Detroit — You could just picture Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson and manager Ron Gardenhire looking at each other during right-hander Jose Cisnero’s two perfect innings Saturday and nodding, as if to say, “That’s more like it.”
There are very few secured spots in the Tigers bullpen at this point, but Cisnero was supposed to have one of them. He fought his way back to the big leagues after a five-year hiatus to pitch in 35 games last year, featuring a 96-mph fastball with a spin rate (2,428 rpm) that ranked in the top 20 percent in baseball.
But something looked different back in February in Lakeland.
“We were a little concerned,” Gardenhire said Saturday. “The ball wasn’t really jumping out of his hand. …We were a little nervous about it. But it’s spring training and we have to keep remembering that. Today was a really good day.”
Cisnero, who actually appeared to be back on form in his last two outings in Lakeland, struck out three of the six hitters he faced, punching out Christin Stewart, Eric Haase and prospect Riley Greene (on three pitches). He dispatched the last three hitters he faced in seven pitches.
“Out there today, the ball was jumping out of his hand,” Gardenhire said. “He was throwing his breaking ball (slider) in there, too, but the fastball really jumped. We like this guy. He ate up a lot of good innings for us and pitched in some big moments.”
With less than two weeks before opening day, Gardenhire called the race for bullpen jobs, “open.”
“Our bullpen, we threw a lot at them last year, we about killed them,” he said. “Some of these who are coming back, we will see how it goes. We are trying to put together our best bullpen, that’s why we are auditioning these guys.
“We don’t have a set bullpen right now. We’ve got a few guys we know will probably be there, but the rest is up for grabs, as it should be.”
Closer Joe Jimenez and set-up man Buck Farmer, who have looked strong thus far, both in Lakeland and in camp, are locked in. Cisnero, left-hander Gregory Soto and most likely Rule 5 rookie Rony Garcia are good bets to be in the bullpen when camp breaks.
After that, it’s a dogfight.
“There’s an honor system based on what some of these guys did for us last year,” Gardenhire said. “Things that we trust and believe in that can help us. But there’s going to be some (open) spots here. As these guys are trying to get back into game shape, they are also trying to impress.”
With a 30-man roster to start the season, Gardenhire will be able to carry three or more extra pitchers. If you figure the Tigers carry a third catcher, two utility players, four outfielders and five infielders counting designated hitter Miguel Cabrera, that leaves room for 16 pitchers, three more than will be allowed when the rosters cut back to 26 after four weeks.
Complicating the issue further is the health and readiness of starter Daniel Norris. On the injured list after testing positive for COVID-19, Norris has yet to throw a pitch in camp. Whether he can get his arm stretched out and ready in 2.5 weeks (if he’s the fifth starter) is questionable.
If Michael Fulmer, coming off Tommy John surgery, shows that he’s fully ready to return, that would be an easy solve for the rotation. Lefty Tyler Alexander, stretching out to either start or pitch long relief, is another option.
Eventually, top pitching prospect Casey Mize could also crack the rotation before the end of the summer.
Here’s a breakdown of the Tigers bullpen:
Locks: Jimenez, Farmer, Soto (LHP), Cisneros, Rony Garcia.
Long-relief options: Fulmer, Alexander (LHP), Dario Agrazal, Zack Godley, Hector Santiago (LHP). Alexander gave up two home runs in his camp debut. Agrazal, Godley and Santiago were all solid in two-inning stints.
Middle-relief options: Nick Ramirez (LHP), Bryan Garcia, Shao-Ching Chiang, David McKay, John Schreiber, Nolan Blackwood. Ramirez gave up a run Saturday -- he hung a two-strike cutter to Jake Rogers who lined it off the wall in left -- but otherwise looked sharp. Garcia and Chiang were both impressive in their initial scrimmage appearances.
Prospects/taxi squad: Anthony Castro, Kyle Funkhouser, Franklin Perez, Beau Burrows.
“Like I said, we lost 114 games last year,” Gardenhire said. “We’re open.”
Gardenhire shuffled his outfield around for the five-inning intrasquad game Saturday. JaCoby Jones, who did hitting and defensive work early, was given the game off. Travis Demeritte has been nursing a sore groin and hasn’t played since Thursday. Victor Reyes, who missed the first four days waiting for the results of his virus test, started and ripped an RBI double. Derek Hill got his first start and doubled. Prospect Riley Greene made his second straight start and robbed Jeimer Candelario of a double with a long running catch near the cutout in right-center field.
…Spencer Turnbull, the Tigers’ No. 2 starter, blew through the first eight batters he faced, racking up four strikeouts. But he didn’t finish the inning. Despite getting two strikes on the next three hitters, he walked Willi Castro and gave up back to back doubles to Harold Castro and Reyes. “He got a little tired at the end,” Gardenhire said. “His pitch count got up (56) but he threw the ball great. His velocity was good and his breaking ball was sharp. We liked what we saw.”
…The Tigers veteran free agent acquisitions – Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron – both homered. Schoop, who was launching monster shots into the second level of seats in left field during batting practice – hit a two-strike laser into the bullpen in left off Rony Garcia. Cron hit a three-run shot off John Schreiber (though Schreiber had already recorded three outs in the inning). Cron stayed and hit curve balls off the pitching machine for 20 minutes after the game. “He just felt he wasn’t picking the ball up good,” Gardenhire said. “He told us he wanted to hit after the game and then he hit a home run. We asked him, ‘Are you good?’ And he said no, he still wanted to hit.”
…Gardenhire said he expects the league to assign three or four umpires to work some of the intrasquad games next week. “They need to get in shape for the season, too,” he said.