Tigers season morphs into proving ground for players like Dawel Lugo, Nick Ramirez

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Dawel Lugo

Atlanta – It’s one of those elephant-in-the-room things. Everybody knows it’s there, but nobody wants to talk about it all that much.

For so many players on this Tigers roster, this 2019 season is a showcase. It’s probably their best chance to show the organization they belong here through the full rebuild, that they are more than just disposable parts holding places until the prospects get fully groomed and ready.

Go down the list: Jeimer Candelario, Ronny Rodriguez, Brandon Dixon, Grayson Greiner, JaCoby Jones, Niko Goodrum, Daniel Norris, Spencer Turnbull, Ryan Carpenter and just about every reliever with the possible exceptions of Joe Jimenez and Shane Greene.

Truth is, from the organization’s view point, the most productive aspect of this season may well be as a proving ground for players who may be on the fringe of the next phase of the rebuild.

Norris is finally getting a chance to pitch healthy and get consistent innings. Jones is going to get a full season with 500-600 at-bats to show whether he can hit enough to play every day in center field. Greiner, with Jake Rogers ascending quickly, still has a chance to prove he’s more than just a back-up. On and on.

But the clock is ticking. There will be some extreme roster purging at the end of the season. There are roughly 30 players throughout the system who will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this December. The Tigers are likely to protect (add to the 40-man roster) as many as 10, probably more, of those players.

So, for the current squad -- and the players who will be shuttling back and forth between Detroit and Toledo, or Detroit and Erie – this is your opportunity, as brief and fraught as it may be, to secure a spot on the train.

These guys get it. They see all the resources the Tigers have poured into promoting their top prospects. They know the club is marketing hope, hyping the future over the present-day product. They know what’s on the horizon beginning even next season – and they realize they may not part of it.

But here’s the other edge of that sword. The players can’t think about that. It would be utterly detrimental to their careers, to say nothing of their mental health, to let those kinds of thoughts creep into their heads.

That’s why it isn’t asked about or talked about. And when it is, the conversation typically goes like this:

Question: Do you feel any added pressure, knowing you are not only competing to stay up this year, but to be in the future plans of this organization?

Answer: I can’t worry about that. All I can do is control what I can control, and that’s my performance on the field. If I start worrying about all that other stuff, I won’t be able to do my job on the field.

That is the smart answer. But not every player can compartmentalize it that easily. Candelario, for one, has shown some signs of mental strain, which ultimately landed him back in Toledo.

That, in turn, has provided an opportunity for the Tigers to audition Dawel Lugo at third base.

At home at third

Last September the Tigers, out of pure necessity, auditioned Lugo at second base. Very suddenly, after Ian Kinsler and Dixon Machado were gone – and Devon Travis and Hernan Perez were traded -- there was an organizational hole at second base. Goodrum filled it in 2018, but the Tigers need him to play multiple positions.

Dawel Lugo

The Tigers sold Lugo, 24, on making the move to second base as a shorter path to the big leagues. Which it might have been had Lugo been able to play second base. It was a bad fit.

“Just didn’t have the footwork for it,” manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Third base, though, looks like a very comfortable fit for him – defensively.

“I’ve been playing third base a very long time,” said Lugo through interpreter Carlos Guillen. “I’ve played third base more often that second base. That’s why I feel more secure and my movements are more loose.

“If I have to play second base, I will, no problem. But for me personally, it is easier to play third base.”

The offense, though, is still raw. In 37 plate appearances, he’s hitting .235 with a .270 on-base average. Like a lot of the younger Tigers, he’s seeing a lot of fastballs (51 percent), most up or out of the strike zone, and he’s just 3 for 17 with four strikeouts against it.

He has a chase rate of 51 percent.

“What I’m doing right now is trying to stay away from those bad pitches,” Lugo said. “I’m trying to swing at good pitches, my pitch, the one I am looking for. That’s what I was doing in the minor leagues and it helped me a lot.”

Again, that elephant in the room. Lugo knows what’s at stake. It wouldn't be normal if he wasn’t at least a little anxious and over-aggressive.

“Playing defense and playing offense, those are two different things,” he said. “I put them away. If I am hitting, I am thinking about hitting. When I am on the field, I am thinking about defense. It doesn’t affect me, one or the other.

“But let me tell you this, if I’m playing third base, I feel more comfortable when I am in the field.”

Making his mark

Speaking of seizing opportunity: Left-hander Nick Ramirez has been a revelation thus far.

“He’s been nothing but fantastic coming out of that pen,” Gardenhire said. “He’s been a huge.”

Nick Ramirez

In 16 innings of work, he’s posted a sub-1 WHIP (0.94) with 17 strikeouts. He’s also, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the first Tigers reliever since Red Phillips in 1934 to pitch two or more innings in his first five big-league appearances.

His money pitch, as advertised, is the change-up.

“Nick’s change-up is just ridiculous,” catcher John Hicks said after Ramirez, 29, pitched three perfect innings to earn his first big-league win Wednesday. “As a hitter, they know it is coming almost, but you can’t wait on it.”

Ramirez throws his change-up at 79 mph on average, a 10-mph velocity difference from his two-seam fastball. According to Statcast data, hitters are 6 for 32 (.188) against the change-up with 14 strikeouts. The pitch is being swung and missed at 48 percent of the time.

“I have no problem throwing it 3-2 (count) or 2-1, especially when I’m throwing it well,” Ramirez said. “I can locate it anywhere I want and not have to worry about it.”

The next decision for the Tigers regarding Ramirez may be whether to put him into the starting rotation. A fifth starter won’t be needed until June 8.

Jordan Zimmermann, on the injured list with a UCL strain, will throw a simulated game Friday afternoon. But, even if that goes well, he would still need to make at least three rehab starts to rebuild his arm strength.

Tyson Ross, also coming back from injury (ulnar nerve neuritis), is still only throwing on flat ground. He wouldn't be ready by then, either.  

On deck: Braves

Series: Three-game series at SunTrust Park

First pitch: Friday – 7:20 p.m.; Saturday – 4:10 p.m.; Sunday – 1:20 p.m.

TV/radio: Friday-Sunday -- FSD/97.1 FM

Probables: Friday – RHP Mike Foltynewicz (1-3, 5.67) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (2-4, 2.97); Saturday – RHP Mike Soroka (5-1, 1.07) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-3, 4.18); Sunday – RHP Julio Teheran (3-4, 3.53) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (5-4, 2.85).

Foltynewicz, Braves: He missed most of April after having bone spurs removed from his right elbow, but he seems to be getting his groove back. In his last two starts, he’s allowed just two earned runs, with a 10-0 strikeout-walk rate. Opponents hit .186 off him in those 12 innings.

Turnbull, Tigers: Although he’s pitched well overall (.239 opponents average and .378 slugging, ERA under 3.00), most of the damage has come off his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. His slider-cutter remains nearly unhittable (.136 with a 46 percent strikeout rate). He’s yet to give up a hit with his change-up, too, but he’s only thrown 18 of them.   

Twitter @cmccosky