Around the Tigers’ farm: Chance Kirby quietly making case to move up ladder

Detroit News

All he did in 2022’s regular season was pitch in 29 games, 21 of them as a starter for Double-A Erie. He threw a hefty 127 innings. He had a 2.63 ERA and an 0.94 WHIP.

He had a terrific year.

And yet his name, Chance Kirby, remains, well, more in the farm system’s back-40 as serious prospects go.

But why?

It’s not as if the Tigers disrespect a right-handed pitcher, 27 years old, who they snagged in the 25th round of the 2018 MLB Draft, as Kirby was wrapping up his senior year at University of Texas-San Antonio. They simply acknowledge that a man 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, probably creates less buzz than he merits.

“He’s kind of out-performed some of his peripherals,” said Ryan Garko, the Tigers’ chief of player-development. “He has really good command. He knows how to game-plan.

“He’s moving toward Triple A. We’re not sure if it will be as a starter, or a long reliever, or a middle reliever. But he’s worked in the bullpen, as a starter, as a closer − and he’s gotten a lot better.

“He just does a lot of small things around the edges that are really good. Deception. Command. It’s a real plan he uses. He mixes pitches. Tunnels them well. And he stays away from the middle (of the plate).

“That matters, too.”

So do his pitches, which in those 127 innings this year allowed for only 90 hits. He struck out 116 and walked 29. Kirby does it with a fastball that can cruise at 93 and hit 95. He has a slider, a curveball, and a change-up.

“His slider’s a pretty good pitch,” Garko said, “kind of a go-to for him. Pretty good change. Pretty hard curve-slider he throws at about 85 (mph). And that pitch rates out the best.

“There’s probably more fastball there than we give him credit for. There might be a little more velocity out of the ‘pen,” Garko said, referring back to that starter-reliever debate.

“He’s a little older. He knows what he’s doing out there.”

Yeah – Yaya’s good

Another reason Erie finished the regular schedule with an 80-58 record and an Eastern League playoff ticket was a bullpen that in 49 games featured Yaya Chentouf.

Talk about trustworthy. Chentouf, 25, had a 2.97 ERA and 1.14 WHIP while stitching together 57.2 innings of work, with 51 hits, 65 strikeouts, and 15 walks.

The man who managed all of this is 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, and pitched at the University of Pittsburgh before the Tigers claimed him with a 36th-round draft turn in 2018. He does it with three pitches – a fastball that can run 94 and bounce to 95 or even 96, a very good slider, and a change-up. He tosses three average-to-above-average pitches, which explains the steady numbers from 2022.

“He’s catching everyone’s eye,” Garko said of the formally named Yasin Chentouf, who played at Dr. Phillips High in Orlando, Florida, before signing on with Pitt. “If you go back to spring training in March, I don’t know if any of us saw this coming.

“But players change their status in the game, whether it’s with us, or in the eyes of some other team’s scouts. You can move from being an organization guy to a guy with a future. Now, it’s about getting to Triple A. Can he contribute in Detroit? That’s for the front office in Detroit to decide.”

A basic fact of bullpen life is that you better have a fastball that can beat players at the top of the zone, or on the black. Chentouf probably has work to do there.

“Velocity does matter,” Garko said. “We’ll talk about getting him bigger and stronger so he can live 94 to 96 and stay away from 91, 92, 93. If we can get him bigger and stronger and more fit this off-season (note Chentouf’s height and weight) – a guy who knows how to pitch – we have another guy who all of a sudden becomes serious.”

Garcia’s rotation rebirth

Supposedly, Bryan Garcia was a reliever. Pure bullpen guy. Had been since the Tigers drafted him (sixth round, University of Miami) in 2016.

He arrived in Detroit in 2019 and pitched, exclusively, as a reliever until the Tigers brought him aboard for three starts during 2022. Then, it was back to Triple-A Toledo. In five starts for the Mud Hens, from Aug. 20 to Sept. 15, Garcia tossed 29 innings, with a 3.10 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. He struck out 25 batters in those 29 innings and walked only four.

Is this a rotation option for 2023 when, as everyone in MLB’s galaxy knows, a team needs at least 10 starters during a season schedule?

“For a guy who’s been in the bullpen, his stuff has held,” Garko said of a right-hander who is only 27. “He’s really taken well to it (starting). His command is better as a starter.

“He’s a smart guy, understands what a team needs. So, it’s been a really good transition from reliever to starter. I think he’s now a viable option when AJ (Hinch, Tigers manager) sits down to talk (with new front-office chief Scott Harris) about the offseason.”

Look out for Lipcius?

Snoops who inspect Triple-A boxscores have perhaps noted Andre Lipcius has done just fine since being exposed to Triple-A life at Toledo.

Lipcius, 24, and a third-round pick in 2019 from the University of Tennessee, has played in 37 games since being bumped to the Mud Hens. He is batting .308, with three home runs, a .382 on-base percentage, and .859 OPS.

These are numbers that jump a bit higher because of Lipcius’ positions: third base and second base.

“He’s another one who’s really performed, maybe even better than was thought,” Garko said of a right-handed hitter. “He understands the strike zone. Understands himself. He’s another smart player (engineering major at Tennessee), with really good awareness.”

The move to Toledo was ambitious, but tactical, Garko said: The Tigers wanted to see if Lipcius could handle Triple A pitching – and get a tad sharper on defense.

“We’re going to try and find a spot for him,” Garko said. “Can he play second base? Maybe left field? Is he a utility guy who could play three positions?

“There are a lot of doubles in there, too (11 at Toledo, 31 on the season). And he gets on base – and doesn’t strike out a lot (84 in 125 games).”

Imposing improvements

Offense, overall, notched upward for Tigers prospects in 2022. Batting average. On-percentages. Slugging numbers, as well.

Meanwhile, pitching depth was so established that a surprising number of starters could be shipped to Detroit when Tigers starters began toppling like axed timber.

Garko says some key staffers should take a bow: Kenny Graham, who is formerly known as Tigers development director (Garko is a vice president); and Gabe Rivas, who is the Tigers’ director of pitching.

“I think Kenny Graham gets lost in what he’s done for the organization,” said Garko, speaking of a man who joined the Tigers in 2019 and who previously was a minor-league hitting coordinator for the Jays and Brewers. “We were at a pretty good place when I got here (last September). We had a head-start on it (developing hitters and pitchers). Modernizing it. Hiring good people.

“Our information and our game-planning. It was already there. We just had to unleash it.”

Hiring “good, young hitting coaches” in John Murrian (Erie), Adam Melhuse (Toledo), CJ Wamsley (West Michigan), and Francisco Contreras (Lakeland) were part of the process, also, Garko said, speaking again of people who had come aboard even before he arrived.

“But Kenny deserves a lot of credit. There aren’t a lot of good hitting guys (coaches) out there. But Kenny’s one of ‘em. We’ve hit this year.”

Pitching has had a similar overall uptick in 2022. Much has changed, with Garko saying that his earlier experience with Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter (when both were with the Dodgers) has been a boon.

“One thing we’ve done is go hard to create some starters,” Garko said. “Everybody’s been trying to figure out how to create starters.”

And, here, he said, it was helpful to see the gains made by three Erie starters: Garrett Hill, who was shipped to Toledo and eventually helped Hinch in Detroit; as well as SeaWolves prospects Wilmer Flores and Reese Olson.

“I’m pretty pleased with how we managed all of that,” he said.

Two components helped: an increase in strength, and better nutrition.

It added muscle to some pitchers, it turns out – and to an organization’s overall depth.

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

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