Five minor league signings that could impact the Tigers bullpen

Bless You Boys

One of the key traits shared by consistently good organizations is the ability to put a strong bullpen together every year, without having to make many trades or signings to do it. The Detroit Tigers 2023 bullpen will test their nascent reputation as a pitching development hub. After trading Joe Jiménez and Gregory Soto, and losing Michael Fulmer and Andrew Chafin, a pretty good 2022 bullpen needs serious reinforcement this year. If the Tigers can produce more relief talent to keep or trade away, it will be a sign that things are now seriously and sustainably improved on the player development front.

The Tigers have some options in the pen, but an injury or two to key guys could really blow the whole thing up. Alex Lange looks to be easily the best of the holdovers from last season. He and Jose Cisnero, along with Will Vest and Jason Foley, will all be expected to carry more of the load now, but they’ll need plenty of help. Tyler Alexander and Rony Garcia aren’t really high leverage material, though they can contribute as middle relief and spot starting depth. The Tigers have a plethora of interesting young starting pitchers who could be converted to relief, at least for some portion of the year. They also have a few potential relief prospects in Brendan White, Elvis Alvarado, a few others.

The club would probably like to keep lefty Joey Wentz and right-hander Beau Brieske stretched out to back up the rotation, but Garrett Hill, Alex Faedo, and Rule 5 pick Mason Englert will all have a good chance to contribute in the pen.

What this really comes down to is the Tigers’ attempt to turn themselves into a premiere stop for pitchers looking to get back on track, and a prime hub of pitching development in general. Chris Fetter has established himself as a good major league pitching coach, but he and Juan Nieves also saw an awful lot of pitchers go down to injury in 2022. At the minor league level, Gave Ribas was hired away from the Dodgers to take over as Director of Pitching Development in the minor league system in the fall of 2021. To that pitching brain trust, they’ve now added former kinesiology professor and Iowa head pitching coach, Robin Lund, as well as several new affiliate pitching coaches. Lund is a key hire as the Tigers continue developing a data-driven approach to evaluate pitcher mechanics, arm health, and fatigue levels.

However, if they’re going to pull this off, produce a good bullpen, and hopefully more trade chips for a front office trying to turn the level of position player talent around without spending a ton in free agency, they need to find help among the huge group of relief options signed as minor league free agents in Scott Harris’ first offseason running the Tigers. For a while, Harris seemed to be signing a pitcher every couple of days and it hasn’t slowed down, as extra lefties in Jace Fry and Tyler Holton were added right as spring training opened.

Most of these guys are, and will remain, minor league free agents for good reasons. Most have a recent history of injury or at least a velocity drop that might indicate soreness or an underlying issue, with corresponding ineffectiveness. The paradox at this level of free agent signings is typically that the pitcher could be good again if healthy, meaning there’s real potential to land an undervalued player, but the fact that they weren’t healthy recently leaves them at higher risk of a recurrence, and that’s the only reason they were available on the cheap in the first place.

These five are my picks as the most likely to get back on track.

Matt Wisler

Right-handed slider specialist Matt Wisler is the most obvious answer. He was signed to a minor league deal with an invite to camp, and will earn $1.5 million should he make the major league roster out of camp. Now 30 years old, the former starter was drafted in the seventh round way back in 2011 by the San Diego Padres. He was traded to the Atlanta Braves and debuted as a backend starter in 2015-2016. They converted him to relief eventually, but he didn’t finally break out until he was back in a Padres uniform for the 2019 season. At that point his slider usage went up to 70 percent, and his strikeout rate jumped from 20 percent to 26 percent, and then to 30 percent as he was dealt to the Seattle Mariners at midseason and got more and more comfortable throwing mostly sliders, using his low-90’s fourseam fastball less and less, mainly mixing it in against lefties.

In 2020 and 2021, this approach crystallized with the Minnesota Twins, and then the Tampa Bay Rays. Wisler’s low-80’s slider carried his strikeout rate well over 30 percent, his walks declined, and only the occasional burst of hangers that got crushed dinged the profile at all. Most of the time, Wisler just carved teams up with the slider alone, using it over 80 percent of the time and developing good feel for shaping the break when he was looking to throw strikes versus trying to get chases.

In 2022, Wisler had some minor shoulder discomfort, and his velocity on both offerings was down a few ticks. The slider dropped from 81-82 mph where it was sharp and highly effective, to a bit of a rounded off version around 79 mph. Recapturing that harder, elite slider is the task this spring.

So far Wisler is reported healthy, and he makes for a fairly simple evaluation. If he’s throwing the sharper slider back in the low-80’s and commanding it well? If the occasional fastball is consistently 91-92 mph? He’ll likely be pitching in the late innings for the Tigers and as a fly ball pitcher enjoying the still spacious dimensions of Comerica Park. The Tigers’ coaches may look to add another wrinkle, but that’s the baseline to look for in Wisler’s case. If not? Then there’s probably an underlying issue with his arm that will be a longer term project to correct and the Tigers won’t be adding him to the roster for Opening Day. No doubt there’s a clause where he has to be in the majors by some point in April or he’ll be automatically released to try his luck elsewhere.

This was a really good pickup by Scott Harris. Wisler is well known and likely had plenty of interested teams. There’s no risk to the Tigers, and plenty of reward available if Wisler can put the 2022 season behind him.

Kervin Castro

Other than Wisler, right-hander Kervin Castro is my favorite project here. The 24-year-old came up with the San Francisco Giants as an international free agent signing from Venezuela. He broke out with a really nice rookie campaign with the Scott Harris GM’d Giants in 2021, even getting a good look at the postseason where he performed well in a bit of work. A season later, his velocity dipped and his control faltered. The Giants couldn’t get much from him and ran out of 40-man roster space, eventually designating him for assignment at the end of August.

The Cubs gave him a short look, but the velo and control problems persisted and they too designated him on September 5. Castro elected free agency in November and signed on with the Tigers a month later just after the Winter Meetings.

In his first look with the Tigers on Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles, we saw one very promising sign. Castro was back comfortably sitting 95-97 mph after averaging just 92.8 mph in 2022. Most of his profile revolves around the fastball, and getting it back to 2021 form is the main key for a Kervin Castro revival.

Castro’s fourseamer features a high spin rate and great extension. It’s not a big active spin pitch however. Instead it features nasty whiffling rise based on seam-shifted wake effects, taking advantage of a relatively low release height despite his overhand delivery, as well as his huge extension down the mound to play extremely well at and above the belt to hitters. Induced vertical break numbers aren’t publicly available, but it’s a good bet that Castro posts a strong mark in that regard as well.

When he’s locating this high in the zone or above it and has his velo, this thing is extremely hard to pick up and even harder to get the barrel on. Hitters whiff a lot, and they make a ton of very easy outs on weak fly balls and pop ups.

He backs it with a low spin curve ball whose spin and shape is also pretty deceptive. Again the 2021 numbers are from a fairly short debut in the majors, but he collected a fine 40 percent whiff rate on the curve when he was healthy and at his best. He also experimented with a cutter in 2022, but no matter what the fastball remains the bread and butter here, and he’ll likely continue to throw it around 70 percent of the time.

Castro is still young and hopefully a long term project even if things don’t immediately snap back into form. His Sunday debut was encouraging, as the velocity was all the way back to prime form, but we’ll have to see if the control recovers to the same degree. He’s also been a little prone to walks, but if the strikeouts and weak contact return, a bit of a higher walk rate than we’d like isn’t going to hurt him too much.

Kervin Castro 2022 Statcast

Trey Wingenter

Wingenter fits the bill for the Tigers as well. The massive right-hander showed really good stuff on his fastball and slider when he broke into the league in 2018-2018 with the San Diego Padres, consistently racking up huge strikeout totals. He holds a 33.1 percent strikeout rate across 70 13 major league innings. At that point, he was pitching high leverage innings for the Padres and looking like a potentially dominant bullpen arm for years to come.

Wingenter’s low spin, riding fourseamer is another with seam-shifted wake effects giving it extra carry and late, tailing life up in the zone. Wingenter averaged 97.4 mph in 2018, and 95.9 mph in 2019, has hit 100 mph plenty of times in the past, and like Castro features excellent extension to the plate. The stuff really isn’t in question here, and while he’s had issues with the walks, the sky high strikeout rates maintained a strong K-BB ratio for him. The problem has been injuries preventing him from getting back on the mound.

The 6’7” right-hander is now heading into his age 29 season, and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2019. He had UCL reconstruction on his elbow in July of 2020, and was released by the Padres when the rehab went slowly and was then interrupted by a back injury that also required surgery, leaving him unable to return to action in 2021.

He never pitched during the 2022 season as both the elbow and back remained problems that needed more rehab work. For his part, Wingenter tells the Freep that all the work to finally put this behind him has payed off heading into 2023. A stint pitching for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League this offseason confirmed that the velocity was back in form, and Wingenter is now mainly trying to recapture full command of the slider this spring.

“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.”

Seems like a decent bet that former Padres’ scouting director Mark Connor, now the Tigers’ scouting director under Harris and VP of Scouting Rob Metzler, had a little say in this addition. The Padres initially drafted Wingenter in 2015 out of Auburn in the 17th round, so Connor knows him well, as does Toledo Mud Hens pitching coach Doug Bochtler, who was the Padres bullpen coach during Wingenter’s best years. However, the real connection was made by Casey Mize, a fellow Auburn alum who recruited him this offseason, convincing him to give the Tigers a shot.

If Wingenter’s health problems are behind him, and as one of the tallest pitchers in the game the back issues remain the primary concern, this is likely to be a real win for the Tigers. Obviously there’s still much to be proven on his road back to the show.

Edwin Uceta

This 25-year-old right-hander is a former Los Angeles Dodgers prospect who was converted to relief over the last two seasons. The Tigers claimed him off waivers from the Arizona Diamondbacks in January. Featuring a quality fastball and a very good changeup, Uceta has continued to struggle with control despite superb strikeout totals going back years.

In 2022, Uceta was picked up by the Diamondbacks and his control remained an issue. The walks and home runs came in bunches, and while the strikeouts continued to pile up at the Triple-A level, his 17 inning tour of the majors, his second look after debuting with the Dodgers in 2021, did not go well at all. So, we’re definitely in project territory here. Like the others we’ve discussed, Uceta clearly has good enough stuff, but unlike the rest, his control issues have remained persistent despite working with a top organization for pitchers in Los Angeles, and another good one in Arizona. The Tigers will have their work cut out for them on that front.

Uceta leads with a 93-94 mph sinker with good run that gets a really good amount of whiffs up in the zone despite being classified a sinker. The low release point and snappy, late release helps it play up a lot when he’s spotting it. The changeup has a pretty standard spin angle, but deviates from it with strong horizontal action due to seam effects at 87-88 mph. The velo, arm slot, and release all make it a pretty deceptive pitch for lefties to deal with. Against right-handers, Uceta leans more to his power curve, which looks like a slider based on the spin angle, but actually dives down more than hitters expect.

The stuff here is absolutely enough for high leverage relief work, but the control is decidedly not. It’s a tricky delivery to time up, and the Tigers’ staff has their work cut out to improve his precision significantly this spring. If they can’t get there in the short term, it will be interesting to see if they hang onto Uceta and try to give it more time.

Chasen Shreve

The other highly experienced major league among this group is the sole lefty, though the Tigers added numerous southpaws hoping to find someone to help a very right-handed bullpen. 32-year-old Chasen Shreve has made a nice career out of a filthy splitter and a decent riding fastball. Considering the loss of Chafin and Soto, the Tigers’ bullpen badly needs left-handed help. While other pickups like Zach Logue, Jace Fry, and Tyler Holton could help fill the gap, Shreve is the Tigers best bet for a strong lefty presence to add to a right-hand dominant bullpen.

Shreve was drafted way back in 2010 by the Atlanta Braves in the 11th round and has always been a reliever even as a prospect. The key is Shreve’s 83-84 mph splitter. A great equalizer for him against right-handers, the pitch features good deception and tends to tail away harder than hitters expect, drawing whiffs and weak contact off the end of the bat. The pitch had a 40 percent whiff rate in 2022, even as he struggled badly overall on the year.

The fastball is low powered, and typically sits in the low-90’s, though recently he’s averaged more 90 mph than the 92-93 mph he had at his best. His good extension and fairly high spin rate helps him to get good riding life on the fourseamer, but the minimal velo and struggles with command have made it pretty vulnerable to giving up home runs in his career.

In 2022 the pitch got bombed on, negating his good work in other areas like K-BB rate. He’ll get his whiffs above the zone, but the misses get hit harder now as he’s lost a bit of velocity. Still, as a solid enough lefty, Shreve has never lacked for work, seeing action with the Braves, the New York Yankees, and most recently the New York Mets, among others.

A straight slider with decent depth but minimal horizontal break rounds out the repertoire. Shreve mainly uses it against lefties, but rather than sweeping across the plate away and down from hitters, it tends to stay straighter over the plate and simply dives straight down. Overall there’s plenty of depth to the pitch but the whiff rate is mediocre and when it’s in the zone, hitters tend to get the bat on it. They just don’t do much damage.

Overall, it’s an interesting package of skills, but the crucial issue is the fourseamer’s vulnerability to getting barreled up. The Tigers would like to see Shreve throwing 92-93 again, rather than the 90.6 mph he averaged in 2022. They’re working on some adjustments to his motion to accomplish that.

“We’re just changing my leg action,” he said. “Try to just get more torque and more rotation. The year I did that, the hardest I’ve thrown in my career, I was at 92.8 mph in 2017 with the Yankees.”

Perhaps the Tigers can find something to tweak there, or even try to introduce a sinker into the mix. Another option is just to throw the splitter and slider a little more, and try to keep right-handed hitters from crushing the fastball. Shreve hasn’t worked with all that many good organizations in terms of pitcher development, but he’s also 32 years old. Just getting some solid production out of him would be fine.

For his part, Shreve seems rather enthused about the Tigers’ pitching programs in this excellent Jeff Seidel piece for the Detroit Free Press.

“I’ve never really been on a team that told me how to use my analytical numbers,” he said. “Nobody’s really ever been like, ‘Hey, this is what we think you should throw your fastball, your splitter and in what counts.”

Even despite balanced splits as a southpaw, Shreve has never managed to take that one step that would earn him a longer time job. Instead he’s persevered and pieced together a nice little career as a journeyman in a time where it’s hard to earn a long-term job that way. So, he has a good chance to make the roster and be useful, just don’t expect too much. Either way it should be somewhat interesting to see how the Tigers try to tweak the stuff and pitch patterns of a long tenured major league reliever.

Betting on development

Player development is a tough sell to some of the Tiger fanbase at this point. Ever since Al Avila took over in August of 2015, the Tigers have ostensibly been focused on becoming much stronger in scouting and player development. Little evidence of success has played out on the field over a long period of time, and it’s not easy to believe the new staff will rapidly turn the situation around.

There are obviously more important development matters than whether the Tigers can land some quality relief help out of their hoard of minor league signings. The immediate future of the franchise rests pretty heavily with a group of hitters and starting pitchers aged 21 to 25 who haven’t done too much yet.

Still the whole rationale for wholesale changes in coaching staff in 2020, player development in 2021, and then new front office leadership under Harris last fall, was to get better in all these areas. Putting together a quality bullpen again without any notable signings, after trading most of their top arms, would be another sign that on the pitching side the Tigers are on the right path. If they can’t do that, then they’re still treading water despite all the new hires and technology added. One way or the other, they need some help from their group of minor league free agent signings and waiver claims and there’s enough talent on hand to expect that one of them will be a big factor in the Tigers’ bullpen this season.

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