Lakeland, Fla. — Reed Garrett, the Tigers latest Rule 5 experiment, looked unhittable in his inning of work Monday against the Cardinals.
His fastball was hitting 96-97 mph on the stadium radar gun, and Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong ran afoul of his splitter — which is a pitch he considers still under construction.
“When he got back into the dugout he told me that DeJong has had his number his whole career,” said John Hicks, a fellow Virginian who caught Garrett on Monday. “I said, ‘If you throw 97 on the inside black part of the plate, he ain’t going to have your number anymore.’
“I faced him in live batting practice and he was 95-96, then threw me a split on the inside of the plate at about 90 that fell off the table. I told him, ‘That’s the nastiest pitch you’ve ever thrown.’”
Hicks can speak to the transformation he’s seen in Garrett just from their offseason bullpen sessions together. Both are from the same region in Virginia — Garrett from Henrico and Hicks from Goochland. The two worked out together this offseason.
“We live 45 minutes from each other and didn’t know it,” Hicks said. “He was a little bit behind me in high school.”
The two were put in touch with each by mutual family friends, and Hicks invited Garrett to come to the indoor facility he uses. Hicks ended up catching three or four of his bullpens.
“It was the first few bullpens, but everything was coming out good, seemed like a heavy ball and just talking to him, he said the splitter was just kind of a work in progress,” Hicks said. “Seeing him when I caught him then to when I caught him yesterday — it’s really gotten better.
“That can be a real good out pitch for him.”
Garrett’s most amazing transformation came between 2016 and 2017, when he went from a soft-tossing finesse starting pitcher with a funky delivery to a straight-ahead, downhill plane power reliever. His velocity going from 89-90 to 96-98.
“In 2016, my first year in Double-A, I was a swing guy, moving back and forth from starting to the bullpen,” said Garrett, 26. “By July, I was struggling and they wanted me to change my mechanics.”
They were the Texas Rangers, where he spent the first five seasons of his career. They got him to start throwing more across his body, similar to the delivery of Jake Arrieta. They wanted him to be a sinker-slider guy, pitching more to contact.
“I didn’t really work out,” he said.
He went to the Arizona Fall League that year and went back to his straight-ahead delivery. And his velocity, just from that mechanical change, hopped up to 92-93. That offseason, he stayed in Dallas and worked with the Rangers’ strength and conditioning staff.
“At the end of 2016, I weighed 185 pounds,” Garrett said. “I went to camp in 2017 at 217 pounds. I guess I got stronger. I don’t know if it was a combination of both, working with my mechanics and really figuring my body out more than anything.
“I went to Dallas and stayed there all offseason and worked with the trainers. I really got after it with those guys. And it was crazy. I was eating like I mean, I was making myself sick, I was eating so much.”
He began the 2017 season in the rotation at Double-A Frisco, his velocity still at 93-94 and he struggled to get through a batting order the second and third times. By May, he was pitching out of the bullpen. By June, he was hitting upper-90s on the radar gun and closing games.
“I didn’t have to try and conserve anything,” Garrett said. “My velo went way up and I just felt like, OK, I know what I need to do.”
He was a Texas League All-Star in 2018 and got promoted to Triple-A. The Rangers still didn’t have room for him on their 40-man roster, though they knew they’d likely lose him in the Rule 5 draft. And Garrett was ready for a fresh opportunity.
“I can’t thank these guys (Tigers) enough for taking a chance on me,” Garrett said. “It’s cool to get a new look and go someplace where they want you and they’re taking a chance on you. It’s really a good feeling to know that somebody out there wants and believes in you and wants to give you a shot.”
The Tigers need to carry him on their active roster all season, like they did with outfielder Victor Reyes last year, or else offer him back to the Rangers, or put him on waivers. And as good as he’s looked early in camp, it’s going to be a heck of a fight to stick.
If you assume that Shane Greene (closer), Joe Jimenez, Drew VerHagen, Victor Alcantara and Blaine Hardy are somewhat secure, and the Tigers will keep seven relievers to start the season — then Garrett is fighting for one of two spots.
Buck Farmer, Daniel Stumpf, Zac Reininger, Jose Fernandez and Louis Coleman are also fighting for those spots.