Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Detroit Tigers right-hander Franklin Perez jogged out of the bullpen Wednesday to make his highly anticipated spring training debut.
Three and a half years ago, many believed Perez — the centerpiece of the 2017 Justin Verlander trade with the Houston Astros — would be the franchise’s future ace. Instead, the title may belong to left-hander Tarik Skubal, or righty Casey Mize, or the hard-throwing Matt Manning.
In many ways, Perez is now an afterthought.
[ Is Franklin Perez a ghost or a myth? Chasing the once-heralded prospect ]
Since he was traded to the Tigers, the 23-year-old has only appeared in 27 innings across nine games. Injuries kept him sidelined for most of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and the COVID-19 shutdown of the minor leagues in 2020 didn’t help his return.
But Perez on Wednesday took the mound in the seventh inning. He walked the first batter, Ronald Torreyes, but didn’t allow further damage. He threw 14 pitches; nine went for strikes.
“Well, it was his first outing in a long time, and I’m glad he got through it,” manager AJ Hinch said after the Tigers’ 6-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. “It gave him something to work from. Getting him into a game was really important. I know he worked hard to get himself back into games.”
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Although Perez made it through his lone inning unscathed, it wasn’t pretty.
He used four fastballs: 85.8 mph, 86.3 mph, 88.9 mph and 88.3 mph. A fastball maximum of just 88.9 mph, even in his first spring outing, is concerning — he got numerous live batting practices to prepare. Perez used to be able to consistently throw in the 92-94 mph range, before reaching back to hit 95 mph.
Does Hinch think Perez’s old velocity will ever return?
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see.”
[ Casey Mize struggles with command continue. Should Tigers be concerned this early? ]
Perez has been healthy for about a year, despite not pitching in official games since appearing in two contests for High-A Lakeland in 2019.
One year ago, he reached the low-90s in spring training. He then topped out around 92 mph in summer camp last July and continued to train at the alternate training site in Toledo. Wednesday, he averaged 87.3 mph.
“That’s one of the things we’re going to evaluate as we get back to Lakeland,” Hinch said.
Without his usual velocity, Perez turned to secondary pitches.
He used six changeups, two curveballs and two sliders. Of his 14 total pitches, he didn’t get a single strike swinging.
Perez’s curveball was the best offering he showed.
Following a five-pitch walk to Torreyes, Mickey Moniak flied out to left field. Luis Garcia reached on a fielder’s choice — Perez fielded the ball and fired to third baseman Daniel Pinero, who sent Torreyes into a rundown between second and third for an out. Finally, he got Edgar Cabral to ground out to third base.
During Moniak’s at-bat, Perez threw an 88.3 mph fastball above catcher Eric Haase’s head, allowing Torreyes to advance to second base.
“His fastball velocity is certainly down from what it’s been over the course of his career, and we’ll need to work through getting him back,” Hinch said. “Whether it’s arm strength, his conviction to throw and everything in between, we’ll take a look at it.”
Manning ‘answering every challenge’
It only took three pitches for Manning, one of the Tigers’ top prospects, to strike out 2015 National League MVP and six-time All-Star Bryce Harper. All three pitches were fastballs, with the final at 97.1 mph.
The Harper at-bat came after two-time All-Star Jean Segura, who led off the fifth inning. He took the right-hander 12 pitches. Eventually, Manning got him looking with a curveball to record his first strikeout. Didi Gregorius flied out to left field on the second pitch of his at-bat to end the inning.
“He threw the ball great,” Hinch said. “The ability for him to stay in the at-bat and continue to throw strikes, we had a nice conversation afterward. He’s such an athlete and can do a lot of different things. … He’s answering every challenge both mentally and physically that we would hope for this spring.”
Returning for the sixth inning, Manning allowed one run on three hits. He got a double play to escape further damage.
“He held the runner pretty well,” Hinch said. “He had great awareness. I didn’t call any of those pickoffs. That’s some game awareness from him to understand that they’re trying to move runners at that point.”
[ Tigers’ Matt Manning has MLB debut on his mind: ‘I’m ready to go’ ]
Manning pounded the strike zone Wednesday, using his four-seam fastball (17 times), curveball (eight) and slider (three). He got three swings-and-misses and one called strike with his four-seamer. His fastball averaged 94.4 mph.
It’s unlikely the 23-year-old will pitch beyond two innings in any one outing this spring.
“He didn’t log a ton of innings,” Hinch said. “Even (alternate training site) innings, he didn’t do a ton. We’re building back from scratch for him coming off of a broken season.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.