Tigers notebook: Bullpen depth forcing tough decisions; Mize, Manning to Lakeland

Detroit News

Detroit — You can understand something, totally get where it’s coming from, but still not love it.

Tigers’ reliever Jason Foley was feeling that Sunday morning after he was pulled into manager AJ Hinch’s office and told he was being optioned to Triple-A Toledo.

Asked it the move surprised him, he said, “Yeah, I think so.”

The move was made, first of all, to clear a spot for shortstop Javier Baez, who was activated from the injured list after missing nine games. But there is another layer to it. The Tigers’ bullpen has been stout and it’s going to get stronger soon when veteran lefty Andrew Chafin is activated, maybe as early as Tuesday.

Foley pitched well in his five appearances (two runs in 5.2 innings), but there’s another level he needs to reach to keep his role here.

“One of the things we told Foley, this is not a knock on him at all,” Hinch said. “This is a tough bullpen to make and stay in. I’m proud of our entire organization to have these tough decisions. There’s not an easy decision moving forward and that means our roster is deeper.”

The Tigers want Foley to sharpen his slider in the hopes of creating more swing-and-miss. He didn’t walk or strike out anyone in his 5.2 innings.

“I know in spring they were concerned that I walked a lot of guys toward the end; I haven’t walked a guy yet this year,” Foley said. “But I also realize I wasn’t striking guys out. It’s not like they were saying I was terrible or anything like that.

“They want me to get better against lefties. AJ said he has no issue throwing me against right-handed hitters but rarely in this day and age do you get a pocket of righties. So, pretty much go down there and get more consistent with my slider, get more swing-and-miss and be better against lefties.”

The other part of the decision to send Foley down was the need to keep Willi Castro, an extra infielder, until they are sure Baez’s thumb will hold up.

“We’ve been battling this roster construction for the first month,” Hinch said. “We want to make sure Javy is good to go before we carry less infielders on the roster.”

The Tigers were down to just Harold Castro for the three-game series in Kansas City when Baez first went on the IL. The right thumb is still swollen, but the medical staff believes he can’t do further damage by playing.

And Baez has been champing at the bit.

“The next move is Andrew Chafin, we hope,” Hinch said. “Whether that’s Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday — that’s another decision whether we should go with 14 pitchers or 13 pitchers.”

After the 6-2 loss Sunday, the Tigers optioned reliever Rony Garcia back to Toledo. That could be a precursor to Chafin being activated Tuesday.

Then when the Tigers get back from the road trip to Minnesota and Los Angeles, the league (on May 3) will reinstate the 26-man roster. That will require another decision, getting the roster to 13 pitchers and 13 position players.

About that ‘pen, though

Coming into the season without Chafin, without Jose Cisnero and without Kyle Funkhouser, the Tigers were justifiably concerned about how well the bullpen could hold up.

Fear not. Entering play Sunday, they had the fifth-lowest ERA in the American League. Over the last five games, it had given up just three earned runs in 21 innings, with 28 strikeouts and nine walks.

Four relievers covered 5.1 more innings Sunday, allowing just one run.

“Our bullpen is good,” Hinch said. “I have a lot of confidence going to those guys and they’ve all responded. Roles are starting to be loosely developed and I think they’ve been prepared when we’ve called on them.”

Alex Lange, Michael Fulmer and Gregory Soto, the known commodities, have been strong at the back end. But it’s been a cast of question marks and minor-league signees that has solidified the collective.

Veteran Drew Hutchison, who finished last season in the Tigers’ rotation and struck out five in two innings of work in Game 2 Saturday, has limited hitters to a .229 average over 9.1 innings, allowing two earned runs.

Jacob Barnes, who Hinch has used to get tough left-handed hitters out because of his nasty cutter, hasn’t allowed a run in 6.1 innings, holding hitters to a .105 average.

Joe Jimenez, who is having a renaissance after a couple of tough seasons, has nine strikeouts and is limiting hitters to a .172 average in seven innings.

Will Vest, whom the Tigers lost in the Rule 5 draft and then happily took back when Seattle released him last year, has six punch-outs in 5.2 innings, holding hitters to a .158 average.

Garcia (two runs, five strikeouts in 6.1 innings) and recently-added Wily Peralta (3.2 scoreless innings) also have been reliable.

“I think the competition is healthy down there,” Hinch said. “I think they are looking around at each other and, as we told Foley, it’s nothing he did wrong. It’s a matter of a better team that’s more difficult to stay on.”

Mize, Manning to Lakeland

Hinch said before the game that injured starting pitchers Matt Manning (shoulder) and Casey Mize (elbow sprain) were leaving for Lakeland on Sunday to continue their rehab.

Manning threw off flat ground on Saturday and still felt discomfort. His scheduled bullpen for Wednesday was canceled, which ended all hope of him making his next start in Los Angeles next weekend.

“Manning might be a little bit slower,” Hinch said. “It’s not a setback. It’s nothing we are overly concerned about. It’s just a slower ramp to playing catch before we get him back on the mound. By assigning the rehab assignment to Lakeland, they can get the complete attention of the training staff.”

Mize will resume his throwing program in Lakeland this week, which Hinch said was a positive sign.

The rotation for the three-game series in Minnesota will feature Eduardo Rodriguez, Michael Pineda and Tarik Skubal. Hinch said he might tweak the rotation for the Dodgers series, though rookie Beau Brieske and lefty Tyler Alexander will pitch in Los Angeles.

Surgery for Funkhouser?

Funkhouser, whom the Tigers moved to the 60-day injured list Saturday, is seeking more medical opinions to determine if surgery is warranted.

“He’s been slow to heal,” Hinch said. “He had a little trouble as he ramped up his throwing program so we had to peel him back a little bit.”

That led to more diagnostic testing.

“We’re trying to resolve the symptoms before we can progress more aggressively,” Hinch said. “The timeline made it virtually impossible for him to be back prior to the 60 days. He’s talking to doctors, our doctors and I think he’s going to see an external doctor to see if surgery is down the road.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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