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Tigers manager Hinch won't save his closer for only the final three outs

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – Yes, AJ Hinch likes versatility. He likes options both with his starting lineup – a day to day lineup, not an everyday lineup. Yes, he’s not big on setting hard-and-fast job descriptions, especially with his bullpen and certainly not in February.

But don’t get it twisted.

“I don’t want to give the impression that it’s going to be organized chaos,” he said Thursday. “Guys will have pretty firm roles. But I might need you in a different role later if I define it on Feb. 18. I want time and an evaluation period to figure out how we’re going to use you.

“They will not be surprised by anything I do with them.”

Hinch does believe in naming and using a closer. But he might define the role a little differently than some other managers.

Tigers manager AJ Hinch gives instructions at the Detroit Tigers pitchers and catchers workout in Lakeland, Fla. on Feb. 18, 2021.

“Yeah, somebody is going to be our closer; I’ll use the term,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean the closer is just going to pitch the 25th, 26th and 27th outs. That term in our era of baseball is less rigid.”

On championship contending teams, the closer becomes almost symbolic, like a victory cigar.

“I want that guy who is relied upon,” Hinch said. “When he gets up in the bullpen, you get that feeling in the ballpark. Fans, coaches, players, managers, it’s like, ‘We’re going to win.’ That buzz that starts with the closer role is super important.”

The Tigers aren’t quite there yet, though. Hinch won’t always be able to wait until the ninth inning to light that victory cigar.

“When you’re in the situation we’re in, trying to build that mindset, I don’t want to wait to use that guy if I feel like I have to win that game earlier in the game,” he said. “The goal is to have so many good relievers you can get more defined roles.

“Right now, what I mean by not defining it is two-fold: One, I’ve got to get to know these guys and I’m not going to make a commitment until I feel pretty good about it. And two, we want them to earn it.”

Bryan Garcia finished last season as the club’s closer, and he performed well in a short sample. Joe Jimenez, an All-Star in 2018, has had his struggles the last two seasons, but over the final seven outings last year, he pitched 7.2 scoreless innings with seven strikeouts and no walks. Left-hander Gregory Soto was unhittable in stretches last season, but also continued to battle with his control.

Buck Farmer and Jose Cisnero have been steady if not spectacular in late-inning roles.

All of those pitchers are in the mix to work high-leverage innings and possibly earn the closer role.

Tigers pitcher Gregory Soto struck out 29 in 23 innings last season.

ABOUT SOTO

The one pitcher in that group that might possess the best raw tools for the closer role is Soto, with his mid-to-upper 90s fastball and a wipeout slider.

“He’s coming off a really good offseason and winter league,” Hinch said. “In his personal life and professional life, things are in a good place for him. But I want to see what he can do inside the strike zone. If he’s in the strike zone, he beats guys. He gets in trouble when he isn’t consistently in the strike zone.”

Soto last season struck out 29 and walked 13 in 23 innings. He also unleashed three wild pitches and hit two batters.

“Nobody wants to hit him,” Hinch said. “Nobody wants to face him. He’s got elite stuff. But we need strikes. The more that I can see his confidence growing – he wants to close, he wants to pitch in high-leverage.

“If he can back that up with effectiveness in the strike zone, he can fill just about any role we ask. He can be a big ingredient in our pen.”

Soto and right-handed starter Jose Urena have cleared their visa issues and are in the country. They are still a week away from workouts, though. They still have to take and pass COVID-19 intact tests.

STRETCHING OUT

While Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter have divided most the staff into groups of starters and relievers, there is a group of pitchers on the 40-man roster lingering on the fringes of both groups. Among that group are right-handers Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser and Alex Lange.

“We are going to stretch those guys out to two or three innings and then make a decision halfway through camp if we’re going to build them toward a rotation spot or the bullpen,” Hinch said. “Whether that’s Major Leagues or Triple-A.

“They are going to have to live a little bit in a gray area between starter and reliever.”

There is a group of non-roster pitchers in the same boat, including veterans Derek Holland and Erasmo Ramirez.

“The more versatile you can be the better,” Hinch said. “If you are on the roster, you have a chance. I met with Lange and that’s what I told him. You are on the roster so you are under consideration. But as a one-inning sprinter, you’re not going to break into the league that way. You probably need to be more versatile.

“Make yourself the answer when we have a question about who we should keep on our team.”

Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd, shown here during spring training last season, said new manager AJ Hinch's opening remarks Wednesday were "invigorating."

AROUND THE HORN

…Former Tigers reliever John Schreiber, who was put on waivers to make room for outfielder Nomar Mazara, was picked up by the Boston Red Sox. He was the fifth former Tiger claimed off waivers this off-season – Anthony Castro (Blue Jays), Troy Stokes, Jr. (Pirates), Sergio Alcantara (Cubs) and Travis Demeritte (Braves). Castro, Stokes and Alcantara were subsequently released.

…Pitcher Franklin Perez was still unable to workout Thursday. Hinch said it’s a non-injury situation. His intake test results have been delayed.

…Spencer Turnbull, Matthew Boyd, Jimenez, Farmer and Burrows threw bullpens on Thursday.   

Twitter@cmccosky