Tigers super thin in lefty relievers; sign veteran out of independent league

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Kevin Chapman

Minneapolis — Now you see why both pitching coach Chris Bosio and manager Ron Gardenhire were so distraught when left-hander Travis Wood blew out his knee in spring training. 

“He could have filled five different roles for us,” Bosio said at the time. “I’d like a pitching staff full of guys like that.”

The Tigers began spring training with what seemed at the time to be a sizeable crop of left-handed relief pitchers. But through injuries and ineffectiveness, they are suddenly very short.

“It’s been a little earlier that we thought,” Gardenhire said of the lefty attrition rate. “You know there is going to be injuries. You know there’s going to be holes to fill every once in a while. But this has been a little overwhelming.”

It’s to the point now where the Tigers have one lefty in their bullpen — Daniel Stumpf, who has struggled mightily this month — and no real options at Triple-A Toledo. 

For that reason, the Tigers dipped into an Independent baseball league and signed 30-year-old left-hander Kevin Chapman and assigned him to Toledo. Chapman, who spent parts of four season with the Astros, had struck out 11 hitters without giving up a run in 6⅓ innings at for the New Britain Bees of the Atlantic League. 

Chapman, who features a 93-mph sinker and an 83-mph slider, had a 4.09 ERA and a 1.545 WHIP in 58 games with the Astros — his last in 2016. 

He joins 31-year-old former Minnesota Twin Caleb Thielbar as the only two lefty relievers at Toledo. 

“We knew that one thing we didn’t have a lot of was depth,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve got pitching down there, but as far as left-handed relievers, we don’t have a lot of that. So it has been a little more difficult, especially since Stumpf has struggled.”

Going into spring training, it was assumed Stumpf and Blaine Hardy had the best chance of being the lefty options in the bullpen. 

Daniel Norris was in the mix, either for the fifth starter spot or a lefty reliever spot. 

The Tigers were also taking long looks at Wood, Jairo Labourt, Chad Bell, Ryan Carpenter and minor-league campers Thielbar and James Russell. 

In the last three months, Wood had knee surgery.  Norris (groin) went on the 60-day DL. Bell was designated for assignment and signed by the Braves. Labourt was released by the Tigers, picked up and released by two other teams and then released again by the Tigers on Monday. 

Russell made two appearances with the Mud Hens and was released. Thielbar has pitched 6⅓ scoreless innings for the Mud Hens and Carpenter is in the Hens’ starting rotation.  

Hardy, who missed most of spring with a shoulder impingement, was designated for assignment, passed on by 29 other teams, re-signed and sent to Toledo where he was dominant as a starter. Now he’s back and holding a rotation spot for injured Jordan Zimmermann.

That leaves Stumpf, who is 0-3 in May, allowing nine runs and 13 hits in 4⅓ innings. Opponents are hitting .542 and slugging .917 against him this month. 

Zimmermann isn’t likely to return to the rotation until early June, and Hardy is staying in the rotation for at least another start. 

Which means, the only recourse right now is for Stumpf to get back on track. 

“He’s got to get the job done,” Gardenhire said. “That’s the bottom line.”