The Detroit News' John Niyo and Chris McCosky discuss the 2018 Tigers. Detroit News
Detroit — There will be 31 pitchers reporting to Lakeland on Feb. 12; at least 20 of them could be candidates for one of six open bullpen jobs.
This feels more like a job fair than the start of spring training, but that’s what you get when a new manager (Ron Gardenhire) and new pitching coach (Chris Bosio) inherit the worst bullpen in baseball.
“These guys are young and hungry,” Bosio said last weekend during TigerFest. “They are eager to learn. The want-to is there. They love to compete. They want to win, but they know it’s going to take some time.”
Just sorting out the pieces will take some time. Bosio has studied film and pored over the scouting reports, but with a few exceptions, he has yet to see these guys in the heat of battle. So, these pitchers are all starting with a clean slate and Bosio almost literally is starting the evaluation process from square one.
“A lot of the things these guys have I had as a young player,” Bosio said. “The willingness to get better. The willingness to fight, compete and be the last guy standing. We have that. But collectively, it’s our job as coaches to get them better and to teach each other.”
Let’s start with the known quantities (this won’t take long).
Shane Greene enters the spring as the closer. There isn’t anybody even pushing him for the role at this point.
“We have the right guy closing right now,” right-hander Alex Wilson said. “Greeney’s stuff is unmatched on our team, as far as pure stuff. He’s going to be a great closer for a long time.”
But being a closer on a rebuilding team can be a fruitless job. Bosio and Gardenhire will have to weigh the pros and cons of saving their best bullpen arm for save opportunities that may or may not come with any regularity.
Beyond Greene, though, nothing is secure. Wilson would certainly be at least penciled in as one of the late-inning set-up men. He has been a multi-role mainstay the last three seasons. But Wilson has asked for and been granted the opportunity to compete for a starting role.
He will be working with the starters when camp begins.
“I think in their eyes and mine,” Wilson said last week, “we literally have nothing to lose. If I win this spot, it’s only a bonus. If I don’t, guess what, I go back to throwing the seventh and eighth innings like I always have. No harm, no foul.”
So, as we list the bullpen options, keep Wilson’s name in parentheses and let the crapshoot begin.
There are five pitchers returning from last year’s staff that probably have the inside track entering camp: right-handers Joe Jimenez, Warwick Saupold and Drew VerHagen, plus left-handers Daniel Stumpf and Blaine Hardy.
Jimenez dominated hitters throughout all rungs of the Tigers system but struggled mightily at the big-league level last year. He has got himself in much better physical condition this off-season and his leaner physique, he said, has helped smooth out his pitching mechanics.
He has a chance to be one of the set-up men.
So does Stumpf, who emerged last season as a reliable situational lefty. His stuff, especially if he can improve his change-up to use against right-handed hitters, may warrant a larger role.
Hardy, VerHagen and Saupold — all of whom had pockets of success last season — seem aligned for long or middle-innings roles.
Another reliever who may get a long look this spring is former Yankee and Pirates right-hander Johnny Barbato. The Tigers were quick to claim him off waivers from the Pirates, who had to clear room for prospects acquired from the trade of Andrew McCutchen.
Unlike Jimenez, Barbato will come to camp heavier than he was last year — on purpose. He feels a leaner physique last year contributed to a 2-mph drop in his fastball velocity. He was throwing 95-96 mph with the Yankees when he was heavier in 2016. Last season, after dropping weight, he was throwing 93-94.
The Tigers are hoping to see similar gas from right-hander Enrique Burgos, the former Diamondback who features an upper-90s fastball.
Also in the hunt are younger players like right-hander Zac Reininger and lefty Jairo Labourt, who made their big-league debut with the Tigers last season, and right-hander Eduardo Jimenez, whom the Tigers liked enough to keep on the 40-man roster despite still being in A-ball.
But wait, there’s more.
Among the non-roster invitees are two minor-league veterans who have been knocking on the big-league door for a few years — right-handers Kevin Comer and Mark Montgomery. The Tigers also brought back right-hander Victor Alcantara, whom they acquired in the Cameron Maybin deal last season and then released.
Additionally, there are two left-handed pitchers who were signed to minor-league deals and not invited to camp that could work their way into big-league jobs — former Cub James Russell, who had his best years under Bosio’s tutelage, and former Twin Caleb Thielbar, who had his best years under Gardenhire and Rick Anderson (Tigers bullpen coach).
Presumably, right-hander Buck Farmer and lefty Chad Bell, will come to camp as starting pitchers – same, too, for lefty non-roster invitee Travis Wood, another former Cub. Bosio, though, made it clear that roles, at this point, were nebulous at best.
“With a more veteran team, yes, you want set roles,” Bosio said. “With a younger team you have to have flexibility. Another thing I was taught — we have a lot of guys who are in their first or second or third year — and they’ve got to prove themselves.
“(Former Brewers manager) George Bamberger used to say, ‘Son, grab a shovel and start digging. You gotta earn your keep around here.’”
Bosio told the story of his big-league debut. He was a Triple-A closer for the Brewers, but his first outing in the big leagues was a start.
“I don’t know if it will be that drastic here, but I can see it working in a similar fashion. With a young team, you don’t really know what you have. The talent is there, but they have to get out there and they have to do it. They will have an opportunity to have success in many different roles.”
So you have to think Farmer, Bell, Wood and possibly younger starting pitchers like Sandy Baez, Artie Lewicki, Spencer Turnbull and Paul Voelker could be in play for relief roles this spring.
The title song for this bullpen adventure should be Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open.” Seven weeks of spring training probably won’t be enough time to sort it all out.