Around the Tigers’ farm: Joey Wentz looks to add to arsenal as he builds case for callup

Detroit News

Could it be this month, given the 19 games in 18 days the Tigers are about to ingest during a killer stretch from May 20-June 5?

Or, more likely, will it be later in June, or July, as Joey Wentz’s arc and the Tigers’ taxed pitching pantry make for a nearly inevitable ticket to manager AJ Hinch’s rotation?

A few things would help as Wentz, a left-handed artist now working at Triple-A Toledo, moves closer to Detroit.

Strikeouts he has down — 26 in 19.2 innings and five starts for the Mud Hens.

But walks … they need to decrease. Wentz, who is only 24, has 10 in those 19.2 innings, which is way too many and offsets the 11 hits he’s allowed.

Another task is getting a handle on that fourth pitch he’s working on.

The Tigers aren’t offering specifics, but Wentz is busy adding spice to his secondary menu. About the only question is whether he and the Tigers will call it a cutter, or a slider. But a reliable fourth pitch is the mission for a man whose fastball runs 93-97 and who has a sharp curveball to go with his change-up.

“He has front-of-the-rotation stuff,” said Mud Hens manager Lloyd McClendon, explaining that Wentz might not be a staff ace, nor necessarily a No. 2 starter, but that he wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in a top-three grouping. “He just needs to continue to develop.”

Developing: It’s what Wentz has been doing since the Tigers got him three years ago in a July deal that sent reliever Shane Greene to the Braves. Wentz, at that time, was a 21-year-old prodigy who had been taken by the Braves with the 40th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft.

He was a “sandwich” selection — taken in that compensatory slot between the first and second rounds after pitching at Shawnee Mission East High in Prairie Village, Kansas.

The Tigers liked a lefty who was 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, and who by late summer of 2021 was pitching niftily at Double-A Erie: five games, 25.2 innings, 2.10 ERA, with — trumpets, please — 37 strikeouts and only four walks. That equates to a strikeouts-per-nine ratio of 13.0, with a walks factor of 1.4 per nine.

Wentz was on his way. At the grand old age of 21.

But then came 2019, and Tommy John surgery. He made it back last year — five games at Single-A Lakeland, 13 at Erie — and has been sweating and grinding to build strength and a better relationship with the strike zone.

Doug Bochtler, who is Mud Hens pitching coach, has been grooming Wentz as that fourth pitch is woven into a repertoire, which probably is a few more strikes from being on display in Detroit.

Dingler dinging at Erie

Only a couple of weeks ago it was fair to wonder if Dillon Dingler was in for some long-term stress as Double-A Erie’s supposed everyday catcher.

He wasn’t hitting. And, really, Dingler hadn’t been hitting since last spring, before a broken thumb made a mess of his summer promotion to the SeaWolves.

But that was two weeks ago. About as soon as anxieties began creeping into a second-round (2020) draft pick’s profile, Dingler dialed up the heat.

More: Around the Tigers’ farm: Catcher Dillon Dingler shows signs of heating up for Erie

He went 16-for-32 in an eight-game stretch from April 28 through May 6, with five doubles and a home run. He added a single in three trips Saturday.

If the hot stuff continues, with reasonable consistency, figure on Dingler packing for a trip up the Ohio Turnpike to Triple-A Toledo. The Tigers are in deep need of position help, particularly at catcher, where Jake Rogers (healing from Tommy John surgery) is their only serious long-term asset as Tucker Barnhart plays through his one-year contract in Detroit.

More: Tigers rookie Torkelson confident, staying the course through rough patch

Assessing Kreidler’s loss

He was coming along niftily, playing three infield positions: third base, shortstop, and even some second base at Triple-A Toledo.

He had four homers and an .808 OPS in his first 18 games. And then it all was wrecked — temporarily, anyway — on April 26 when Ryan Kreidler was hit by a pitch and fractured his right hand. He had surgery last week and probably won’t make it back until August.

“He’s a player,” McClendon said of a right-handed hitter, 24, who was the Tigers’ fourth-round pick in 2019 (UCLA). “Fans in Detroit at some point are going to be excited. This guy has tremendous instincts for the game of baseball.

“He knows what he’s doing. He moves around the field extremely well. Very agile. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a leader on the field, and the bat plays.

“He has over-the-fence power,” McClendon said. “I’m not going to say upper-deck power, but you can project this guy to hit 20, 25 home runs. He really makes the adjustments. He knows the strike zone. He’s a patient hitter who takes his walks (nine in those first 18 games).

“Like all young players, the more reps (games and at-bats) he gets, the more you’ll find what kind of player he is. You really need three solid seasons of 400 at-bats.”

Kreidler had 482 at-bats last year between Erie and Toledo. His 2020 season, of course, was washed out by COVID. This year? He was on his way to making it back-to-back years with those 400 at-bats.

Now, as the broken hand heals, the Tigers will be figuring on Kreidler arriving perhaps later in 2023. It should be noted Jonathan Schoop’s tenure with the Tigers as its starting second baseman runs, contractually, through next season. Third base, with Jeimer Candelario set for free agency in 18 months? Shortstop, where Javier Báez could opt out of his contract as early as autumn of 2023?

Kreidler needs to heal. And to keep hitting. There likely will be room for him, somewhere in that Tigers infield, within two seasons.

Stock: Ups and downs

Up: Colt Keith, third base and second base at high-Single-A West Michigan: During a 14-game stretch from April 22 through Saturday, Keith was 23-for-58 (.397) with six double and two homers. He is — yes — 20 years old and a fifth-round pick in 2019 from Biloxi (Mississippi) High.

Down: Daniel Cabrera, outfield, Double-A Erie: Not happening, nor has it been happening for Cabrera since the Tigers grabbed him, with extremely high hopes, from Louisiana State as their second-round pick in 2019. Cabrera is batting .148 in 23 games.

Up: Zack Short, shortstop, Toledo: Five homers and a .917 OPS in 27 games for the Mud Hens. Plays a superb shortstop. Problem, as it was with the Tigers last year: 36 strikeouts, although 18 walks have been solace there.

Down: Gage Workman, third base, Erie: Batting .191 with 44 strikeouts in 25 games. Three home runs have helped, but the Ks must come down.

Up: Kody Clemens, second base, first base, third base, outfield, Toledo: Even with Harold Castro and Willi Castro filling the Swiss Army Knife spots on Hinch’s roster it seems a matter of time before Clemens gets a crack. He has six homers and is batting .298.

Down: Parker Meadows, center field, Erie: Been a rough stretch since he was promoted to the SeaWolves: Things had perked up this spring at West Michigan, but the Erie promotion has been tough, albeit through 11 games: .152 batting average, with a .182 slugging percentage.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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