Two of those three prodigies the Tigers grabbed two summers ago in a trade for David Price are easily cited by Detroit’s baseball students.
Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd.
The third is a Tigers trivia question. His name: Jairo Labourt, and like Norris and Boyd, he throws left-handed. Unlike the other two, he hasn’t pitched in Detroit. Nor has he thrown at any level above Single A.
Until the past weekend.
Labourt, 23, last week was shipped to Double A Erie in a move that had little to do with the fact Erie right-handed reliever Paul Voelker, a Tigers pitching prospect viewed as having a definite shot at pitching in Detroit, was handed a 50-game ban for using amphetamines.
Labourt’s ticket to Erie already was being written thanks to these numbers rolled up during April-May at Single A Lakeland:
Eight games, 13-2/3 innings, eight hits, one earned run, 22 strikeouts, and – most significantly – three walks.
In his first game for the SeaWolves, Saturday, Labourt was at roughly the same elevation: two innings, two hits, one run, with three strikeouts -- and no walks.
“He’s a high-end prospect who potentially could get to the big leagues,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of player development, who was on board when the Tigers last summer decided to move Labourt from rotation work to the bullpen.
“He’s a work in progress. This is not a linear path. But you can certainly dream with this guy. There’s a lot to like.”
The bullpen relocation was done in hopes Labourt would polish his talents – and ease his challenges, which consist mostly of keeping his high-caliber fastball in the strike zone.
During seven professional seasons stretching 414-2/3 innings through 2016, Labourt doled out 237 walks. On average, more than one batter every other inning was getting aboard free. And that was making a mess of a 6-foot-4, 205-pound man’s otherwise neat arsenal.
Labourt throws a fastball at 93-96 mph and can occasionally hit 97. His trademark, however, is a “major-league slider,” which is how A.J. Sager, the Tigers’ roving minor-league pitching instructor describes Labourt’s out-pitch.
A change-up is officially part of his mix. But it’s not a popular option and the fact Labourt seems to be fine without it suggests he’s likely to stick with a two-pitch menu.
It’s fastball command that will determine if Labourt makes it to the big leagues or washes out as one of those big-armed talents who couldn’t throw strikes. Pitching in relief, the Tigers believe, has given Labourt a better shot at breaking through.
“I think we started to see signs of it last year, and then again in Instructional League (autumn seminar at Lakeland, Fla.), where he threw a few innings, and a couple of side sessions,” Sager said. “He’s certainly a long way from being there (legitimate big-league material), but he’s been throwing fastballs in the strike zone, and quality strikes with what’s always been a quality arm.”
It was why Dave Dombrowski, then the Tigers general manager, insisted that Labourt be part of the trade bounty Detroit got when it sent Price to the Blue Jays.
Will the move to Double A mean more improvement? Or, will the walks again pile up, leaving Labourt with the same longshot tag he’s carried for most of his career?
“With each prospect we have a plan based on performance, scouting reports, and analytics,” Littlefield said, explaining why and how Labourt was deemed ready for Erie.
The reality that Labourt’s fastball must be tamed hasn’t been lost on the Tigers. It’s the necessary predicate if he wants to pitch in Detroit, or elsewhere on baseball’s big stage.
“Bigger guys, with longer levers (arms, frames) can take a little longer,” Littlefield said. “But we’re gonna exhaust all possibilities here.”
To that end, Sager works with him, as does roving assistant pitching coordinator Jaime Garcia. Mark Johnson, pitching coach at Lakeland – and Labourt’s primary tutor last season at West Michigan – has been counseling him, as will Willie Blair at Erie.
“He’s still a relatively young guy,” Sager said, mentioning that, with left-handers in particular, timelines are best treated with patience. “Sometimes, you never know what it’s going to take with certain guys.
“I wish we had that magic potion. But look at that frame. Look at that arm strength. The guy we saw last weekend (during Sager’s visit to Lakeland) – that guy’s going to get outs at every level.
“We’re going to make room for him to progress.”