Detroit Tigers, Jose Urena optimistic that pitcher can return to form after shaky 2 years

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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The newest member of the Detroit Tigers is right-hander Jose Urena, who signed a one-year, $3.25 million contract last week.

The six-year veteran of the Miami Marlins is a bounce-back candidate, wasn’t an expensive addition and should help the team through the expected inning limits for pitchers in 2021.

“A new experience for me,” Urena said Tuesday. “But I’m happy for all the support, and I’m happy to be working for the Detroit Tigers. … My target is to try to do everything I do (and) try to do it more quiet, more consistent, and go out there and have fun.”

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Because general manager Al Avila isn’t taking a win-now approach to this winter’s activities, the 29-year-old should be considered a decent short-term fit. He will slide into a rotation filled with newcomers and veterans.

Urena peaked in 2017 and 2018, boasting a 3.90 ERA, 1.228 WHIP, 243 strikeouts and 115 walks between the two years. He had a 23-19 record, tossing 343⅔ innings in 65 games (59 starts).

In the 2019 and 2020 seasons, however, Urena registered a combined 5.25 ERA, 1.481 WHIP, 77 strikeouts and 39 walks in 29 games (18 starts) across 108 innings. He had a 4-13 record.

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Urena was designated for assignment in late November and non-tendered by the Marlins at the Dec. 2 deadline. Two meager seasons in a row forced the organization to make him a free agent.

“Once Jose became available, we had him identified as a player that could come in and help our ballclub win games,” Avila said in a released statement. “We’re excited to add his experience pitching at a high level, and know he’ll contribute to our young staff in significant ways.

“Jose has a great ability to navigate a lineup and limit damage, while keeping his team in the game, which is exactly the stability we’re looking for heading into the 2021 season.”

Healthy again

There were two key reasons for Urena’s struggles in 2019 and 2020: injuries and inconsistencies.

He went to the 10-day injured list with COVID-19 at the end of July — just before the start of the shortened season — and didn’t make his debut until Sept. 7.

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In his fifth and final start, Urena was removed Sept. 27 against the New York Yankees in the third inning. He took a line-drive comebacker from DJ LeMahieu off his arm and was diagnosed with a non-displaced ulna fracture in his right forearm.

“I’m healthy; I’m throwing,” Urena said. “I’m going to start the throwing program. … If you look back to ’17 and ’18, that gives you an idea of when I was healthy and I was complete. … For me, if I got out there and I stay healthy, the longer I can be there playing and competing, the better.”

While Urena can be effective when healthy, his command often fails him. His control is average with an 8.1% career walk rate, but his hard-hit percentage (41.9%) was in the 22nd percentile among pitchers last season.

The exit velocity against him was 90.6 mph last season (13th percentile). Those are areas he must improve to increase his value.

Close relationship

New manager AJ Hinch has assembled a fresh coaching staff entering his first season. The only mainstays from the old regime were first base coach Ramon Santiago and quality control coach Josh Paul.

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One of his additions was assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves, who spent the last two seasons as the pitching coach for Triple-A Toledo. The 55-year-old’s past experiences helped him earn a promotion and pair up with pitching coach Chris Fetter.

From 2016-18, Nieves was the pitching coach for the Marlins and worked directly with Urena.

“He affected me a lot (in) the way we worked (during) those years,” Urena said. “Every time we got out there, just tried to get two people on the same radar. Tried to find a fight and an attack in my throwing. Tried to get that from my legs. That was kind of the thing we were working on all the time with the pre-workout. That was the process. He was pretty good.”

Using the slider

In 2019, Urena used his slider 19.9% of the time. He featured his power sinker the most (averages 95 mph, touches 98 mph), followed by his slider, changeup, curveball and four-seam fastball.

Urena went to four pitches in 2020: sinker (41.7%), slider (32.3%), four-seam fastball (18.9%) and changeup (7.1%). The increased use of his slider came as a product of the troubles with his changeup.

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“My changeup sometimes is too hard,” Urena said. “Sometimes it’s a little hard for me to get my body slowed down and get in a good position when my arm is too quick.”

Opponents were 6-for-33 (.162) against his slider last season, but in 2019, opponents hit .302 against that pitch. Still, if his slider compliments his sinker and changeup as well as it did in 2020, he could be destined for a revival.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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