Detroit Tigers’ Edwin Uceta, once lauded prospect, ready for new chance after waiver claim

Detroit Free Press

Right-hander Edwin Uceta thinks the best is yet to come.

He appeared on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top-30 prospect list from 2019-21. Since then, he has pitched 24 games in the major leagues and has been designated for assignment twice in his young career.

The Detroit Tigers claimed Uceta off waivers Jan. 11 — two days after he turned 25 years old — from the Arizona Diamondbacks. For now, he is a member of the 40-man roster and slated to compete in spring training for a spot on the Opening Day roster.

“I’m working really hard to be ready for 2023,” Uceta said, speaking through an interpreter. “They haven’t seen me the way I’m coming back this year. I want to show the Tigers what I got.”

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Spanning 24 games, Uceta has a 6.27 ERA with 19 walks and 38 strikeouts over 37⅓ innings in parts of two MLB seasons, combining for a 26.8% swing-and-miss rate but often failing to control his pitches. He pitched 14 games for the Dodgers in 2021 and 10 games for the Diamondbacks last year.

Uceta also pitched in 28 games (five starts) for Triple-A Reno last season, logging a 4.86 ERA with 30 walks (14.0% walk rate) and 70 strikeouts (32.7% strikeout rate) over 50 innings.

His strikeout rate in the minor leagues intrigued the Tigers.

“I learned how to keep my pitches low and how to be confident staying low in the zone,” Uceta said of his limited experience in the big leagues. “I’m working on elevating my fastball to work up in the zone and low in the zone. I want to command that pitch up in the zone.”

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Uceta throws four pitches: four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and changeup.

His changeup, considered his best secondary pitch, sits around 87-90 mph and registered a .158 expecting batting average last season, though opponents actually hit .250 against it without many swings and misses. His fastball sits around 92-94 mph and maxed out at 95 mph last season.

In 2022, Uceta lacked another swing-and-miss weapon to complement his above-average changeup.

To find a solution, he focused on developing his slider while competing for Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican Winter League. He took the mound for his first outing Dec. 11 and his seventh and final outing Jan. 17 in the LIDOM Finals.

Uceta, who signed with the Dodgers out of the Dominican Republic for $10,000 in July 2016, registered a 2.52 ERA with five walks and 19 strikeouts across 25 innings in seven starts. He pitched three innings in his first four outings before tossing at least four innings in his final three appearances.

“I like the way I’m seeing the results,” Uceta said of his revamped slider. “I’m throwing them a lot, and when they do make contact, they are taking defensive swings, like a lot of ground balls and pop ups. I’m using it as a strikeout pitch.”

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But Uceta is still waiting to hear from the Tigers about his role.

The Tigers seem likely to employ Uceta out of the bullpen, just like the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, but he has one minor-league option remaining and could stretch out as a starter in Triple-A Toledo if he doesn’t make the major-league roster out of spring training.

“I’m ready for whatever, if they want me as a starter or reliever,” Uceta said. “I’ve been starting and would be more comfortable starting, but whatever they want me to do, I just want the opportunity to be in the majors.”

In October, Uceta weighed 193 pounds when he returned to the Dominican Republic. By mid-January, he checked in at 209 pounds. He thinks increasing his weight — a product of following his strength and conditioning program — will help him stay fresh on the mound.

He felt fatigued by the end of last season.

“The biggest change is my body,” Uceta said. “I’m working on my body. I got bigger, that’s for sure, and put on some more weight and strength. I added a little bit more speed. That’s the biggest change.”

When mid-February comes around, Uceta will report to Lakeland, Florida — home of the Tigers’ spring training facility — and compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster. He has accomplished a lot this offseason, from putting on nearly 20 pounds to becoming more confident in his slider.

Uceta also seems confident his success in the Dominican Winter League, where he said his fastball touched 97 mph, will translate to spring training.

If that happens, the former prospect could be a useful arm for the Tigers.

“I don’t think I will be the same person,” Uceta said. “I think I will be better, and 2023 will show it because of my numbers and velocity. I worked hard in the Dominican to add velocity.”

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

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