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Lakeland, Fla. — The Mark Lowe project in Detroit will not get a second year.

The Tigers on Sunday unconditionally released the veteran right-handed reliever, whom they still owe $5.5 million.

“It’s never easy when you have to cut players, but Mark Lowe was a particularly tough one for me because I really like the guy,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He was one of the better guys in that clubhouse. He does everything right. We just felt like there were other pitchers at this point who are more deserving.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t wish him well. I like the person and I hope he moves on and continues to do well.”

Lowe, who struggled mightily last season, showed signs of regaining his form this spring until Saturday, when he gave up three runs in an inning to the Pirates in Bradenton. In 8.2 innings, he had a 1.67 WHIP and opponents hit .297 against him.

“It wasn’t for a lack of effort on his part,” Ausmus said. “He cares. He worked his butt off. He’s accountable to his teammates. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out. He was one of the guys who I really hoped to see bounce back; he’s such a good fit on any team because of his work ethic and personality.

“I guess I’m disappointed, but not in him. He was trying. I am disappointed we don’t have him on the team, and that’s on Al (Avila) and myself, we made the call. But if he was pitching like he was in 2015, it would be a no-brainer.”

Lowe had a career-worst 7.11 ERA and 1.581 WHIP last year, but after the All-Star break, opponents hit just .197 against him. Ausmus said he took the news graciously.

“He thanked us for the opportunity,” Ausmus said. “Quite frankly, this is the first time I had to hold back a tear. I am not an emotional guy but for him – because I care about the person so much, it was a little bit tough.”

In other moves Sunday, the Tigers optioned catcher John Hicks to Triple-A Toledo and sent eight players to minor-league camp – outfielders Anthony Gose and Juan Perez, infielder Dominic Ficociello, and pitchers Arcenio Leon, Joe Jimenez, Ruben Alaniz, Logan Kensing and Edward Mujica.

With Lowe and Leon out of the mix, the Tigers’ bullpen battle is down to three relievers and possibly one of the three starters in the fight for the fifth roster spot.

Presuming closer Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Wilson, Alex Wilson, Bruce Rondon, Shane Greene and Kyle Ryan are locks, that leaves Blaine Hardy, Daniel Stumpf and Angel Nesbitt fighting for the last spot.

If either Anibal Sanchez or Mike Pelfrey don’t get the fifth starter spot, one of the two would likely go to the bullpen as a long reliever and sixth starter. If Matthew Boyd doesn’t get the fifth spot, he will likely start the season in Toledo.

Jimenez and Leon will be high on the Tigers’ call-up list.

“I told Joe I saw him pitch more on TV (WBC) than I did here,” Ausmus said. “But he gained from the experience – not only from a bright lights-big stage standpoint, but from being around the veteran guys on their team like Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina, to name two.”

As for Leon, Ausmus said, “He put himself on the map out of nowhere. He needs to go down and continue to pitch like he did here and he will have a chance to be in the big leagues.”

Gose, the Tigers’ starting center fielder in 2015 and at the beginning of 2016, was given a second chance to win at least a share of the position. He hit .237 in 16 games, striking out 15 times in 41 plate appearances. Ausmus said he will continue to play outfield, but will also explore a conversion to pitcher.

Thirty-six players remain in camp with a week left.

Twitter @cmccosky

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