After bumps and lessons, Beau Burrows, Alex Faedo inch closer to Tigers rotation
Erie, Pa. — Somewhere, there’s a pool containing the names Beau Burrows and Alex Faedo.
Those who come closest to a date when each pitcher makes his first start for the Tigers will, it can be presumed, win a wad of cash, however meager.
When, though, will either Burrows or Faedo make it to Comerica Park and end the suspense?
It probably happens in 2019. But likely not early. Not until, perhaps, the Tigers need a spot-starter and, as happened with Justin Verlander in 2005, they reach into their farm rotation to pluck either right-hander, both of whom are past first-round draft picks.
What can be said with four weeks to go in the 2018 minor-league season is that neither is ready for Detroit. And what can be said with the same certainty is that no one overseeing Tigers prospects is worried.
The pitchers are too young to fret when being groomed for the big leagues was always going to be a multi-year process.
“Baseball,” Burrows said Wednesday, with a grin and a sigh as he took a break in the cool of Double-A Erie’s clubhouse and prepped for an evening start against the Portland Sea Dogs at UPMC Park.
“I know the results aren’t always showing improvement, but my stuff has been getting much better, overall. A huge improvement over last year.”
Erie manager Andrew Graham had the same thought after Wednesday's game, which saw Erie sock Portland, 18-1, courtesy of 21 hits, including home runs from Cam Gibson and Jake Rogers -- and five innings of shutout baseball from Burrows.
It was typical of a Burrows start in 2018: strong but imperfect. Three hits, six strikeouts, four walks.
"He lacked command early, but got out of it," Graham said. "But electric stuff. And he got stronger as the game went on."
Burrows is 21 and three years ago was the Tigers’ top pick out of Weatherford (Texas) High. As prep pitchers are measured, he has been a typical study in assembly-line progress: low Single-A in his first full season, followed by a stopover at high Single-A in year two ahead of a promotion to Double-A later in 2017.
This year has been all Erie. Any notions Burrows would blow away Eastern League batters ahead of a later ticket to Triple-A, or even to Detroit, have crashed against numbers that explain how difficult those higher-rung minors can be.
Burrows had a 4.18 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 20 starts as he got ready Wednesday for the Sea Dogs. Not bad, although the digits would have been markedly brighter had Burrows not had such a thorny July: 7.36 ERA.
“I think he put too much pressure on himself,” said Graham, who also was Burrows' skipper last season at Single-A Lakeland. “He’s an athlete who’s not used to being humbled. But he will turn the page and get better.”
Faedo’s minor-league apprenticeship is different in time and scope.
He was a college ace at the University of Florida. He helped the Gators a year ago win a national championship. A few days later he was Tigers property but, because of his heavy innings for Florida, Burrows was given the remainder of last summer to rest his slider-weary elbow and arm and didn’t pitch his first professional game until this spring.
It went well, that debut with Single-A Lakeland, and soon Faedo was working at Erie, where he’s now in the rotation alongside Burrows.
Take away one crazy eight-run blow-up against Port St. Lucie, and Faedo’s ERA at Lakeland would have been 1.98. Take away a seven-run spinout last month against Binghamton and his ERA with Erie would be 2.30.
Remove each of those games from his 19 starts in 2018 and Faedo has a season ERA of 2.09 rather than 3.39.
In other words, he’s doing just fine.
It’s true his fastball is not busting bats. It cruises 88-92 mph and can hit 93. Erie’s pitching coach, Willie Blair, is among those working on Faedo’s posture, hoping a bit less crouch and more extension can add a tick or two to his heater.
“Everyone’s worried about his velocity,” said Graham, who is as weary as Faedo of hearing dark reports about a 22-year-old’s fastball. “But he’s very good when he’s keeping that fastball low and keeping them off-balance with his secondary stuff.
“The only thing you wish is that there would be more range between his fastball and his slider.”
Ah, the slider. It’s still Faedo’s knockout pitch. It’s responsible for most of those 33 strikeouts he has in 34⅔ innings.
Faedo pondered all of this Wednesday afternoon in, of all places, a dark ice arena that connects to UPMC Park and Erie’s clubhouse. It’s part of the downtown Erie sports complex and, in Faedo’s estimation, talking amid the quiet and the shadows of an empty Erie Insurance Arena would beat trying to explain his season in the Sea Wolves’ sardine can of a clubhouse.
What he says about 2018 is that it’s been some seminar, this first season of professional baseball. Getting his body tuned and in shape for pro ball’s rigors. Calling his own pitches in tandem with catcher Jake Rogers after pitches were always called from the dugout during his college days.
And understanding, too, that he can’t throw his slider as often as he did in college when it was more of a 50-50 mix with his fastball.
“That’s why I don’t have as many strikeouts,” said Faedo, who punched out 157 batters in 123⅔ innings of his final year at Florda. “I’m trying now to get strikeouts with all three pitches.”
Faedo is a Tampa native and, like so many of the Erie kids, as impressive in person as he can be on a baseball field. It might matter, it might not, that personalities seem to be in surplus with the SeaWolves: Burrows, Daz Cameron, Willi Castro, Cam Gibson, John Schreiber — it’s an interesting blend of color, civility, and maturity.
Faedo can be feisty, also, in an appealing way.
Asked if he was bothered by scouting reports dissing his fastball, he snorted and said:
“Don’t look at any of ‘em.”
He explained that he, too, wanted to add steam that would create more of a differential between his heater and slider.
“But there comes a time and a place,” he said. “Pitching up here isn’t like throwing at a showcase game and throwing as hard as you can.”
No, he said. His first year has been fine, and even comfortable. He enjoys professional baseball life, even if it can be a struggle some nights finding decent — make that nutritious — food that doesn’t coincide with minor-league game schedules.
He understands he must get better with all three of his pitches, including his change-up. But take another peek at those numbers. Even with a couple of wacko games tossed in, a starting pitcher, working at Double-A in his first full summer as a pro, is pretty good.
“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “That’s why I’m in the minors.”