Injuries are, of course, a part of baseball like any sport. Particularly early in the year, pitcher injuries inevitably re-shape bullpens and starting rotations even before Opening Day. The Detroit Tigers have had more than their share already, and it’s going to be tough to keep around the .500 mark for the next few weeks as they wait for their staff to get healthy, and for some of their top pitching prospects to get into a groove that could see them called up to assist.
Let’s take a look at the options, and where the Tigers and their fans can pin their hopes.
First of all, if the club has a chance to weather this storm, it’s because they have Chris Fetter and Juan Nieves as pitching coaches. Based on their 2021 work, the Tigers’ organization has rarely seen pitching coaches make so much positive impact on a pitching staff. Under their watch, guys like Kyle Funkhouser, Alex Lange, and Joe Jimeñez, among others, showed significant improvement, and even some veteran castoffs and non-prospects like Wily Peralta, Drew Hutchison, Jason Foley, and Mark Leiter were surprisingly effective. We joke about Fetter magic, but of course, there’s no magic involved and the coaching staff can only do so much. Still, we won’t be surprised a second time if the Tigers get more out of their depth than expected.
The veteran starter options
In his postgame following Saturday’s loss to the Royals, Tigers manager AJ Hinch made a point of noting that Matt Manning’s removal from the game was precautionary. They saw something they did not like, pressed the young starter about it, and he admitted some right shoulder discomfort. That does not sound as scary as Casey Mize’s sprained elbow ligament. Hinch seemed to suggest that Manning might have stayed in if the staff was already at full power, but that Mize’s injury made them extra careful with Manning to be sure they don’t go down two long-term starters. Still, for right now, we have to assume that the rotation is Eduardo Rodriguez, Tarik Skubal, and Tyler Alexander for at least one turn though.
The Tigers purchased the contract of minor league free agent addition Wily Peralta on Saturday in response to the Mize injury. Reliever Bryan Garcia was designedated for assignment and is not much of a loss. Odds are good he goes unclaimed and the Tigers can get him back if they so desire. Peralta did a really nice job for the Tigers last summer after Spencer Turnbull and Matthew Boyd went down to injury, and Michael Fulmer was finally moved to the bullpen for good. However, there was plenty of batted ball luck involved.
Peralta struck out just 14.4 percent of hitters he faced, and walked 9.5 percent of them in 2021. That is a brutal ratio even beyond the very low strikeout mark. Peralta got fifty percent of balls in play on the ground, which helps, while giving up just a major league average ratio of home runs. In short, Peralta can keep you in a game, and if the positioning and defense are sharp, can survive short starts in the majors. But there isn’t much there to bank on, particularly with a mediocre defensive ball club, but he is capable of keeping them in games and turning things over to the bullpen without a blow-up inning. Peralta would ideally be used as a long relief option at most.
The Tigers final free agent signing of the preseason, veteran starter Michael Pineda, hasn’t looked very good for the Toledo Mud Hens thus far, but he’s only made two appearances after missing all of camp to lockout-caused work visa delays. His long track record of solid performance says he’ll get it together but he’s still faced hitters in a live game situation twice since last season. A rush job is probably in order, with the Tigers perhaps using Pineda and Peralta as piggyback starters for now. They give hitters different enough looks that a tandem, each going through the opposing order once, should work reasonably well. At least as well as your standard major league fifth starter. That would still leave the Tigers short a starting pitcher until Manning is ready to return.
Prospect options- LHP Joey Wentz
Right now, the most likely Tigers’ pitching prospect who could be called up to start is left-hander Joey Wentz, currently with the Toledo Mud Hens. He’s the best option already on the 40-man roster, and if Manning is out for an extended stint, is most likely to get the call. Our ninth-ranked Tigers prospect, you’ll remember Wentz was acquired from the Atlanta Braves in 2019 for reliever Shane Greene. The 6-foot-5 inch lefty had Tommy John surgery right after spring camp was called off for COVID in 2020, and returned last season, shaking off some early shakiness to finish the season in fairly promising fashion.
The repaired elbow ligament, as well as the conditioning regimen required to rehabilitate the arm, often results in a pitcher returning to show increased velocity once they’ve built up to a normal workload. This spring, Wentz has been no exception. When the Tigers acquired him, he sat 92-93 mph with his fastball, occasionally touching higher, but sometimes scraping 90 mph as well. This spring, Wentz has been pretty consistently 94-95 mph with the ability to comfortably reach back for extra whenever he wants. Combined with a good changeup and a solid overhand curveball, there’s enough there for Wentz to start at the major league level. It does not hurt his chances that he was pitching the same day as Casey’s last start, meaning he could slot right in on regular rest.
Wentz has typically been a solid strike thrower since coming over to the Tigers, but also something of a nibbler without real command over his usual three-pitch mix. The extra power to his stuff helps overcome some location issues, but he’s still got to get those long limbs in sync. Here’s a look at his last start on Thursday night. You’ll get a pretty good idea of the strengths and weaknesses. He got jobbed out of a strike call or three, and at least one of his homers allowed was simply a wind-aided routine fly ball to right, as the wind was steadily 20+ mph out to right field, but the couple mistakes he made were hit pretty hard.
RHP Beau Brieske
Of the Tigers starters in the minor leagues, Brieske is probably the most major league ready, however he does not yet have a 40-man roster spot and only reached Double-A last August. We ranked him 15th in the system preseason, but we’ve already seen enough to bump him up into the top five. Brieske has shown better velocity this spring as well, going from a 92-93 mph guy who occasionally had 94-95 mph, to a guy now sitting 94 mph and hitting as high as 97 mph on the gun. More importantly, his high spin, riding fourseamer and release play beautifully up in the zone for whiffs and weak contact.
Brieske too is developing a good slider-changeup combo to go with the heater, and will steal some strikes with a fringy curveball as well. The stuff is plenty good enough to handle major league hitters, but while location hasn’t been as much an issue as for Wentz, Brieske’s command could still use further refinement before a major league debut. The Tigers would probably like to give Brieske another month of work in Toledo before considering him for a call-up, but both he and Wentz have had a summer ETA since their spring performances. A lengthy injury to Manning would force the Tigers hand here. Personally, Brieske looks a lot closer to major league readiness of the two.
The out of the box solution to these issues is to just hang in there until the bullpen is reinforced, and then matchup once through opposing lineups using a mix of fifth starter types and long relievers. Lefty Andrew Chafin seems likely to be ready by the end of the month, and potentially right-hander Kyle Funkhouser isn’t on a much longer timetable than that. If the Tigers can get their best arms in the pen, they’ll be in much better shape even if Peralta, Alexander, and Pineda are not the most appealing 3-5 starter crew we’ve seen. Obviously they’re going to need Eduardo Rodriguez to start pitching like Eduardo Rodriguez, and for Skubal to continue giving them quality outings.
Basically, there are no easy solution. But if the Tigers can hang on over the next two weeks without going on a long losing streak, they may be able to come through this without too much trouble. We watched the coaching staff integrate pitching and defense very well last year, and squeeze far more than expected out of quite unheralded arms. Hopefully they won’t have to manage this situation for very long before help starts to arrive.