What Detroit Tigers prospect Wilmer Flores needs to become MLB starting pitcher

Detroit Free Press

Wilmer Flores threw 1,647 pitches last season.

The 21-year-old, who slipped through the cracks and signed as an undrafted free agent less than three years ago, advanced to Double-A Erie in May, represented the Detroit Tigers in the All-Star Futures Game in July and carried the SeaWolves into the postseason in September. The right-hander took another step forward in his development but isn’t a finished product.

Only 44 of those pitches — just less than 2.7% — were changeups.

“I’m working on my changeup,” Flores said Thursday, about four hours after being announced as the Tigers’ minor league pitcher of the year. “I think that’s the pitch I need for my arsenal. That’s the only pitch I’m working on.”

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The Tigers are positive Flores — the younger brother of San Francisco Giants infielder Wilmer Flores — will contribute in the big leagues at some point, possibly as soon as the 2023 season, though his role seems undefined.

He wants to be a starting pitcher.

“That’s one of my goals,” Flores said.

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His four-seam fastball, which he threw exactly 1,000 times, or 60.7% of the time, averaged 93.2 mph last season and maxed out at 98 mph. The fastball can appear faster to hitters because of the extension his 6-foot-4 stature gives him. He also mixed in 377 sliders, 198 curveballs and 23 cutters.

Flores threw strikes 68.1% of the time last season.

His fastball and curveball are considered above-average pitches, his slider is an average pitch and his cutter and changeup are still developing. The hammer curveball registered a 33.7% chase rate.

“In 2021, my curveball and fastball were even better,” Flores said. “I think that’s because I was dealing with fatigue, but I still liked them. My fastball, they didn’t do too much damage. My curveball can make a lot of swing-and-miss and chase. But I mean, they could be better.”

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Flores, who turns 22 in February, posted a 2.79 ERA with 23 walks and 130 strikeouts over a career-high 103⅓ innings in 25 games (24 starts) between High-A West Michigan (six games) and Double-A Erie (19 games). His biggest personal victory was improving his command, dropping his 8.5% walk rate in 2021 to 5.5% in 2022.

He is the Tigers’ No. 3 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and the organization’s second-best pitching prospect.

Flores struggled with fatigue throughout most of the season, often running out of steam too early. To find a fix, he is focused on boosting his endurance and efficiency within his mechanics this offseason.

“It won’t be a problem next year,” Flores said.

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When spring training rolls around, Flores hopes to receive an invitation to big-league camp so he can compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster. He likely needs a stint in Triple-A Toledo, either in the rotation or bullpen, but making his MLB debut is on the to-do list this season.

A five-pitch mix projects him as a starter in the future, but his upside (and ability to stay in that role) will be determined by the success of his secondary pitches. For now, he is confident in three pitches: four-seamer, slider and curveball.

The next step is, yes, unlocking a consistent changeup.

“My other pitches break to the glove side, so I need something to go to the arm side,” Flores said. “It’s just to put another pitch in the mind of the hitter. Having the changeup will make my other pitches better. … It will be necessary for my arsenal if I want to be a starter in the big leagues.”

Carpenter earns ‘pretty special’ award

Outfielder Kerry Carpenter, a 19th-round pick in the 2019 draft, earned the Tigers’ minor league player of the year award for his performance in Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo before making his MLB debut in August.

The 25-year-old hit .313 with 30 home runs, 33 walks and 89 strikeouts over 98 games with the SeaWolves (63 games) and Mud Hens (35).

“In March or April, did I even think that I would be in this position right now?” Carpenter said Thursday. “Sometimes, I probably didn’t believe it. But God did what he did this year, and I’m grateful to him for that. This is an amazing experience, and I’m really just thankful.”

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With the Tigers, Carpenter hit .252 with six home runs, six walks and 32 strikeouts over 31 games, adding a .310 on-base percentage and .795 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Moving forward, strike zone control will be crucial if Carpenter wants to stick around.

Carpenter is in the mix for a spot in the Opening Day roster. He is one of several left-handed bats in an outfield competition, along with Akil Baddoo, Bligh Madris and Parker Meadows.

“It’s not any different than a normal year,” Carpenter said. “I always go into spring training, and I don’t want to use those at-bats to get ready. I want to be ready when I get there. I want to work on my approach and swing while I’m there, but I want to put up good at-bats and win that job.”

In 2021, Riley Greene won the Tigers’ player of the year award; he was set to make the Opening Day roster before breaking his foot at the end of spring training, then made his MLB debut in July.

“It’s really cool to be in line with people like that,” Carpenter said. “It’s something that wasn’t even necessarily on my mind going into the year, winning an award like this, but the hard work paid off. Everything that happened this year, seeing this reward is pretty cool. I’m really grateful for it.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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