Tigers reliever Drew Carlton thirsting for another big-league taste

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Drew Carlton isn’t about to let himself be defined by 19 batters. That just won’t do.

“You just have to push through and keep working,” said the Lakeland-born, 26-year-old reliever who made an inauspicious, 19-batter, major-league debut with the Tigers last September and was lopped off the 40-man roster two months later. “Just because I am not on the 40-man roster doesn’t mean they’re not going to give me another shot.

“That just pretty much added fuel to the fire.”

That he was signed back on a minor-league deal and invited to minicamp shows the Tigers haven’t given up on him.

Drafted in the 32nd round in 2017, Carlton made his debut with a one-pitch, one-out outing in Cincinnati on Sept. 4. Two days later he dodged bullets, allowing three hits and a walk over two scoreless innings.

His last two games were against his hometown team, Tampa Bay, and the last was a forgettable three-walk, one-home run effort at Tropicana Field.

“It’s a different atmosphere up there,” Carlton said. “Definitely nerve-wracking. Playing in Tampa I had like 30 family and friends there.”

The walks, four in 3.2 innings, were likely an outlier. He got to the big leagues, in a large part, because he is a strike-thrower. Nerves got to him, certainly.

The fact that big-league hitters were barreling him up may have played a part, too. The average exit velocity on balls put in play against him was 94 mph, a hard-hit rate of 43%. Seeing that kind of damage will make a pitcher nibble outside the strike zone.

Carlton, thus, had a clear picture of what he needed to work on this offseason. And it started with pumping more velocity into his two-seam fastball, which averaged 89.6 mph. He set a goal for the offseason to get that fastball to sit between 91 and 92 mph.

“I really worked on my lower half this offseason,” he said. “I talked to (pitching coach) Chris Fetter after the season and he gave me some drills to work on.”

He incorporated those drills into his workout regimen and then, as he had in 2020, went to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic.

“I pretty much used those games for trial and error,” he said. “I worked on my delivery a lot down there.”

In addition to the power training, he also forced himself to throw more change-ups, a pitch he was reluctant to use against big league hitters in September. He forced himself to throw at least two to every hitter he faced.

“I worked on strength, mobility, mechanics, a little bit of everything,” he said.

At minicamp, he’s taken full advantage of director of pitching Gabe Ribas’ laboratory, including drills with a core velocity belt that helps with weight distribution and staying directional in your delivery.

“I’ve never used it before, but I am really glad they are implementing that stuff,” Carlton said. “If definitely all helps and it’s fun. I can feel a difference, for sure.”

Carlton has thrown two bullpens in camp so far, but the radar gun wasn’t used in either. Still, he was encouraged.

“Those last couple of bullpens, the ball has felt really good coming out of my hand,” he said. “I can’t wait to see where it’s at.”

Neither can the Tigers, who really hope he can be an option for their bullpen at some point this season.

“I’m just going to keep working harder,” he said. “Once you get a taste (of the big leagues) you don’t want anything else.”

Welcome back, Wilkel

When camp opened last week, right-handed Venezuelan pitcher Wilkel Hernandez — whom they acquired in a deal for Ian Kinsler in December 2017 — was throwing on a side field with fellow rehabbing pitcher Franklin Perez.

On Sunday, though, he was in uniform and throwing a bullpen with the rest of the minicampers.

That was an encouraging development for the Tigers, who had high hopes for Hernandez after he posted a 9-7 record, with a 3.73 ERA and 1.2 WHIP in 21 starts at West Michigan (Low-A at the time) in 2019.

In October of 2020, though, he underwent Tommy John surgery.

At the time of the surgery, he was hitting 97 and sitting between 93-95 with his fastball. He wasn’t near that velocity Sunday, of course, but putting the uniform on again after sitting out two full years put a smile on his face.

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Camp injury

Some birthday present.

Right-handed pitcher Wilmer Flores spent his 21st birthday in the trainer’s room Sunday. He injured a hamstring on Saturday during pitchers fielding practice.

There is no timeline for his return.

The Tigers thought highly enough of the 6-4, 230-pound Venezuelan to send him to the Arizona Fall League after his first full professional season where he climbed from rookie ball to low-A Lakeland.

His fall league experience was harsh (16 walks, 14 earned runs in 12.2 innings), but the Tigers are intrigued by both his upper-90s fastball and high-spin slider (over 2,800 rpm).

Flores is the younger brother of nine-year veteran infielder also named Wilmer Flores.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky   

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