Lakeland, Fla. — It’s coming down to crunch time for a handful of pitchers still in the hunt for one of the final spots in the Tigers’ bullpen.
“The first question will be how many we keep,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said before the Tigers beat the Phillies 14-8 in a Grapefruit League game Saturday at Joker Marchant Stadium.
With rosters expanded to 28 for the first month of the season, the Tigers will either keep 10 relievers or nine. And with the team starting the season with 10 straight games, Hinch is leaning toward keeping 10.
“If it’s a 10-man bullpen, then the idea of length (carrying relievers who can pitch multiple innings) is important but not the end-all, be-all,” Hinch said. “You don’t need multiple guys who can go long.”
If he keeps a nine-man bullpen, Hinch said he might prefer to keep more than one reliever who can pitch two or more innings. Right-hander Rony Garcia and non-roster pitchers Drew Hutchison and Chase Anderson would be in play for those spots.
When veteran starter Michael Pineda clears his visa issues and is activated, lefty Tyler Alexander would return to the bullpen in a bulk-reliever role.
“We also want to keep the element of who made the team — who has pitched well enough,” Hinch said. “And a lot of guys have stepped up.”
Two of them worked Saturday.
Right-hander Will Vest, a non-roster invitee who pitched for the Mariners early last season, pitched two innings. And other than a regrettable change-up that Didi Gregorius launched 431-feet over the Margaritaville Patio in right field, he was solid for the third straight outing.
He struck out two, getting a couple of swings and misses with his 95-mph four-seam fastball. He’s got six strikeouts in four spring innings
Another non-roster player with big-league experience, right-hander Jacob Barnes pitched a scoreless ninth, throwing sliders and cutters off a firm fastball that hit 95 and sat at 93.
Barnes has been with five different teams over six big-leagues seasons and has struggled the last couple of seasons. But he’s brought a new weapon into this camp. He refashioned his slider, taking some velocity off it and getting more depth with it.
Two other non-roster right-handed relievers have also impressed: Miguel Diaz, 27, who spent parts for four seasons with the Padres and features an elite change-up, and Ricardo Pinto, 28, with parts of two big-league seasons with the Phillies and Rays, is a sinker-change-up pitcher who pitched in Toledo last year.
Diaz has five strikeouts this spring in 2 1/3 scoreless innings. Pinto has pitched four scoreless innings.
Rony Garcia, the former Rule 5 pick who is on the 40-man roster and coming off meniscus surgery, has put himself in position to win one of the long-reliever spots.
“For him to make our team, that’s the kind of role he’s going to play, 1 1/3 to 2-plus innings, kind of that bulk-reliever role,” Hinch said. “He’s going to come in and throw strikes. I have no doubt about that.”
Garcia also gets some ugly swings with his slider-change-up combination, as the Blue Jays’ Matt Chapman found out Friday when he struck out on three pitches.
This battle is going to the wire. Here’s a projection of how it stands.
On the squad (5): Left-handers: Gregory Soto (closer) and Andrew Chafin; Right-handers Michael Fulmer, Jose Cisnero and Alex Lange.
Likely on the squad (2): Right-handers Joe Jimenez, Jason Foley
In the hunt (5): Right-handers Rony Garcia, Will Vest (non-roster), Jacob Barnes (non-roster), Miguel Diaz (non-roster), Ricardo Pinto (non-roster).
On the outside (3): Right-handers Bryan Garcia and Kyle Funkhouser (injured), Drew Hutchison (non-roster) and Chase Anderson (non-roster).
A rough one
It was an uneven second spring start for Matt Manning.
He gave up a lot of hard contact, as well as five hits and four runs (only one earned), but all after two outs. The average exit velocity on balls put in play against him was 97 mph (six over 100 mph).
Phillies Mickey Moniak belted a two-run home run off the batters eye in center in the second inning after an error by second baseman Jonathan Schoop extended the inning. In the third, with two outs, Manning left a two-seam fastball over the heart of the plate to Rhys Hoskins, another home run.
“I think it’s just one of those things where we’re trying to put it all together,” Manning said. “The last outing it was a lot of fastballs. I got on guys and attacked. This one, I thought my stuff was good. I fell behind first pitch a lot and I was able to get back in with my secondary pitches.
“But it was some very little things that went wrong. Two fastballs I would like to have back. And I need to work on my slider a little more.”
Manning’s curve and change-up were effective for him and he touched 96 mph with his fastball and sat at 93.
The Tigers scored eight runs in the seventh inning, highlighted by a catchers trifecta. Dustin Garneau singled, Ryan Lavarnway (who finished the game at first base) ripped a two-run single and Eric Haase hit a 416-foot, three-run home run.
… Derek Hill also homered, his second in three games.
… Shortstop prospect Trei Cruz, in his first big-league camp game (invited over from minor-league camp) ripped a two-run double.