Detroit Tigers’ relievers will have defined roles but AJ Hinch wants them to be versatile

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Manager AJ Hinch hasn’t seen every member of the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen throw yet, considering Thursday’s pitcher-catcher workouts included the second of three groups of arms.

But he was willing to talk about the construction of his staff on the second day of spring training. Plenty needs to be ironed out, from the starting rotation to the middle relievers to the closer.

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After preaching versatility for his position players, Hinch is sending the same message to his relievers. He doesn’t want to give the impression that his reign as the manager will be “organized chaos,” meaning relievers should end up with defined roles at some point.

What Hinch really wants is flexibility within versatility.

“Somebody’s going to be our closer,” Hinch said Thursday. “I’ll use the term. I’m going to name one. But that doesn’t mean the closer is only going to pitch the 25th, 26th and 27th outs. That time in our era of baseball is less rigid, and I like that part.”

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The Tigers’ bullpen is mostly solidified. Bryan Garcia, Buck Farmer, Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero and Joe Jimenez are considered locks, with the roles for last year’s long relievers Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander unclear.

Farmer and others typically bound to one inning will be pushed to throw multiple innings.

“The number of starters and who those starters are going to be determined in time,” Hinch said. “The younger our rotation is, the more that we are going to have to look at that extra reliever, that eight-man bullpen anyway, which could impact the position-player group.”

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Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser are competing for roster spots, too, after making their MLB debuts in 2020. They will be stretched out to three innings before the Tigers decide their roles.

“Those guys have to live in a little bit of a gray area between the starter and reliever build-up,” Hinch said. “Until we get into competition, it’s hard to make any declarations on what’s best. The better these guys pitch, the more they’re going to factor into any role. … Every day is a test for them.”

Rony Garcia, recovering from an appendectomy, made it through last year as a Rule 5 draft pick on the active roster, meaning he can now return to the minors. Two of the non-roster invitees to spring training — Derek Holland and Erasmo Ramirez — could make the roster as long relievers. Ex-Tiger Ian Krol is another lottery ticket bullpen option.

Righty Drew Carlton, 25, is a dark horse, with a 1.74 ERA across three seasons in the minors. While he might start in Triple-A Toledo, Carlton could make his MLB debut in 2021.

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One of these players on the outside looking in might find their way into the bullpen. With the regular-season schedule providing two days off in eight days, and the chances of inclement weather, the Tigers might start with a five-man rotation before shifting to six.

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“That really doesn’t matter, whether you have a five-man or a six-man, you’re going to need length (in innings),” Hinch said. “I want versatility when it comes to the bullpen. I’m probably selling it too much. Versatility is going to be like my middle name.

“But I like having options in ways to win games. If you get too rigid with how you use your bullpen in these one-inning stints, it can really impact you.”

Thursday’s workout

Six pitchers had bullpen sessions during Thursday’s workout: Jimenez, Farmer, Burrows, Matthew Boyd, Casey Mize and Spencer Turnbull. Hinch said he had a “long discussion” with Mize after he pitched.

“A little bit of a staggered workout today for two reasons,” Hinch said. “One is the COVID protocols and the other was how wet the fields were. We used the turf field and the bullpens with our group. Everybody’s getting through their work really well.”

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Right-handed starter Jose Urena and lefty reliever Gregory Soto, each having dealt with work visa issues, are now in the U.S. and going through the COVID-19 screenings.

The Tigers are still without right-hander Franklin Perez. The 23-year-old had his COVID-19 intake screening, but “there was a snag in him being able to workout (Wednesday).” Expected in camp Thursday, there was no sign of Perez.

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“Not health-related, just simply process-related,” Hinch said. “He’s in Lakeland. As you know, the storm that’s hit the entire country except for the state of Florida has created a little bit of a backlog with the protocols and intake testing. That’s why he’s not a participant yet.”

Perez pitched 19⅓ innings in 2018 and 7⅔ innings in 2019, derailed by injuries during those seasons. Last year, with the minors canceled, he stayed healthy and pitched at the alternate training site in Toledo.

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Fulmer gets early nod

The Tigers begin spring training games Feb. 28 against the Philadelphia Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, followed by the New York Yankees in Tampa (March 1) and Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton (March 2).

Right-hander Michael Fulmer will start one of the Tigers’ early spring training games. The 27-year-old pitched his first bullpen session Wednesday.

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“We need to find out what we have with him now that he’s successfully gone through the rehab process,” Hinch said. “He had to do it at the major-league level last year because of no minor leagues. I don’t want to put limitations on him. He’s pretty upbeat. He’s very determined. He feels like he’s got something to prove.”

In 2020, Fulmer wasn’t allowed to pitch beyond three innings in his return from Tommy John surgery, but he made all 10 of his scheduled starts. He finished with an 8.78 ERA, 20 strikeouts and 12 walks in 27⅔ innings.

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“He’s got to work from the ground up with his delivery, with his land leg, all the mechanics that we’re talking about for him to get his velocity back,” Hinch said. … “That’s what spring training is for. It’s trying to assess where he’s at and where he fits in.”

Meet Cale Coshow

On Wednesday, right-handed reliever Cale Coshow, a former top-30 prospect with the New York Yankees, signed a minor-league deal.

Coshow is not in big-league camp nor in the Tigers’ mini-camp. Hinch said adding him to the mix this spring is “to be determined.” The 28-year-old had Tommy John surgery in 2019. He reached Triple-A with the Yankees in 2017-19.

Last year, Coshow gave up five earned runs in four innings (11.25 ERA) for Fargo-Moorhead, an independent team in the American Association.

“I could really care less about the ERA, just because it was one bad outing where I gave up three or four runs, and I was one pitch away from getting out of it,” Coshow said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be at 100%. I was using that as a gauge to see, ‘Hey, is this rehab working?'”

His first appearance for Fargo-Moorhead in July was about 14 months after his elbow surgery.

“I was already back in the low- to mid-90s,” Coshow said. “Typically, my fastball has been anywhere from about 95-96. Pre-Tommy John, I could run it up there to 100. I feel like I’m back to that pedigree again. … With this new elbow, I feel like I could possibly throw harder.”

Across seven seasons in the minors, Coshow has a 3.68 ERA, 1.350 WHIP, 386 strikeouts and 164 walks in 391 innings. He was teammates with Fulmer, a fellow Tommy John victim, at Deer Creek High School in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Coshow expects to start the season in Triple-A Toledo.

“If everything goes well,” Coshow said, “I feel like I could definitely help out the major-league bullpen, possibly this summer.”

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

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