Alexander, Ravenelle cruising but Tigers will be patient

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tyler Alexander

Those familiar with Tyler Alexander’s pitching history will see nothing particularly surprising about a left-handed starter’s 2016 season.

After all, he pitched, and pitched well, at Texas Christian, where Tigers scouts were so impressed they made him Detroit’s second-round pick in last June’s draft.

The same might be said about Adam Ravenelle, who helped Vanderbilt win a College World Series two years ago and whose bat-busting repertoire turned him into a fourth-round pick in 2014 and perhaps a reliever the Tigers could expect to see in Detroit fairly rapidly.

The two are cruising at Single A Lakeland, where Alexander in eight starts and nine games has a 1.68 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP.

Ravenelle, who had a bad virus in 2015 that pretty much ruined his first full year of professional baseball, has come back niftily, running up a 2.60 ERA. 1.02 WHIP, and .150 opponent batting average in 14 games. Results from his stints, which cover 17.1 innings: nine hits, 20 strikeouts, and nine walks, which is too many free passes and one reason why there’s work to do in 2016.

There is no particular rush from the Tigers’ perspective to ship either Alexander or Ravenelle to Erie. But the timeline is moving in each man’s direction.

“They’re two players from good college programs who are advanced and mature,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president of player development.

Alexander, a native Texan, was strong last summer at Single A Connecticut (0.97 ERA, .133 opposing batting average) in 37 innings as the Tigers were careful about his workload following TCU’s season.

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This spring at Lakeland, Alexander pretty much has duplicated his 2015 work. He’s thrown 48.1 innings and has been nicked for 39 hits, while striking out 41 and walking only nine. He threw seven scoreless innings in Lakeland's 4-1 victory on Sunday.

“Very advanced thinker,” Littlefield said of Alexander, who is 6-foot-2, and 200 pounds. “He competes well. He’s mature. He throws a lot of strikes and has an advanced approach.”

Alexander is a three-pitch practitioner with a sinker / fastball combination that cruises anywhere from 88-92 mph. He throws a decent slider alongside a very good change-up.

“Sometimes, his individual pitches aren’t as impressive as the overall package,” Littlefield said. “He locates real effectively, and the change is probably his best pitch. It has nice fade at the end and he throws it as well to right-handers as he does to left-handers.

“There’s command and life to his fastball, and it’s a fairly complete pitching package. But it’s still in the development stage.”

Ravenelle is 6-3, 196, and a definitive late-innings guy. It was Ravenelle, born and raised in Massachusetts, who polished off Vandy’s championship two years ago with back-to-back innings of spotless relief.

“He’s a big, strong guy who’s aggressive, with an exceptional arm,” Littlefield said. “There’s a lot of life to that fastball, and a good slider that he’s now throwing.

“There are some things we’re working on, trying to keep his lines moving toward the plate versus side-to-side – trying to get more consistency to his arm-swing.

“But he’s got exceptional stuff. That fastball runs 95 to 99, with a real hard-breaking slider. There’s a lot to like here.”

And not only with Alexander and Ravenelle.

The Tigers’ billboard prospect at Lakeland is right-hand closer Joe Jimenez, who hasn’t been scored on in 14 games this season. Jimenez, who turned 21 in January, is 6-3, 220, throws in the upper 90s, has a slider that can destroy, and has struck out 23 batters, with only four walks, in 15.1 innings. Jimenez has allowed all of five hits. He got his 10th save with a scoreless inning on Sunday.

The question, of course, is how long will any of the trio remain at Lakeland?

Littlefield acknowledges it’s a topic the Tigers discuss continually.

“There’s a balance there,” Littlefield said. “You’re always keeping an eye on these kids, and you want to continue to make it challenging for them. If they’re just tearing up the league, they’re not going to be challenged, but you don’t have many of those players.

“As we say, the players will show you who deserves to move to that next level. We want to keep promoting guys. And we want them to be good players in Detroit.”

That can mean it’s sometimes better to work a player overtime at a particular level. In the case of Jimenez, the Tigers are being careful for one specific reason: He pitched heavily last year (40 games at Single A West Michigan), then got some important, club-approved experience at winter ball in Puerto Rico.

The Tigers are happy with his progress. But they’re also watching his innings. The expectation is Jimenez will soon be moving to Erie. But an organization heavily invested in Jimenez’s future will be counting pitches and appearances.

It was that way a year ago with Alexander. It’s always that way when big-league teams are trying to nurture, not over-exploit, talent they believe is targeted, and probably soon, for the big leagues.