Four years ago, right-handed reliever Trey Wingenter had his two pitches working.
He looked nasty in the 2019 season. His fastball sat in the upper-90s, and his slider generated misses on nearly 50% of swings. He primarily pitched the seventh and eighth innings for the San Diego Padres and put himself on the map as an impact high-leverage reliever.
On Sept. 20, 2019, Wingenter allowed five runs and failed to record three outs. The 28-year-old hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since then — a span of more than 1,200 days — because of injuries, but he hopes to snap the drought as a member of the Detroit Tigers in 2023.
“I’m going to be competitive,” Wingenter said. “I’m going to expect to be in that major-league bullpen all year and compete for leverage innings, but it just feels good to be healthy again, not in pain and able to compete at the highest level I can.”
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The Tigers signed Wingenter, who received interest from several teams, to a minor-league contract in January. An invitation to MLB spring training gives him the opportunity to solidify his health and win a job in the bullpen on the Opening Day roster.
He is a player to watch when camp starts next week.
“They seem very excited to get their hands on me,” Wingenter said. “They felt like it was a good opportunity. (Manager) A.J. Hinch has had success with bullpens and handling relievers, so that was an attractive point for me.”
A relationship between Wingenter and Triple-A Toledo pitching coach Doug Bochtler played a part in the signing. From 2016-19, Bochtler served as the bullpen coach for the Padres, so he knows what Wingenter can accomplish when he’s at his best. Since 2021, he has been employed as Toledo’s pitching coach.
The main reference, though, was Tigers right-hander Casey Mize.
Wingenter pitched for Auburn from 2013-15 and spent the next three years training in the college town during the offseason. Mize, currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, pitched for Auburn from 2016-18 before the Tigers selected him at No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft.
“We became friends through my time in the offseason,” Wingenter said. “He told me more about the Tigers and gave me the rundown. He’s a guy I definitely trust, because I’ve known him for six years, and that was another big piece that made it seem more and more like a good fit.”
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Back in 2019, Wingenter looked like an electrifying pitcher on the rise.
Wingenter, who posted a 3.79 ERA in 2018, logged a 5.65 ERA with 28 walks and 72 strikeouts across 51 innings in 51 games. The 6-foot-7 righty had elite extension because of his height, avoided contact and was one of the best strikeout pitchers.
His 33.0% strikeout rate ranked 34th among 366 pitchers — both starters and relievers — who faced at least 200 batters in the 2019 season. His 36.3% swing-and-miss rate ranked 15th among the same group. His fastball averaged 95.9 mph and his slider averaged 85.8 mph.
The fastball had a 25.8% whiff rate, while the slider had a 46.9% whiff rate.
“That little bit of success has kept my motivation high,” Wingenter said. “If I can get on top of these injuries, figure out how to take care of my body, recover and stay healthy, I have the potential to be a dominant back-end reliever. That’s been a big part of what’s kept me going through the rough times.”
There are two flaws in Wingenter’s game: too many walks and too many injuries. His 12.8% walk rate ranked 338th among those 366 pitchers in 2019, and he finished the season with a nagging right shoulder injury.
That’s when everything spiraled.
A month before the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Wingenter reported right elbow discomfort and discovered he needed Tommy John surgery to fix his torn ulnar collateral ligament. He underwent elbow surgery July 17.
Wingenter rehabilitated and planned to return to the Padres for the end of the 2021 season. He looked sharp in three games in August in the Arizona Complex League and advanced to High-A Fort Wayne to continue his rehab assignment.
But he never pitched at the High-A level.
“I was hoping to make it back for the playoff roster,” Wingenter said. “The night before I was supposed to pitch, I was doing a little workout on the field. That’s when the disc slipped.”
He suffered a season-ending back injury and underwent surgery in September. The Padres then declined to tender him a contract and forced him into free agency.
For the 2022 season, Wingenter signed a minor-league contract with the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds shut him down in late March because of elbow soreness. A subsequent back injury, once again, ended his season. In April, he underwent the same surgical procedure for the second time in eight months.
“I was healthy towards August, but that wasn’t enough time to salvage the season,” Wingenter said. “The Reds had me hang around home (in Nashville), and I started prepping for winter ball. I went down there, worked off some rust and proved that I was healthy and the fastball was still there.”
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Wingenter traveled to the Dominican Republic this offseason in search of a minor-league contract and described the experience as “a means to an end to re-spark my career.” When he arrived, he contracted the flu and missed nearly two weeks of games.
In six games total, Wingenter registered a 1.69 ERA with six walks and six strikeouts across 5⅓ innings for Leones del Escogido. His fastball velocity mirrored that of his 2019 season. Seeing the upper-90s on the scoreboard instilled a belief that he could return to the highest level in 2023.
“The slider was more of a work in progress,” Wingenter said. “I used to be able to throw that thing in my sleep for a strike or in the dirt. It’s a pitch that needs reps and reps and reps. That’s been a big part of my offseason program, and that thing is starting to feel like second nature again.”
The recovery, more so than the fastball velocity, boosted Wingenter’s confidence. He pitched three times across a five-day span, from Nov. 12-16, and remained healthy from outing to outing.
Right now, his body feels as healthy as ever before.
“In a major-league season, you got to throw three, four times per week, all year, 75 appearances,” Wingenter said. “In the Dominican Republic, I was able to perform, recover and perform again. You just don’t know until you do it.”
This offseason, the Tigers traded two of their hardest-throwing relievers: right-hander Joe Jiménez to the Atlanta Braves and left-hander Gregory Soto to the Philadelphia Phillies. The bullpen includes righties Alex Lange and José Cisnero, a slew of unproven pitchers and bounce-back candidates.
If Wingenter can stay healthy throughout spring training, and if his fastball-slider combination produces swing-and-miss rates of old, he should pitch his way into a role on the Opening Day roster.
“I want to prove that I can be reliable for a whole season, stay off the shelf and take care of my body,” Wingenter said. “I’m excited to have another full season of baseball in front of me. I have a new appreciation for playing baseball, and it makes me that much more hungry.”
Contact Evan Petzold at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.