Going deep: 'Big wave' of starting pitchers on the way for Tigers
Editor's note: This is the third installment of a four-part series in which The Detroit News explores the depth of the Tigers organization.
Detroit — Put yourself in pitching coach Rick Anderson’s shoes for a minute.
The Tigers are on the cusp of potentially having one of the most dynamic young starting pitching staffs in baseball with top prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo all knocking on the big-league door.
And there’s Anderson, who like manager Ron Gardenhire and the rest of the Tigers’ coaching staff is not under contract beyond 2020. So he sees these talented arms coming, yet he has no way of knowing if he’ll be here when they arrive.
“You’d obviously like to see (the Tigers) get them up,” Anderson said via teleconference Wednesday. “That’s the big wave that we’re looking at here in the future and you’d like to be part of it. Unfortunately, this game is, ‘What have you done for us lately?’
“Our job is to keep getting these guys improving and moving forward with what we have. Hopefully that will be enough to keep us around and helping when these young guys come in.”
Anderson nor anybody else can say with any certainty how the shutdown will impact the timeline for these young prospects this season and going forward.
“In a perfect world, you would love to see the minor league season start and see those guys get going and progress from there,” Anderson said. “What’s going to happen after that, I don’t know. Nobody has made any kind of call.
“Should they go play winter ball? I don’t know. Should they play in the fall league? I just don’t know.”
In the meantime, Anderson’s task is to get his staff ready for whatever awaits the rest of this season. And as we continue our position by position look at the club’s organizational depth, the Tigers’ starting pitching is as healthy as it’s been in a while — thanks in no small part to the recent infusion of first-round talent.
One disclaimer: Virtually all young pitchers come into the organization as starters and then either stay or get moved to the bullpen as they progress through the system. So, for the most part, we will keep most of the first- and second-year prospects out of this report.
Also, pitchers Beau Burrows, Hector Santiago, Nick Ramirez, Rony Garcia and Shao-Ching Chiang, all starting pitchers throughout their careers, are presently expected to play bullpen roles for the Tigers in 2020.
►Matthew Boyd: As impressive as it’s been to watch him grow as a pitcher, developing one of the nastiest sliders in the game, his growth as a leader has been more admirable. He has always been ahead of the organization in terms of using analytics, he watches as many of his teammates’ bullpens as Anderson and he’s been the go-to guy for the young pitchers. Yes, he faltered down the stretch last season and yes, he gave up too many home runs. But, the way he was throwing this spring, you trust that he’s found a way over those hurdles.
►Spencer Turnbull: Ask the Tigers’ catchers or opposing hitters who has the nastiest array of pitches on the staff and Turnbull will be mentioned among the top two or three. Commanding those pitches and controlling his emotions on the mound — believing in his talent — are what he’s worked to develop. If those things ever sync up with his stuff, look out.
►Ivan Nova: This was a shrewd, affordable ($1.5 million) pickup for the Tigers. He’s a savvy veteran who has averaged 174 innings and nearly 11 wins over the last four seasons, the kind of stabilizing innings-eater a young staff needs. He showed right away, too, that he was a good sounding board and mentor for the young Latin pitchers on the team.
►Jordan Zimmermann: This is the last of his five-year, $110 million contract with the Tigers and it was shaping up to be just the second time in that span that he’d start the season healthy. But if the last four years have taught us anything it’s to expect his neck and shoulder degeneration to flare up at some point and he’d likely need another nerve-blocking injection. History will look back ruefully at this contract, but it should not be forgotten that when healthy, this guy was a bulldog.
►Daniel Norris: Norris has persevered through an assortment of injuries, most seriously groin surgery, and seemed finally to find his groove in the second half of last season. It’s not just that his fastball velocity got back up to 92-93 mph, he learned how to use his slider, change-up and curveball effectively off the fastball. It would have been fun to see how he’d fare in a 30-start season.
►Tyler Alexander: As camp shut down, it looked like this fearless lefty was going to make the team as a reliever, only because Gardenhire was bent on bringing the best 13 arms north regardless. But his future is likely as a starter. His fastball barely breaks 90 mph, but he attacks the strike zone with five pitches. His 3% walk rate last year ranked in the top one percentile in baseball.
►Michael Fulmer: Coming off Tommy John surgery, Fulmer is about two weeks away from being cleared to throw to hitters. But, as Anderson said Wednesday, the Tigers don’t want him to do that until they reconvene for the second spring training. “He’s been patient this far, he can be patient a little longer,” Anderson said. Still, by the end of July, if baseball is back, Fulmer is going to be, at the very least, back on the radar.
►Dario Agrazal: Claimed from the Pirates, the 25-year-old Panamanian made a good impression this spring. Not overpowering, but he throws a heavy sinker and gets a lot of soft contact (29.8% hard-contact rate was in the top eight percentile in 14 starts with the Pirates last year).
►Zack Godley: The Tigers invited him to camp on the recommendation of Gardenhire, who was the bench coach in Arizona when Godley was at his best. But in the last two seasons, he’s fought his control. And he showed no signs of getting it back in five appearances this spring (eight walks in 4⅓ innings). He had an opt-out and it was doubtful he would accept a demotion to Triple-A Toledo.
►Tim Adleman: He’s been in professional baseball since 2010, spent a year in Korea and parts of two seasons with the Reds. He’s as knowledgeable about his craft as anyone and will almost certainly be a pitching coach when his playing days are done. For now, though, he serves as a very capable fill-in starter at any of three levels — Double-A, Triple-A and big leagues.
►Casey Mize: With a fastball that he can command at 94 to 97 mph, a nasty Jack Morris-like splitter, as well as a slider and cutter, his stuff is big-league ready. His mechanics are just about textbook and all his intangibles are off the charts. The only thing holding him back is innings. Two shoulder issues last year limited him to 109 innings and losing these two months puts him back another step.
►Matt Manning: Maybe a half-step behind Mize in terms of polish (mechanics and tools), but his 97-mph heater and diabolical curveball will play at any level — especially coming downhill from a 6-foot-6, long-armed release. Developing a slider, without losing his curveball, is his next hurdle.
►Tarik Skubal: This is a powerful and poised left-handed pitcher who struck out 82 Double-A hitters in 42⅓ innings last year. Like Mize and Manning, his fastball sits in the mid-90s and can hit 97. He’s got an above-average slider. His curveball and change-up are still works in progress. There is a reason the Tigers paid him $350,000, way over the slot money for a ninth-round pick.
►Alex Faedo: Perhaps not as physically gifted as the first three, but he may have more moxie on the mound than any of them. After a rough year in 2018, he straightened out his mechanics, got his fastball velocity back up to the mid-90s and got the bite back in his slider, which is his money pitch. Probably projects to be a back end of the rotation guy.
►Anthony Castro: Although he’s been in the system since 2012 (Tommy John surgery in 2015), he’s still 25 and just now coming into his own. His stuff is electric (10.2 strikeouts per nine innings at Double-A last year) but it’s also erratic (5.7 walks per nine). He had a rough spring — eight runs, four hits, three walks and two hit batsmen in two innings — and there’s a chance he would’ve started the year back at Double-A.
Five in the hole
►Joey Wentz: Acquired from the Braves for Shane Greene, this lefty was part of the Fab Five until he tore the UCL in his left arm and underwent Tommy John surgery last month. He's the No. 8-ranked prospect in the system.
►Franklin Perez: After two maddening, injury-plagued seasons with the Tigers, Perez was finally able to pitch this spring. And as you’d expect after throwing just 27 innings in two years, he was rusty. His velocity, once in the mid-to-upper 90s, sat in the lower 90s. And he hadn’t regained the feel on his slider. But he’s 22 and could move up the ranks quickly if he gets back to form.
►Spenser Watkins: He’s 27 years old and was roughed up a fair bit in two stints at Triple-A Toledo. But judging from how often the Tigers brought him over from minor-league camp the last two years, there’s something here that intrigues them. He does throw hard and he throws a lot of strikes.
►Paul Richan: Acquired from the Cubs in the Nick Castellanos trade, Richan is a very polished 23-year-old who dominated High-A last year, posting a 115-20 strikeout-walk rate in 123⅔ innings. He comes from the same California high school that produced Trevor Bauer, Tyler Glasnow and James Shields.
►Logan Shore: The former No. 1 starter on some really good Florida teams, Shores’ three-pitch mix with a low-90s fastball hasn’t overwhelmed yet. Which is why the Tigers may soon convert him to the bullpen.
Five on the rise
►Elvin Rodriguez: He came to Detroit for Justin Upton and was considered a project, but he’s put up solid seasons at West Michigan and then last year at Lakeland. He’s 22 and a skinny 160 pounds. His fastball sits at 91-92 right now, but the projection is that it will get to the mid-90s as his body fills out.
►Wilkel Hernandez: He was acquired from the Angels for Ian Kinsler, and is still raw, throwing 101 innings at West Michigan last year. His fastball projects to be in the mid-90s as he grows (it’s 91-92 now) but it has a lot of late life. His change-up improved steadily last year.
►Keider Montero: Just a baby at 19, and he weighed under 150 pounds. But he can a sling a baseball. Last year was his first year in the U.S. (spent two years with the Tigers Dominican team) but there are those in the organization who feel he will ascend quickly.
►Carlos Guzman: A power-armed Venezuelan was shut down last May with elbow soreness. It was unclear (minor-league medical reports are sketchy in spring training) whether he’d bounced back or would need surgery. But he was impressive at West Michigan.
►Hugh Smith: He stands 6-foot-10, so he comes at hitters like a right-handed Randy Johnson with a sinking mid-90s fastball. He’s only 10 Low-A starts into his pro career, just learning how to pitch. Worth watching, for sure.