Lakeland, Fla. — Here’s the deal: You can be content to wallow in the muck of a rebuilding year, simply write off 100 losses as a foregone conclusion and go about your summer.
Or, you can scour the Tigers roster for pockets of hope. They do exist, believe it or not. Even at a position as beaten and bedraggled as the bullpen was last season.
We draw your attention to two right-handers who, if they perform to their capabilities, could give manager Ron Gardenhire competent late-inning options to set up closer Shane Greene — Drew VerHagen and Joe Jimenez.
Don’t snicker. Yes, they are coming off rocky seasons, but their talent is undiminished and untapped.
VerHagen, a fourth-round pick from Vanderbilt, never got his footing last season. He began the year as a starter at Triple-A Toledo, but quickly moved back to the ’pen. He posted a 5.77 ERA and a 1.485 WHIP for the Tigers, allowing 10 home runs in 34.1 innings.
Jimenez endured failure for the first time in his professional career. He was bashed for 28 runs (26 earned) in 19 innings. He’d only given up 29 earned runs total in five minor-league seasons, spanning 167.1 innings.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? VerHagen and Jimenez come to camp with clean slates, healthy (and in Jimenez’s case refashioned) bodies, refreshed minds and renewed ambitions.
Start with VerHagen.
He’s 27 now and out of minor-league options. So, it’s make-or-break time for him, at least with the Tigers.
“I don’t feel any more pressure,” he said Saturday after throwing a bullpen session. “I feel really good. I always have real high expectations for myself. I think they are even higher this year. I expect a lot out of myself this year.
“I feel healthy and I want to be a really good late-inning reliever.”
The debate over whether he is a starter or reliever is over.
“Getting that out of my mind helped a lot,” he said. “You watched my bullpen, I threw every pitch out of the stretch. Just trying to simplify things as much as possible. … I don’t feel comfortable starting. I just don’t. Coming out of the ’pen, I enjoy that more.”
Watching his 40-pitch bullpen Saturday, it’s clear he’s refined his repertoire, as well. His main weapon remains a mid-90s fastball, which topped out at 97 mph last year. But he’s changing his secondary pitch of choice.
“I need to hone in on one breaking ball,” he said. “I have a good feel for spinning the ball. I know I can throw either the curveball or the slider really well. I want to make sure I’m doing that.”
He spent most of last year trying to refine his slider, with Justin Verlander tutoring him. The results were poor. Hitters feasted on the pitch, bashing it at a.421 clip. Thus, the slider has been put on the backburner for now.
VerHagen’s breaking ball of choice will be a curveball, which he has drastically modified. In the past he’s used a slower, looping curveball with a 12-to-6 break. This year, he is throwing the curveball harder and with a shorter, sharper break.
“Yeah, I am trying to make the break on it a little bit smaller so I can locate it more consistently,” he said. “A lot of hitters, they see (the slower breaking ball) and they don’t necessarily hit it very well, but they can easily take it.
“So I want to tighten it up and make it a little harder.”
His old curveball started up in the zone and broke down to the bottom — hard to keep in the zone and easy for hitters to lay off. The harder curveball is thrown out of the same arm motion as his fastball, starts in the middle of the strike zone and darts quickly downward.
VerHagen is 6-6, so everything he throws comes downhill at the hitter. When he’s on his game and commanding the strike zone, he is a ground-ball machine. His ground-ball percentages the last three big-league seasons were 75, 60 and 50.5.
“I think I’ve always had really good stuff,” he said. “I’ve always been confident in my stuff. It’s just a matter of being consistent.”
Jimenez is a little tougher to figure out. He has been blessed with an upper-90s fastball, but he chafes at being labeled a power pitcher.
“Obviously, a pitcher that throws high-90s is going to say his strength is the fastball,” he said. “But like me, in the big leagues, you have to use every pitch to get hitters out. Not too much just fastball, but more and more my change-up and slider.”
His velocity fluctuated seemingly every game from 90 mph in a game against Baltimore to 98 mph. It averaged out to 95.6, which was a couple of miles per hour less than he was throwing in the minor leagues.
“If I get outs, that will be fine,” he said. “I don’t really care with what or how. If I get outs, that will be the best thing for our team. That’s the main thing right now. Don’t worry about anything else. Just try to get outs.”
Former pitching coach Rich Dubee tried to alter that mindset. He didn’t want Jimenez to trick hitters, he wanted him attack and blow them away with the heat. Presumably, new pitching coach Chris Bosio, a devotee of the well-located fastball, will pick up the battle.
“It’s a new year and I don’t really think about last year at all,” Jimenez said. “Just try to be better this year. Everything that comes in my future is going to be good. I am excited about it. I am going to do everything I can to be a good pitcher.”
The most impressive aspect of Jimenez’s rough season last year was how he dealt with it. He never got down and his self-confidence was not even dented.
“I just turned 23 years old, you know?” he said. “There are a lot of players wishing to be in this situation now. Even though I struggled, I didn’t feel like it was the end of the world because everything was just starting and it’s going to continue this year even better.”
The Tigers would love for Jimenez to lay claim to the eighth-inning set-up role. He has that kind of talent. They are encouraged, too, by his leaner, but still powerful physique. His delivery seems much more fluid and repeatable than it was last year.
But he needs to prove he’s hungry and ready for it.
“First I just want to make the team, that’s the main goal,” he said. “Make the team first and then see what happens.”