The 23-year-old left-hander underwent Tommy John surgery — to reconstruct the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow — on March 17, 2020. He found joy in the milestones along the way: Working out in a gym, throwing a ball, long tossing and climbing back to the mound for bullpens.
Wentz began pitching full bullpen sessions late this March, about when the Tigers left spring training in Lakeland, Florida, for the regular season. He built up his left arm over the next two months and threw in extended spring training games before appearing in his first official game May 25 for the Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers.
“I feel good,” Wentz told the Free Press on Monday. “Getting back into the swing of pitching in games, I’m definitely a little tired after the games and the days after, but when I’m on the mound, I feel great. Everything feels fresh and good to go.”
The greatest milestone yet was pitching for Low-A Lakeland. Because unlike extended spring training, the games are real again, and the results will dictate how quickly he advances through the farm system.
There were 633 days between his last start for Double-A Erie and first start for Lakeland.
“It’s a process that takes over a year,” Wentz said. “I’m not going to say there’s like an adjustment, because you’re trilled to be back in games. But the first game was kind of a funny feeling because it’s been since 2019 for me. But it feels good, and it’s definitely a lot of fun.”
Wentz has made two starts for Lakeland since returning, both against the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels, an affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. He allowed three runs on three hits and three walks in 1⅔ innings for his first start, striking out two batters and throwing 26 of 55 pitches for strikes.
“The results weren’t great, but it was kind of like checking a box,” Wentz said about his May 25 outing. “I’m back in the game. That in and of itself was big for me.”
His second start Sunday was much better.
Wentz delivered four scoreless innings and five strikeouts without a walk. He fired 33 of 46 pitches for strikes. His only blemish: A double on a pop up to third baseman Nick Quintana, which he lost in the sun and did not touch his glove.
“It was good,” Wentz said. “I felt like I was ahead in way more counts. I was throwing my off-speed stuff in the strike zone and throwing competitive pitches. When I can do that, it’s going to go a lot better. Overall, I was happy with the results.”
Wentz said his fastball velocity fluctuates between 90-94 mph. The biggest challenge is developing the consistency of his off-speed pitches. He thinks the “action on my pitches” is improving each week.
“The changeup is improving, the curveball is improving,” Wentz said. “It’s not necessarily about what it is at this second. I want to pitch through this season and be healthy. Hopefully, you see the numbers go up a little bit. But I feel good about where I am in present day.”
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Wentz doesn’t think he will be pitching for the Low-A squad much longer. He pitched for Erie in 2019, after the Tigers acquired him in a trade with the Atlanta Braves. In five starts for the SeaWolves, Wentz logged a 2.10 ERA, four walks and 37 strikeouts in 25⅔ innings.
Manager AJ Hinch outlined the organization’s plan for Wentz’s return from Tommy John surgery.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he sees every level along the way,” Hinch said. “Not sure if he has to necessarily go from one A-ball to the next A-ball, but I could see him making a pitstop (in High-A West Michigan). … You should feel confident to work on things while you’re competing. You get to that next level in Double-A, he’s been there before. It’s going to feel a little bit normal.
“If we push him to Triple-A, that’s a whole ‘nother level of stress that comes with it. We want to make sure he’s physically able to handle all those steps. But step by step, we think we’re going to get him at the very least to the level he’s pitched at before, if not higher.”
Right-hander Matt Manning is expected to be the next top pitching prospect to reach the majors. But the 23-year-old, a No. 9 overall pick in 2016, has a 7.94 ERA in five starts for Triple-A Toledo this season.
Across 22⅔ innings, Manning has allowed 27 hits, 20 earned runs, 10 home runs, with eight walks to 23 strikeouts. He is the organization’s No. 3 prospect, behind Spencer Torkelson (High-A West Michigan) and Riley Greene (Double-A Erie).
“Well, I think he’s dealing with some lack of execution,” Hinch said. “He’s had a hard time keeping the ball in the ballpark, but the times in between those, he’s thrown the ball pretty well, and the stuff is still playing pretty well. He’s gotten hit around a little bit and the ball is flying out of the ballpark. That’s a little bit of a concern. That usually comes down to execution and throwing the ball in the wrong part of the strike zone, and guys are hurting him a little bit.”
In his most recent start, Friday against Louisville, Manning gave up six runs on six hits — one home run — with three walks and two strikeouts. He threw 75 pitches (44 strikes) in 3⅓ innings.
To keep tabs on Manning, Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter often speaks with Mud Hens pitching coach Doug Bochtler.
“It comes down to execution for Matt,” Hinch said. “It’s one of the reasons that I told him that we want him focused on getting outs at the Triple-A level. He’s got to earn his way here. The numbers are a little bit worse than he’s throwing, but we got to keep the ball in the ballpark and pitch a little more effectively.”
On May 16, Manning allowed four runs on five hits — two home runs — with three walks and one strikeout in 1⅔ innings against Triple-A Indianapolis, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was pulled from the game after throwing 45 pitches, 25 of them for strikes.
“Physically, he’s doing fine,” Hinch said. “Execution has been tough. When you’re in the minor leagues and development, there’s some pretty hard-and-fast rules on how to use him. He used the pitch count up pretty quickly the other day and had a really long inning. For the safety and health of his arm, they pulled him. That’s why he had the short start.”
On the Opening Day roster bubble in spring training, infielder Isaac Paredes got sent to Triple-A Toledo and is awaiting his return to the major leagues. He is hitting 25-for-91 (.275) with two doubles, two triples, two home runs, 12 RBIs, 11 walks and 15 strikeouts for the Mud Hens.
Paredes, 22, has started 10 games at second base, seven at third base and three at shortstop.
“You know me, I like extra positions,” Hinch said. “You tell me a guy can play another position, I’m going to want to try it. … It’s been a nice revelation that it might not be every day, but any given day that he could play shortstop, even up here.”
For the details on Paredes’ progress, Hinch has stayed in touch with Toledo manager Tom Prince. He is the team’s No. 4 prospect.
“We always talk about Paredes every time we talk,” Hinch said. “You can look at the numbers and the stat sheets and all the intel, and that’s fine. But I want to know how he’s playing. And Tom Prince said he’s playing very well. The way he’s moving, the way (he handles) his responsibilities, the baseball IQ stuff we talked about in spring. All that is showing up that doesn’t show up in the box score or the stat sheet. He’s swinging it a little bit better in recent weeks, so that’s encouraging.”
Paredes made his MLB debut in 2020, playing 34 games for the Tigers. He hit .220 with one home run, six RBIs, eight walks and 24 strikeouts. He won the Mexican Pacific Winter League batting title with a .379 batting average in 42 games this offseason.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.