Lakeland, Fla. — When manager AJ Hinch assembled the pitchers and catchers Wednesday morning before the first official workout of spring, he told them very directly there were jobs to be won on this pitching staff and roles to be fought for.
“Health is going to play into that and performance definitely is going to play into that,” he said. “But I see a few spots that are wide open with nobody even penciled in.”
That opportunity was a big lure for veteran relievers Matt Wisler and Jace Fry. Wisler, the former Tampa Bay Ray right-hander entering his ninth big-league season, and Fry, a lefty who spent parts of five seasons with the Chicago White Sox, both accepted minor-league deals from the Tigers with camp invites.
“We can build this a lot of different ways,” Hinch said. “We worked hard to give ourselves a lot of options. We are looking for guys who can fit those roles.”
Hinch was part of the front-office group in San Diego that drafted Wisler in the seventh round in 2011. Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter was still pitching in the Padres organization then and when he transitioned to pitching coach in 2013, Wisler pitched for him at Double-A San Antonio.
In 2020, Tigers president Scott Harris was the general manager in San Francisco when the Giants signed Wisler to a free-agent deal.
The man has connections.
“Part of the reason I signed here is I know Fett,” Wisler said. “We’ve known each other a long time. … There’s a lot of guys I know around here and Fett does a really good job with these guys. Coming into a comfortable position like that and knowing guys helps.”
Wisler is a curious case. He was unceremoniously designated for assignment by the Rays after two effective seasons (2.21 ERA, 0.968 WHIP in 2021 and 2022).
“Where their bullpen was, they had a lot of good options and I ended up being the odd man out,” he said. “I get it. They were chasing the playoffs and if they thought they had better guys ahead of me in the bullpen, it’s not for me to nit-pick. It’s not like they had a bunch of guys who were worse than me.
“Their bullpen was stacked and they made the decision.”
Wisler knows, too, that he was coming off a neck injury and the velocity dip on his fastball and slider was alarming.
“They (the Rays) are big on data and I’m sure my data was trending in the wrong direction where a lot of other guys were trending up,” he said.
True. The average velocity on his four-seam fastball had dropped from 91.5 mph to 89.7 and his slider, the pitch he throws 91% of the time, dropped from 81.5 to 79.8.
But he was still getting outs. Opponents hit .188 against his slider and .200 against his fastball last season.
“I would throw a slider at like 78 mph and it was like, ‘God, this thing is not where it needs to be,’” Wisler said. “But I would go with it and battle with it. I know it’s a good pitch and I still believe in it. Sliders, no matter what speed, are tough to hit if I still throw a good one.
“But my strikeout rate went down (from 32% to 20%). Anytime I went below 80 mph, I’d get weak contact. It still was a good pitch, but if I can get it a little harder that’s when the swing and miss comes.”
Wisler said he is healthy now and he worked hard to build up his velocity this season.
“Still a work in progress,” he said. “I think something sort of clicked last week, so I’m interested to see going into my first game of the spring how it looks. Right now, I am just trying to get that mechanic and try to stay under control. I’m not letting it go too much until I feel it’s right and I feel comfortable with what I’m doing.
“But by the first game I’d like to be back in the low-90s with the fastball and then the slider at 82-83. That’s back where I’d like to be.”
He said he’s also been working to add a two-seam fastball to his mix, something he can throw inside to right-handed hitters.
“His slider is a real weapon,” Hinch said. “It does random things. He has a couple of different variations of it. I know he wants to increase his fastball usage but really, his bread and butter is the slider and how different he can shape it.”
About Jace Fry
The last game he pitched in the big leagues was against the Tigers at Comerica Park on Sept. 21, 2021. The Tigers roughed him up for three runs in 1.2 innings. But he had only allowed three runs total in nine other appearances against the Tigers at Comerica.
“I have a pretty good resume in that park,” he said.
Fry, 29, spent last season in Triple-A with the Nationals and Phillies trying to regain his form after battling through a nerve impingement. He was limited to 33 innings.
“I knew I still had growth,” he said. “I wasn’t where I needed to be, stuff-wise. I understood why I was there. It was frustrating at times trying to get my stuff back.”
He feels like he had a breakthrough this offseason, though, working in Salt Lake City with biomechanics expert Bob Keyes.
“He helped me get my body functioning better,” Fry said. “It’s been a huge transition for me to keep the stress off my arm. That was my objective this offseason…He is very smart and he got me moving well and effortlessly and I got some of my velo back.”
Fry does have one connection to the Tigers — he and Matthew Boyd were teammates for two seasons at Oregon State.
“I had Tommy John surgery and that opened up a spot for him to come back for his senior year,” Fry said.
Around the horn
Miguel Cabrera arrived in Lakeland on Thursday for what is expected to be his final spring training with the Tigers. “Well, he’s a big deal,” Hinch quipped. “Probably the only guaranteed Hall-of-Famer in the room. That counts for something. We’re happy to have him here early and happy to have him here happy. We’re looking forward to a really productive spring.”
… Hinch, as was expected, put the kibosh on pitcher Michael Lorenzen’s hopes of being used as a hitter this season. Lorenzen has a .710 career OPS with seven homers in 146 big-league plate appearances and had, half-seriously, indicated he would like an opportunity to take some swings this spring. “I’m well aware that he was a good-hitter pitcher. But for us, he’s going to be a really good starting pitcher.”
… It’s not Plan A or even Plan B, but Hinch said there could be a scenario where the Tigers would carry three catchers on the roster to start the season, “depending on how the bench roles play out.” That would mean Eric Haase, who is slated to be the regular catcher, would get some work in left field, a right-handed hitter balancing out a group of left-handed hitting outfielders (Austin Meadows, Riley Greene, Kerry Carpenter and Akil Baddoo). Donny Sands and Jake Rogers likely would be the other two catchers in that scenario.