Lakeland, Fla. — For some players, Triple-A is a just a pit stop on their way to the big leagues. For others, it’s the hard concrete wall at Daytona Speedway.
The Tigers have a bunch of players in camp who will be given a chance to break through that wall, including two pitchers who are both turning 28 in August and both toiled for seven seasons in the minor leagues without throwing a pitch in a big-league game: left-handed starter Ryan Carpenter and righty reliever Mark Montgomery.
“Probably something hasn’t clicked yet,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said, not referring specifically to Carpenter and Montgomery. “Trying to muscle your way through a lot of things. You can get people out at Triple-A by doing that. But up here you can get ambushed real quick.
“It’s figuring out a way to survive up here when you get those opportunities. It’s never easy, like, ‘OK, I finally figured out what I need to do on an everyday basis.’ It’s never-ending.”
Carpenter and Montgomery just want an opportunity. They haven’t even been given the chance to fail at the big-league level yet.
Montgomery has pitched parts of five seasons at Triple A, most in the Yankees system and last season in the Cardinals organization. Carpenter has spent the last two seasons with the Rockies Triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque. They were two of the top pitchers in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
“It’s been a very long road for me,” said Carpenter, who is an imposing 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. “These past few years I feel like I really broke through and proved myself to the best of my ability. I feel like I am right there.”
Carpenter went 10-9 with a 1.282 WHIP in 25 starts last season. But everything turned in June when Albuquerque pitching coach Mark Brewer got him to add a slider to his low-90s fastball, curveball and changeup mix.
Over his last 32 innings, he struck out 42 and allowed only seven hits.
“In 2016, I transitioned to the bullpen for the first time ever and it didn’t sit too well,” said Carpenter, who spent his first five seasons in the Rays system. “Then last year, I developed the slider halfway through and that really helped me a lot, especially against left-handed hitters.
“That was big for me.”
He thought he would be among the September call-ups for the Rockies, but that didn’t happen.
“Yeah, it was one of those things,” he said. “I thought I pretty much proved myself. There was no innings limit or anything like that. Just a situation where they had what I guess you’d call a logjam there.
“I thought I pitched pretty well and I thought it might happen. It was not the case.”
Carpenter was released after the season and began looking for another opportunity. The Tigers, with a new coaching staff offering a clean slate and fresh start, seemed like a good fit.
“It’s always a plus when everybody comes in even,” he said. “I’m really excited to be here and I just want to take advantage of this opportunity. Body and arm feels great so I am just looking forward to doing everything I can to make the team.”
Carpenter is in a group with Alex Wilson, Buck Farmer, Chad Bell and Travis Wood trying to steal one of the final rotation spots from the projected incumbents — Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Matthew Boyd, Mike Fiers and Daniel Norris.
Montgomery is in a much more crowded group of bullpen aspirants, but that is nothing new for him, trying to crack the big leagues with first the Yankees and then the Cardinals.
“You want to be confident,” he said. “You want to come out here and compete for a job and really get after it. I had a good offseason and I had a healthy season last year, so I am looking to build on that.
“Obviously, I think the opportunity here is great and I am looking forward to competing.”
Montgomery, a fastball-slider pitcher, was the long reliever on the 91-win Memphis Redbirds team that won the PCL title. He put up superb numbers, like he has throughout his Triple-A career — 5-1, 2.43 ERA, 0.915 WHIP. Opponents hit .190 off him and he struck out 73 in 66.2 innings.
“I kind of sprayed fastballs earlier in my career and you can get away with it at lower levels,” he said. “That’s probably why I’ve had some time in Triple-A. Last year was the best I’ve been at locating pitches and getting ahead of guys.
“The slider has been a good out-pitch for me but it’s getting into counts where I can use it. Making guys respect the fastball is probably the biggest thing I picked up on last year.”
He signed a minor-league deal with the Tigers for much the same reason Carpenter did — new regime, new eyes on him, big opportunity.
“Getting a chance to pitch in the big leagues, that’s been my dream since I was a child,” Montgomery said. “But this is baseball and you can’t really control those types of things. All I can control is pitching and competing to the best of my ability each day — just have to keep grinding and wait for the opportunity.
“Yeah it’s frustrating, but at the end of the day you can’t think of those things. You just have to go out compete and perform, then those decisions are out of your hand.”
These certainly aren’t the first two talented pitchers who got stuck in Triple-A. And Gardenhire reiterated Thursday that there will be plenty of opportunity as he sorts through 31 pitchers in camp.
“We’ve seen it a lot of times,” Gardenhire said. “You get stale at one place and you change scenery and all of a sudden you say, ‘Look at this guy.’ It’s not because he had better coaching or anything.
“He just got a different look at life. Kind of changes little theories on what he needs to do. Maybe he just got tired of getting sent back to Triple-A and maybe he listens now. It’s just an ongoing process.”