shift north for Opening Day.

Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are ahead of schedule and look as if they'll be ready for April 6 against the Twins at Comerica Park.

Jose Iglesias is nearly a month into his routine and all is good following last year's shin fractures.

Justin Verlander is stronger and should be better. Anibal Sanchez is steady and has been so sharp he probably generates less conversation than any player on the roster.

And then there are Detroit's new starters, Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon, who won't be invincible but who have the pitches and polish to eat innings and win 12-15 games.

That leaves the bullpen.

And there is the potential trapdoor.

The Tigers checked into Tigertown last month and knew they needed a surprise. From someone.

They might have found one in Angel Nesbitt.

He is a 24-year-old right-hander from Detroit's prospect hatchery in Venezuela who even a month ago had an outside shot at shaking up Detroit's bullpen cast.

In five Grapefruit League games, Nesbitt has a 1.80 ERA, thanks to five innings of work, three hits and one run allowed, as well as a lone walk alongside three strikeouts.

Not only in terms of pitches, but in composure, Nesbitt could during these final weeks in camp give the Tigers their best shot at adding another shutdown pitcher their bullpen's back end must have on Opening Day.

K-man needed

Note that word: another. Joakim Soria and Bruce Rondon have been the closest to sure things the Tigers have been featuring in Florida's late-innings auditions. Al Alburquerque should be fine in his particular role, and Tigers manager Brad Ausmus looks as if he can count on Kyle Ryan as one of two left-handers he prefers to carry.

Joe Nathan, however, still is searching for stuff that can be trusted in the ninth inning, while Joba Chamberlain is, well, Joba Chamberlain.

The Tigers need another strikeout pitcher. At the very least, they need a chucker who can make at-bats uncomfortable and ideas of big-inning rallies seem remote.

Nesbitt potentially is the man. He throws a mid-90s fastball that can easily hit 98. He has a heavy slider. And he throws an OK change-up. It's the same repertoire featured by Rondon, whose comeback from Tommy John surgery has been so smooth he can be mentioned with Cabrera, Martinez, and Iglesias as one of those happy spring-camp recovery tales.

"I think he's extremely close," Ausmus said Tuesday when asked how soon Nesbitt might be showing up at Comerica Park. "Generally, with an arm like that, the challenge is to throw strikes. But quite frankly, he's impressed everybody with all his pitches and the way he's thrown strikes."

Nesbitt is 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds. Someone asked the other day who he most resembles and a fast answer was that he looks like a bigger version of Jair Jurrjens, the Tigers' one-time hotshot prospect from Curacao who in 2007 was traded to the Braves for Edgar Renteria.

On second thought, it seemed as if a comparison to old bullpen matador Fernando Rodney might be more accurate. In any case, Nesbitt is slightly taller than either of those two, and definitely thicker. He throws harder than Jurrjens and has more pitches than Rodney.

He was signed six years ago, at age 18, out of Aragua, Venezuela. And feel free to wonder where the Tigers might be if Venezuela hadn't been pumping prospects so regularly into Detroit's farm chain.

Mind of a reliever

Al Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager who oversees Latin America's scouting as well as the minor leagues, knew more than anyone that Nesbitt had a shot in 2015.

"It's been an excellent spring for him," Avila said before Tuesday's game, which saw the Tigers get smacked by the Nationals, 6-4, at Marchant Stadium. "He's worked his way into the bullpen mix.

"He's not just a guy who has a real good arm. He tries to figure things out. What separates him is you see a guy here with stuff — who throws up to 98. But the thing about him is he throws strikes. And sometimes, you might say, he throws strikes too much.

"By that I mean, you can throw a ball on purpose once in a while. But that just shows how he can command his pitches."

Another plus makes Nesbitt a percentage bet to pitch in Detroit this season, even if he doesn't crack the Opening Day corps.

"He's an intelligent pitcher," Avila said. "He's very aware of his surroundings. He knows what to do. He brings that dimension where, again, he isn't just a guy with a good arm, he knows what he's doing.

"All the player-development people will tell you he won't get rattled. He knows what to do. He's got a plan. You can teach him and he'll learn. He's not just another guy who throws hard. He's a complete package."

A package, it should be noted, that hasn't yet thrown a big-league pitch. But keep an eye on events during spring camp's final 21/2 weeks. The Tigers can't fool around with their bullpen. Not again. On this team, at this time, arms and upside can win a job bigger names haven't yet claimed.