It’s a natural question, wondering when those prep and college pitching stars drafted by the Tigers last month will work in minor-league games somewhere within the Tigers chain.
The answer today is the same as the answer before any of the pitchers signed:
The Tigers don’t know.
“I don’t want to overstate it, but we want to be cautious,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads Tigers player development. “We’re customizing each guy’s program. And it does take time to ramp up pitching.
“This is not a normal season.”
It explains why, for example, the Tigers’ first draft pick, Jackson Jobe, hasn’t yet been told when, or where, he’ll pitch in a game.
Jobe threw 51 innings this spring for his prep team in Oklahoma City. That might suggest Jobe hardly has been over-taxed and should be ripe for a start either in the new Florida Complex League (the old Gulf Coast League) or with the low-Single A Lakeland Flying Tigers.
But no. This is 2021. The MLB Draft this year was moved back a month, from early June to July 11-13. It means that for pitchers like Jobe and others, their last competitive throwing came in May.
That’s a two-month layoff. For college pitchers who worked even into June, they have separate issues. The Tigers’ second choice last month, Texas star Ty Madden, threw 113.2 innings this spring. Add that heavy load to a 2020 that was knocked out at all amateur levels by COVID and the Tigers, as well as all other MLB clubs, are left with a dicey calculation as to who is ready for extra work and who isn’t.
Of equal concern and complexity is how much each pitcher can reasonably be expected to throw when so many new variables and conditions are thrown into a particular pitcher’s evaluation.
“It does take time to ramp up pitching,” Littlefield said, speaking most directly of pitchers who have been in games since May. “That’s why we have six weeks of spring training every year.”
A grandstand guess, not disputed by the Tigers, is that Jobe likely will be assigned some degree of game labor, either in the FCL or across the TigerTown lots at Marchant Stadium (Publix Field) where Single-A Lakeland plays its home games.
Madden? He might well have pitched in his last competitive game in 2021 during the NCAA tournament in June when he was with the Longhorns.
The other 10 pitchers the Tigers drafted last month all have their individual portfolios that the Tigers have been evaluating.
In the meantime, they work mostly on strength and conditioning. They also are being measured by high-tech appraisers on motion and delivery physics that factor into each pitcher’s stylized program. The Tigers also study their pasts, in detail, getting a gauge on whether a certain pitcher ever worked on short rest, or played another position when he wasn’t pitching, etc. Everything counts in setting up a program in the summer of 2021.
“Some of the relievers are closer than some of the starters,” Littlefield said. “But this is all something very unusual that you won’t be seeing again.”
The easier call came with position players the Tigers snatched in last month’s draft.
Already, they’re steadily beginning work in FCL games, with later promotions possible. Those already playing for the low-A Flying Tigers include catcher Mike Rothenberg, as well as outfielder Austin Murr.
Working for the Tigers West and Tigers East teams in the FCL are outfielders Austin Schultz, Ben Malgeri, and J.D. McLaughlin.
Home (and road) improvement
Life changed in 2021 for MLB minor-leaguers.
And not soon enough.
There was, most tangibly, an upgrade in pay:
► Triple A players beginning this season were bumped (during their five-month competitive season) from $502 per week to $700.
► Double A: $350 to $600.
► Single A: $290 to $500.
There were other improvements, way overdue, as MLB absorbed the minor leagues, shaving 42 teams and taking control over the remaining 120.
Clubhouses, dining areas, equipment rooms, etc. — all facilities were to meet specific MLB requirements.
Also: Food for clubhouses was to be provided by MLB rather than placing responsibility on clubhouse attendants who then were tipped by the players. That practice squeezed all parties and resulted too often in “food” that wasn’t exactly in step with American Medical Association recommendations.
Another benefit, huge, was a new schedule and reduced travel.
Mondays are off-days across most of the minor leagues. Also, teams now often play six-game series at one venue. It’s a tremendous break for players who previously spent too many of their days — and nights — on buses traversing minor-league territory that typically covers thousands of square miles.
Spencer Torkelson, the Tigers’ celebrity prospect at Double-A Erie, mentioned last week how 2021’s adjustments have influenced his and others’ baseball lives.
“It’s awesome,” Torkelson said. “A lot of the guys I’ve talked to say how different it is. You know you’re going to be in one place for six days. You’re in the same hotel for that time. You figure out a coffee shop you like.”
It’s simply a more livable — some might say, more human — experience. While playing baseball for a living has never been high on the sympathy scale, the bare truth is that conditions, for generations, had been borderline miserable for too many minor-leaguers ahead of MLB’s new policies that, all agree, are a long way from perfection.
The pay raises have helped. Players have climbed a tad above poverty-level wages, even if some players, a very select group, received signing bonuses at the outset that in the case of people like Torkelson have left them in nice shape for life.
Will Vest, who until late last month was Rule 5 property of the Seattle Mariners, is back with Toledo and Saturday got his first save. Vest has pitched in three games for the Mud Hens and has a 4.91 ERA as he reunites with a regular pitching routine after the Mariners returned him to Detroit.
… Player most frequently mentioned by his bosses as an up-and-comer in the Tigers farm: The winner, again this week: Eric De La Rosa, who could soon be headed from West Michigan to Double-A Erie.
De La Rosa, 24, and a seventh-round pick in 2018 from Grossmont College in El Cajon, California, is hitting .297, with an .824 OPS in 52 games for the Whitecaps. De La Rosa is a 6-foot-3, 186-pound, outfielder who swings right-handed.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.