How Detroit Tigers prospect Joey Wentz fared in return from Tommy John surgery

Detroit Free Press

It’s been quite the journey for Joey Wentz.

He came to the Detroit Tigers from the Atlanta Braves in a 2019 trade. He made five starts in Double-A Erie as part of a rotation that featured Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo. That team’s manager, former Tigers catcher Mike Rabelo, once said Wentz “fits right in” with the homegrown pitching prospects. His numbers backed up the claim: 2.10 ERA, four walks and 37 strikeouts in 25⅔ innings.

In March 2020, Wentz underwent Tommy John surgery.

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He didn’t return to the mound until May 25, 2021. He pitched five games for Low-A Lakeland, then jumped to Double-A Erie on June 23 for his final 13 starts. In all 18 starts, he had a 4.50 ERA with 41 walks and 82 strikeouts in 72 innings. His walk rate — 14.2% in Erie — got him in trouble.

“The final step in a 13, 14-month process is finally getting back into games,” Wentz said Wednesday. “That felt great. Looking back at it, rehab is a long process. You think about it daily, weekly, all the time, like you just want to be back on a team with the guys and back in games.”

As Wentz returned to baseball activities, Mize, Skubal and Manning pitched for the Tigers in the major leagues. Last year in spring training general manager Al Avila suggested Wentz could make his MLB debut in 2021, but the left-hander is still waiting for his opportunity. He likely starts 2022 in Triple-A Toledo. If he pitches to expectations, the Tigers won’t hesitate to push him to the highest level.

“I would like to contribute at some point,” Wentz said. “I need to show much better to do that. It’s not all about the numbers, but numbers are important for wins. If I can go into spring (training) and show my stuff is good and keep the walks down and be healthy and be strong, I think I’ll have a good opportunity to have a good season, whatever level that’s at. Obviously, everyone is trying to pitch at the highest level. My main focus will still be on keeping the body healthy and trying to hone in on my pitches so I can compete at a high level.”

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Wentz tries not to put too much stock into his numbers last season. He took a different approach to evaluating his performances, considering the process of getting back to the pitcher’s mound after a career-changing elbow surgery isn’t easy. “Mentally,” he said, “you go through it a little bit.”

He tried to see the bigger picture.

“I pitched pretty poorly, but at the same time, I missed a lot of time,” Wentz said. “You can be salty about the numbers, and even though I didn’t pitch great, I would take that over being in rehab and stuff like that. It’s part of the process. I wish the numbers were better, but it’s the correct step.”

In Low-A Lakeland, Wentz recorded a 6.75 ERA with eight walks and 24 strikeouts in 18⅔ innings across five starts.

He had a 3.71 ERA with 33 walks and 58 strikeouts in Double-A Erie, completing 53⅓ innings over 13 starts. Each outing he started to feel more comfortable with his pitches; a four-seam fastball, changeup, curveball and slider.

“It’s really just repetitions,” Wentz said. “Everyone says different timeframes of when you can expect to feel comfortable again with offspeed pitches. I felt like every game I got better with that and every bullpen I got back. … Toward the end of the season, I was able to see some better results and better numbers.”

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Throughout his time in the minors, Wentz stayed in contact with Mize, Skubal, Manning and Faedo. He served as a mentor to Faedo, who underwent Tommy John surgery in January 2021 and expects to begin throwing bullpens in early January.

“You don’t see the ball when he throws it,” Faedo said Dec. 19 about Wentz. “He hides it or something. He’s big. He’s strong. I think he’s put on 10 or 15 pounds. His fastball’s got a lot of life. He can pitch up in the zone and get a lot of swings and misses. … He can pitch in the zone and get strikeouts. I think that’s what you’re going to see from him a lot this year. … His stuff’s too good for him to not be successful.”

Wentz also watched the rookie pitching triumvirate. He studied the way the Tigers instructed them to approach big-league hitters. Meanwhile, Tigers manager AJ Hinch kept tabs on Wentz by chatting with Erie manager Arnie Beyeler. The Tigers shut down Wentz in mid-September due to fatigue.

“When you look at the box scores, the video, and if you talk to our minor league people, they’ll tell you that he shows flashes of command and control,” Hinch said in August. “And then he can be a little erratic, and that eats into the pitch count.”

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Besides Faedo, Wentz spoke the most with Manning during the season.

Manning, 23, was inconsistent in his first MLB campaign but made vast improvements by learning new pitches and techniques from pitching coach Chris Fetter. He had an 8.07 ERA in seven starts for Triple-A Toledo, then a 5.80 ERA in 18 starts for the Tigers, walking 33 and striking 57 across 85⅓ innings.

Mize, 24, posted a 3.71 ERA with 41 walks and 118 strikeouts in 150⅓ innings (30 starts). Skubal, 25, recorded a 4.34 ERA with 47 walks and 164 strikeouts in 149⅓ innings (31 games, 29 starts). 

“I think Matt, Casey and Skub all threw the ball really well at parts of the season and had great years,” Wentz said. “Bringing in a guy like Eduardo Rodriguez, a veteran that’s been there, is exciting for the team.”

Wentz is spending the offseason in Kansas City, where his family lives. He throws at Premier Baseball and lifts weights at Kansas City Strength & Conditioning. He recently connected with Tigers reliever Alex Lange, who is visiting his family for the holidays in the Kansas City area. Lange shared the details about his big-league experience as a rookie last season.

If all goes as planned, Wentz will contribute to the Tigers in 2022 and boost a rotation headlined by 2018 World Series champion Rodriguez — signed for five years, $77 million in November — and three youngsters with high ceilings.

“I would love to pitch well enough to be a part of it, but obviously that comes on merit and warrant,” Wentz said. “You got to go out and perform to get there.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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