Power relievers ‘strength’ of Tigers’ minor leagues

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Joe Jimenez

Even in July, you can envision next spring’s Detroit Tigers camp at Lakeland, Fla.

Among newbies hunting jobs will be various young-gun relievers designed to cheer a fan base in Detroit that needs a boost, especially given recent events.

Joe Jimenez. Jairo Labourt. Bryan Garcia. The kid, too, who has thrown so furiously at Double A after coming back from Tommy John surgery, Zac Reininger, not to mention youngsters who could will be summoned for a day or two of fill-in duty at Marchant Stadium -- Gerson Moreno, Mark Ecker, and maybe even Wladimir Pinto or Eduardo Jimenez.

“It’s a good group, probably the strength of our minor-league system,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president for player development “They’ve pitched very well. But you need numbers, because as we’ve seen through the years, attrition hits pitching. You want to have as many as you can. Some, of course, don’t always pan out as you hope.”

With Sunday's trade of Justin Wilson to the Cubs, and with the probability Bruce Rondon’s exasperating ways will come to a head with an organization that’s about run dry on patience, there could be more urgency to give the kids a shot next spring.

Some will be close, if not quite ready. They include:

Jimenez, 22, right-hander: Why are the Tigers waiting? Jimenez has a 16-game scoreless streak at Triple A Toledo. In 27 games total, he has a 1.38 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, with 37 strikeouts in 26 innings, with 10 unintentional walks, 20 hits, and a .213 opposing batting average.

Jimenez was with the Tigers in April for some basic handshakes and introductions to big-league realities (five games, 12.46 ERA) before he was returned to the Mud Hens with orders to sharpen his slider.

More: Has the time for Tigers’ Dixon Machado finally arrived?

It’s still the pitch keeping him at Toledo, although that could change even ahead of September when the padlock on active rosters disappears and extra bodies can be added to the big-league team.

“He’s making strides with that slider, and he has a good change-up,” Littlefield said. “One of the challenges pitchers have at this level, of course, is that they’ve gotten here with their fastball and fastball command, and they’re always working on that and using that part of their repertoire.

“You try to get the thought through their head that they’ve got to use those other pitches in game situations, but it’s almost like (in golf) the driving range versus playing 18. You’ve got to bring it to the table.

“He does it on occasion,” Littlefield said of Jimenez’s slider mission. “He’s not overly fastball-oriented. He’s working with the manager and coaches there. He does it on occasion. But it’s a little bit of a Catch-22. It’s a good problem to have.”

Jairo Labourt

Labourt, 23, left-hander: He began the year at Single A Lakeland, was later whisked to Double A, and now is working at Toledo. His next stop figures to be Detroit, perhaps in September given that he and Jimenez are on the 40-man roster, which is required ahead of September call-ups.

His numbers, overall, suggest it’s possible: 35 games, 2.01 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, .187 opposing batting average, 70 strikeouts and 18 walks in 53.2 innings. Even since crashing the Mud Hens clubhouse, Labourt has struck out 12 in 9.1 innings, allowing only four hits.

But eight walks in those first six games at Toledo confirms there’s work ahead. It’s the same story: fastball command and secondary pitches need to be coexistent. And ideally thrown in pitcher’s counts. Labourt has a power slider, as well as an above-average change-up, that work nicely with a fastball that has hit 100.

More: Beleaguered Bruce Rondon not worried about future with Tigers

“Great story, how he’s matured,” Littlefield said of a pitcher the Tigers got two years ago in a deadline deal that sent David Price to Toronto. “His quality of strike this year is much better. But you’ve got to remember, the major leagues are much more competitive than our Double A and Triple A levels. There’s nothing quite like seeing it yourself, which is what Joe (Jimenez) would say after he’s had a chance to taste it.

“You can’t get by with just a fastball. It’s what every young guy goes through.”

Translation: Labourt needs time to polish that three-pitch ensemble. But expect him to get a serious look next spring.

Garcia, 22, right-hander: He starred at Single A Connecticut last summer a few weeks after the Tigers drafted him in the sixth round (University of Miami). Then he did the same thing this spring at West Michigan and Lakeland. And now he’s doing it at Erie: 15 games, 1.10 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 7-of-7 on save opportunities, 16.11 innings, seven hits, 20 strikeouts, seven unintentional walks.

“He’s a little different in that he has three pitches, which isn’t the norm for relievers,” Littlefield said. “It’s just happening so fast in his first full season in professional baseball. He’s got the fastball (mid-90s), slider, and change-up, and he throws a lot of strikes. He was a closer at Miami, so this isn’t drastically new to him.

“But the ninth inning anywhere with a small lead is nerve-wracking. He’s just a mature guy. He’s advanced. He’s a little different. And he’s been good from the get-go.”

Zac Reininger

Reininger, 24, right-hander: It’s as if he parachuted in from the 101st Airborne. Reininger is one of the Tigers farm’s better stories in 2017 after elbow surgery cost him a year. He’s another of those high-90s hard-throwers, with a crisp slider, and numbers to confirm: 15 games since being bumped to Erie from Lakeland, stretched across 23 innings, all to the tune of 13 hits, 27 strikeouts, seven unintentional walks, a .176 opposing batting average, and a 10-game scoreless string.

Littlefield said, “With the names and the attention certain guys get, he’s been under the radar, but we’re well aware of what we’ve got here. He’s got a real good breaking ball, and kind of a gunslinger attitude. He’s a little more free-spirited on the surface, but a nice attitude, very aggressive, with a short-memory approach.”

Tigers minor-league report: Holaday showing late pop

There are others who could push their way into a team’s big-league consciousness at some point next season. And that list probably begins with Moreno, 21, a right-hander whose fastball has crashed 100, and who, in Littlefield’s and others’ view “probably has the most upside.”

Moreno has been apprenticing at Erie, striking out 23 in 16.2 innings, with seven unintentional walks. Enemy hitters are batting .186 against him.

Adam Ravenelle is another at Erie who can throw high-90s heat and whose occasional strike-zone frustrations are the only thing holding back a former fourth-rounder from Vanderbilt.

And, while they’re farther away, the Tigers like previews from Wladimir Pinto, 19, who just moved to West Michigan after striking out 18 in 9.2 innings at Single A Connecticut.

Pinto headed for Comstock Park just as Eduardo Jimenez was being pushed to Lakeland, all after Jimenez, 22, and a right-hander had made mincemeat of Midwest League hitters (21 games, 1.05 ERA, 47 strikeouts and 28 hits in 37 innings).

Jimenez is now working alongside Mark Ecker, last year’s fifth-round pick (Texas A&M), 22, and a right-hander who has struck out 61 in 42.1 innings.

“Let’s just say, the next group is closing fast,” said Littlefield, who knows how many fire-armed relievers almost all big-league organizations carry, and how few get to baseball’s grand stage.

But there are numbers on Detroit’s farmlands in 2017. And percentages figure to produce some measure of big-league help fans – not to mention a front office – would be happy to greet as early as next spring.


Twitter @Lynn_Henning