As young guns march steadily forward, Tigers' Tyler Alexander fights to keep his spot
Lakeland, Fla. — Tyler Alexander is one of several Tigers pitchers in camp caught between the prospects and a hard spot, but you won’t hear the amiable Texan complain about it.
“It’s not frustrating at all,” he said after throwing a bullpen Saturday morning. “I’m willing to do whatever they want me to do. Start, whatever. Long relief, whatever. One inning relief, I don’t care. I will do whatever I can to be up there.”
Theoretically, the left-handed throwing Alexander is competing for a rotation spot this spring. He finished last season in the Tigers’ rotation, after all. But once the Tigers signed veteran free agent Ivan Nova, the odds of him regaining his spot diminished.
The odds will grow even longer if he can’t get into any games this spring. Nova and the other four starting pitchers — Matthew Boyd, Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull — are stretched out to 50 or so pitches.
Alexander has had one two-inning outing and one single-inning outing.
“They have a plan for me, I know they do,” Alexander said. “Right now I’m just going along with whatever they tell me to do. If I have to get my innings on the back fields, that’s fine.”
As manager Ron Gardenhire explained Friday, he and pitching coach Rick Anderson are in a rough spot. The club’s top five pitching prospects are in camp — Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Tarik Skubal and Joey Wentz. Even though most of them are expected spend most of the year in Triple-A and possibly Double-A, the Tigers didn’t bring them here to audit a big-league camp.
They are here to pitch against higher-level hitters.
"We're still mindful of what's the important thing in this organization," Gardenhire said. "We're going to make sure we take care of these guys and make sure they all get the reps and the innings they need."
Even with Skubal and Wentz not seeing Grapefruit League hitters yet, guys like Alexander and non-roster invitees Tim Adleman, Hector Santiago, Dario Agrazal and Zack Godley are getting their innings squeezed a bit early in camp.
Again, not that it’s bothering Alexander much.
“I feel really good,” he said. “I threw more this offseason than I ever have, knowing full well I had to come here and make a team. So I am very ready to do whatever they want me to do.”
Alexander, who made eight starts and 13 appearances last season, is probably considered the No. 6 starter in the organization — at least he was coming into camp. But he can hear the steady march of those younger guys coming up behind him. He knows his window is now.
“I just want to do whatever I can to pitch in the big leagues — that’s it,” he said.
Toward that end, Alexander is in the process of enhancing, or possibly revising, his five-pitch mix. He added a cutter last season, with good results. Now he wants to make it a more distinctive pitch.
“Basically, I just want to have a more consistent breaking ball,” he said. “I added the cutter last year and now, the thing I worked on today in my bullpen, is separating my cutter and slider.”
Last year he threw more of a cutter-slider hybrid. Baseball Savant didn’t log any of his pitches as cutters last year, that’s how similar it was to the slider. He wants his slider to be slower and have more depth, while the cutter can be firmer with late horizontal bite.
“With the cutter, I can go four-seam (fastball) away and the cutter in to righties and it comes out of the same path,” he said. “Then if I can throw my slider with more depth and a little slower, that will help, too.”
Former Tigers lefty Blaine Hardy had success with the same combination. Alexander’s best off-speed pitch, as it was for Hardy, is his change-up. Last year, though, he only threw it 11 percent of the time — his least-used pitch.
“The change-up has consistently been my best off-speed pitch my entire career,” he said. “I don’t throw it a lot in the offseason. It’s just a pitch that I know is there when I need it — I will throw it off my two-seamer, which I throw a lot.”
Presumably, if he can fully incorporate the cutter and slower slider, he will back away from a curveball that hitters feasted on last year (.422 average, .667 slugging).
There’s a lot to like about Alexander. Even though he’s not overpowering, velocity-wise, he pitches with a Josh Beckett-, Roger Clemens-type mindset. He attacks. Fearlessly. He had a 3 percent walk rate and a 68 percent strike rate last season.
He did pay a price for that, though. The average exit velocity on balls put in play against him was a robust 90 mph — he had a 40-percent hard-contact rate and in his eight starts opponents hit .316 and slugged .514.
There is analytical evidence, though, that would indicate he pitched in some bad luck, too — a .365 average on balls in play and an expected opponent’s batting average of .272. Still, he knows he would do well to work more on the edges of the strike zone and miss a few more bats.
But right now, he will have to be content with throwing an inning here, an inning there, a bullpen here and a bullpen there. Once the minor league camp opens (March 15), there will likely be more opportunity for Alexander to test his new mix of pitches against opposing hitters.
“It's a delicate thing here," Gardenhire said. "We are trying to get our starters on line and then you've got to get these guys all stretched out. We've got a lot of pitchers who need innings. It's still really early, but as we go along here, we have to get these guys in a situation where they are ready for the season."
Regardless of where Alexander starts this season — either in the Tigers rotation or bullpen — or starting at Triple-A Toledo, it’s a good bet he will be in Detroit sooner than later.