Lakeland, Fla. – After another, yes another, shut-down performance by Tigers relievers Sunday, manager Ron Gardenhire was asked about the difficulty of trying to decide who will get the final few spots in his eight-man bullpen?
"We feel good about it," he said, after the Tigers beat a Braves split-squad team 3-2 in a Grapefruit League game. "There are decisions to be made here. As a matter of fact, if you guys get out of here, we're going to start making them."
The coaching staff, analytics staff and general manager Al Avila and his lieutenants were expected to hash out some of the tougher roster decisions Sunday night. With the Tigers playing split-squad games in Lakeland and Dunedin on Monday, cuts aren't expected right away.
But in the last week, performances by relievers like Rule 5 draftee Reed Garrett, lefty Daniel Stumpf, and right-handers Buck Farmer, Victor Alcantara, Louis Coleman, Jose Cisnero and Zac Reininger have clouded the process -- in a positive way.
They've all been pitching effectively the last couple of weeks.
"We have a lot to discuss," Gardenhire said.
The Tigers relievers this spring rank third in the Grapefruit League in WHIP (1.28) and third in opponents' batting average (.240). Other than one five-run inning against Tampa, the Tigers bullpen has allowed one run in 17.1 innings, with 21 strikeouts in the last four games.
Against the Braves Sunday, Garrett struck out the side in the sixth. His fastball was steady at 96 mph and he got the last strikeout with a 90-mph splitter. Stumpf had his second straight scoreless inning.
And Kyle Funkhouser, who is expected to start the season in the rotation at Toledo, closed the game out with two impressive innings -- his fastball also ringing in the mid-90s.
"All these guys, we're getting a look at them later here as the competition gets a little better," Gardenhire said. "So they're not facing No. 92 but they are starting to face some of the big-league guys."
Gardenhire said he thinks Funkhouser should be included along with Spencer Turnbull, Daniel Norris and Ryan Carpenter as the club's primary starting pitching depth after the top five -- Jordan Zimmermann, Michael Fulmer (who may not be ready to start the season on time), Matthew Boyd, Matt Moore and Tyson Ross, who pitched five solid innings Sunday.
"Absolutely (Funkhouser) is in that mix," Gardenhire said.
The presumed set pieces in the bullpen are closer Shane Greene, set-up right-handers Joe Jimenez and Drew VerHagen (who will return to his regular bullpen shift this week after missing a week with an inflamed nerve in his neck) and left-hander Blaine Hardy, the victim in that five-run inning against Tampa.
Norris, if he doesn't go north in the rotation, could also be added to that bullpen mix.
So, there are a lot of capable arms in the mix for three or four spots.
"There's some battles," Avila said. "The good thing about it, it's a good problem to have. Because we are going to have a couple of guys who will be optioned to the minor leagues, guys that are going to give us a little depth -- depth in the starting rotation and depth in the bullpen.
"And as you know, whoever you break camp with at the of March, isn't always the way it's going to stay. So, we are happy about the depth we've been able to build."
Ross messy but good
You get the sense this might be how it’ll be most times when Ross takes the mound for the Tigers.
It was a little messy, lots of traffic on the bases, but when you add it all up at the end – it was a solid outing.
“Just another step in the right direction,” Ross said of his five innings. “I got my pitch-count up, I got up a sixth time in the bullpen. The last start was almost too clean of a game for spring training.”
Only Ross’ first and last innings were clean Sunday.
In between, he hit a batter and walked two others (including Braves pitcher Touki Toussaint). But he only allowed two hits and both runs he allowed were unearned in the fourth inning.
“I had that long second inning when we scored a couple of runs and I came out and lost my focus a little bit,” he said. “I walked two but still put up a zero. It’s baseball. You are going to have long innings when you sit.”
Both hits were singles, one of them went off third baseman Brandon Dixon’s glove. He also struck out four. So, he looked dominant at times.
But he also hit Brian McCann with an 0-2 pitch leading off the second. He walked Toussaint on five pitches in the third and a batter later walked Charlie Culberson on four pitches. But with two outs, he ended the threat by striking out Ronald Acuna Jr. on three pitches, getting two ugly swings with his slider.
“I was facing a pitcher for the first time and that’s a different focus,” Ross said. “He’s a good athlete and there’s nothing worse for a pitcher than to give up a knock to another pitcher. I was probably too cautious there. I fell behind then fell out of my rhythm.
“But I felt good. There’s been action on my pitches through the strike zone the last two outings. I had a sinker come back (into the strike zone) which I felt good about. Just progressing.”
Ross threw 67 pitches, 41 strikes.
Gardenhire wasn't thrilled with some of the sloppy defense (two errors, two other misplays) and base running Sunday. "It was real ugly today," he said. "You don't feel like you've won when you play like that. Our pitching did enough, but our defense was not good. Pretty sloppy. We haven't had one of those, so I guess we were due for one. TO come out with a win is good but it was sloppy. And I don't like sloppy."
... The Tigers’ offense was contained to the first two innings. Josh Harrison doubled and scored for the Tigers in the first. Mikie Mahtook ripped a two-run double in the second.
... Avila said he thought the club would be relatively soon would be ready to make a decision on Fulmer, who is still working his way back from knee surgery. "Probably next week we will see more of what we're going to do there," he said. "If he breaks camp with us or if we have to give him a little bit more time. Luckily for us, we have built some depth."