Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press
LAKELAND, Fla. — Reliever Zack Hess doesn’t need to put pressure on himself this spring.
The Detroit Tigers brought Hess, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the farm system’s No. 30 prospect, to major league spring training as a non-roster invitee. But the 23-year-old isn’t a candidate to break camp on the roster.
And Hess is OK with that.
Because there is a reason why the 6-foot-6 righty is in Lakeland, throwing bullpens alongside Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. And there is a reason why he is soaking up information about pitch sequencing and his repertoire from new manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter.
“My goal is to come out of camp better than when I went into camp,” Hess said Sunday. “That’s just the mindset I’m going to take throughout spring training and my time during the course of 2021. When I’m ready, I have a feeling things will take care of themselves.”
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Drafted in the seventh round in 2019 from LSU, Hess only has one season of professional experience. His development — like most other prospects — was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s cancellation of the minors last season.
In 2019, he pitched at three levels: Rookie league (one game), Short-season A Connecticut (five games) and Low-A West Michigan (16 games). The hard-throwing Hess posted a 2.60 ERA, 1.193 WHIP, 33 strikeouts and 16 walks at the three levels combined.
He was added to the 60-man player pool in mid-July 2020 and tossed 97 mph in summer camp. Most of his year, however, was spent in his Virginia hometown, where he met with a small group and faced hitters live.
“We think he can get a lot out of being in camp,” Hinch said. “He’s got stuff. He has the foundation to move fast a little bit. We want to see where he’s at up against the guys who are a little more ready. He’s at the very beginning of the learning stage.”
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It could be a long spring for Hess unless he starts on the Triple-A Toledo roster. Players assigned to Class-A and Double-A levels won’t begin their camps until the MLB and Triple-A players move out of TigerTown.
That might mean back-to-back spring trainings for Hess.
“That’s still something I’m waiting to talk to Chris and AJ about to see exactly how that’s going to get handled,” Hess said. “Right now, my feet are in big-league camp, and I’m keeping a short-term sight. As far as workload limit for spring training, it’s whatever the staff wants me to do.”
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Still, Hess knows it’s an exciting time to be in the organization, following the hires of Hinch, Fetter and the new coaching staff. And the team’s top pitching prospects — Mize, Skubal and Manning — are emerging into MLB starters.
The top hitting prospects — Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene — also got non-roster invitations to camp, meaning Hess isn’t far behind in the next wave of players to reach the majors and perhaps have a long-term impact.
“You’re seeing that starting group start to get up there,” Hess said. “It’s extremely motivating for me to want to be a factor in our bullpen sometime in the near future.”
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An ink-redible bet
Remember that 97 mph fastball Hess threw in summer camp?
He wants to crank it up a notch.
So much so that he made a bet with his agent, Rachel Luba, that he could hit 100 mph on the radar gun this season. (Luba also represents Trevor Bauer, who recently signed a three-year, $102 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.)
Here’s how the bet breaks down: If Hess gets his fastball to 100 mph, Luba must get a tattoo. If he doesn’t, he’s going to be the one sporting some fresh ink. For the record, Hess isn’t sure what his tattoo will be if he loses.
“I feel confident,” Hess said, laughing. “At the same time, I’m cool with getting a tattoo, so in my world, it’s a win-win. I’m not too afraid of it.”
To help, Hess gained muscle this offseason, adding 15 pounds — from 220 to 235 — to fill out his upper body. He is already feeling the difference, from moving down the mound to recovering from bullpen sessions.
The added weight should help Hess’ pursuit of the majors (and winning his bet with Luba), but it’s consistency in his day-to-day approach that will ultimately get him to Comerica Park.
“That’s something that AJ and I had a conversation about earlier this week,” Hess said. “I think my stuff is good enough on my best days to get big leaguers out. The key for me is going to be consistently getting that stuff on the field and executing within the strike zone.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.