Detroit Tigers sign Jose Urena, but their short-term pitching plan hasn’t worked recently

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila issued another example of the organization’s harsh reality of its prolonged rebuild when his team introduced new right-handed pitcher Jose Urena.

The 29-year-old — who was non-tendered by the Miami Marlins and signed a one-year, $3.25 million deal with the Tigers on Dec. 23 — can “come in and help our ballclub win games,” Avila said. He possesses the ability to “navigate a lineup and limit damage,” with the experience necessary to mentor a young rotation. Also, Urena is skilled at “keeping his team in the game” and gives the Tigers stability entering the 2021 season because of expected inning limits.

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But don’t take these lofty expectations to the bank. At least not yet.

Urena is, at best, a bounce-back candidate. His last two seasons, riddled by injuries, featured a combined 5.25 ERA in 108 innings. He shows what the Tigers have in store for 2021: They’re going to squeeze another year out of the rebuild.

If the Tigers are lucky, they’ll get a trade piece at the deadline. But luck doesn’t seem to find its way to Detroit. Not in recent years, that is.

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Best laid plans

Remember Ivan Nova last season? Or Tyson Ross and Matt Moore in 2019? Sure, Mike Fiers turned out to be a solid addition in 2018, but the latest track record of short-term deals to boost the rotation aren’t jaw-dropping. Yet Avila isn’t ready to sign anyone to a long-term contract.

“To go in here right now and make a big splash, and then all of a sudden it doesn’t work out, and then you’re trying to dump the salaries the following year,” Avila said last month, “that’s not what we’re looking at.”

Nova only appeared in four games in 2020, holding an 8.53 ERA in 19 innings. Ross pitched seven games and 35⅓ innings for the Tigers. He had a 6.11 ERA. Moore tossed 10 scoreless innings over two games before knee surgery ended his season.

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What Avila hopes is that Urena turns out more like Fiers, who had a 3.48 ERA for the Tigers in 2018, making 21 starts and logging 119 innings. That August, the 35-year-old was traded to the Oakland Athletics for cash and two players to be named later (Nolan Blackwood and Logan Shore).

In Nova, Ross and Moore, the Tigers failed to discover similar trade pieces. They didn’t get much in-game action, either. All three sustained injuries.

So there’s reason for skepticism in Avila’s early assessment of Urena, considering the right-hander’s poor production across the last two seasons.

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 of all pitches he threw that year, and it was the fastest pitch he ever threw in his career to begin a game.)

Getting back on track

When Urena was healthy in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, he had a 3.90 ERA, 1.228 WHIP and 243 strikeouts through 343⅔ innings in 65 games (59 starts). If he can return to top form, the Tigers will be pleased.

His rise in the Marlins’ rotation went south on Opening Day in 2019, as Urena was shelled for six runs. He had a 9.22 ERA in his first three contests and went to the injured list in June with a herniated disc in his lower back. He returned in early September as the closer.

“After I hurt my back, it took me a little longer,” Urena said. “That is a long process for your recovery. Anything you can do, just try to take care of your body and do good treatment and try to put all of that together, and you can get ready and be out there to compete. For me, that process was difficult.”

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Before the 2020 season began, Urena tested positive for COVID-19 and only made five starts. He was struck by a comebacker in late September — his final outing of the year — and was diagnosed with a non-displaced ulna fracture in his right forearm.

“I’m healthy; I’m throwing,” he said. “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 get out there and I stay healthy, the longer I can be there playing and competing, the better.”

But can Urena recapture his past successes? That’s where the Tigers need to aid him in rewriting his career. That’s where new pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves — who worked with Urena from 2016-18 in Miami — need to find a solution.

It’s a formula the Tigers missed on with Nova, Ross and Moore.

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With Urena on such a cheap contract, the Tigers could have him to evolve into a trade piece at the deadline to buoy their rebuild. The same is true for other players signed to short-term deals, assuming Avila makes a few more moves later this winter. These types of players only make sense if they turn into something helpful beyond 2021.

Right now, nothing is guaranteed.

“I don’t say I have a goal,” Urena said. “I like to say I have a target. 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. I have a lot to bring for people who love the game. Just try to get out there, be consistent and do the best I can to execute whatever the plan is.”

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

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