Tigers lefty Tyler Holton quietly asserting himself in bullpen scramble

Detroit News

Fort Myers, Fla. — Things are starting to settle down a bit now for lefty Tyler Holton.

His world got flipped upside down on Feb. 15. One minute he’s throwing a bullpen in Arizona, working to win a bullpen spot with the Diamondbacks. The next minute his phone is blowing up and he’s got a get him, his wife and their dog to Lakeland, Fla., as soon as possible.

He can thank a former Tiger for that. The Diamondbacks signed lefty reliever and former Tiger Andrew Chafin. Holton was designated for assignment to make room for Chafin. He didn’t stay on waivers long. The Tigers snapped him up and now he’s on the other side of the country still fighting for a bullpen spot.

It’s been smooth sailing for him since he got here, though. He’s quickly put himself in the thick of a crowded and talented bullpen competition.

The 26-year-old lefty reliever has pitched three scoreless, hitless innings so far this spring. He’s set down nine of the 10 batters he’s faced, the only blemish was a hit batsman.

The 26-year-old lefty reliever has pitched three scoreless, hitless innings so far this spring. He’s set down nine of the 10 batters he’s faced, the only blemish was a hit batsman.

“We’re getting to know him a little bit as a person, which is great,” manager AJ Hinch said. “He’s got some history in our clubhouse, playing Team USA ball. And it looks like he has a great feel to pitch.”

He got six straight outs against the Yankees in Tampa Friday, punching out Billy McKinney and Giancarlo Stanton and getting DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge on weak-contact outs.

“He was able to change direction, change speeds,” Hinch said. “Because he throws 90-91 mph (with his fastball) we call him crafty. But it’s just being a pitcher and disrupting timing.”

Holton, who made his big-league debut with Arizona last season, threw six changeups, six four-seam fastballs, five sinkers, four cutters, two sliders and a curveball. The changeup is his money pitch. In his nine big-league innings, hitters went 3-for-14 against it, with three strikeouts, swinging and missing at a 43% rate.

“The changeup is probably my biggest strength, the off-speed pitch to go to,” Holton said. “I just try to be competitive with it, throw it over the plate and just let it do its thing.”

Holton isn’t sweating his odds of making the roster. He’s never been in a camp where he didn’t have to fight for a spot, be it at Florida State, where he pitched for two seasons before blowing out his elbow in 2018, be it in minor-league camp, be it in big-league camp.

“I feel like you make goals with each outing,” he said. “I am trying to be competitive with all my pitches. I feel like if I can be in the strike zone, pitch to contact, get ahead in the count, good things typically happen.”

The Tigers’ bullpen puzzle seems to get more complicated every day. Saturday night, the club signed veteran Trevor Rosenthal to a minor-league deal. He will be entering the fight soon.

Presently, Tyler Alexander is the only left-hander whose spot is seemingly secure. The other lefties in the hunt are Holton and non-roster invitees Chasen Shreve, Miguel Del Pozo and Jace Fry.

There are two questions that impact Holton: Will Hinch carry two lefties, and if so, will the other lefty have to be more of a specialist because Alexander is a bulk-innings reliever?

“It’s always nice to have balance,” Hinch said. “But, there are some right-handed pitchers that can be left-handed specialists. Miguel Diaz is an example. You could consider him just as good a matchup against a left-handed hitter as some left-handed pitchers.

“Ideally, you have multiple options that are a little bit different.”

Holton, with his eclectic mix, can be effective against both sides of the plate, though he dominated lefties in both Triple-A and with Arizona last season. Hinch expects Holton to be a multi-inning reliever.

“If you look at some of the guys we’re extending out, 40- to 45-pitch guys, they aren’t as specialized as Shreve or Fry, who are more one-inning guys,” Hinch said.

Hinch is expected to keep one or two bridge relievers besides Alexander. The contestants in that group include right-handers Beau Brieske, Garret Hill, Rule-5 draftee Mason Englert, Rony Garcia, Alex Faedo, Brendan White and Edwin Uceta. Holton and possibly Joey Wentz would be the two lefties in that group.

Of that group, Wentz will most likely remain stretched out, and unless there is an injury in the projected rotation, start the season at the top of the rotation in Triple-A Toledo. Brieske, Hill, Garcia and Faedo would also likely start the season in Toledo’s rotation if they don’t win a bullpen spot in Detroit.

“I’d love to have balance,” Hinch said. “But I’d rather have them be the best pitchers, not just handedness.”

Here’s where the competition for the eight bullpen jobs stands as of Sunday morning:

On the team: RHPs Alex Lange, Jose Cisnero, Jason Foley, LHP Tyler Alexander.

Probably on the team: RHP Will Vest.

In the thick of the fight: RHP Mason Englert, Beau Brieske, Garrett Hill, Miguel Diaz; LHP Tyler Holton, Chasen Shreve.

On the outside of the fight: Brendan White, Matt Wisler, Trey Wingenter, LHP Miguel Del Pozo.

Probably not on the team: LHPs Jace Fry, Joey Wentz (barring injury to a starter), Zach Logue, Adam Wolf; RHPs Alex Faedo, Rony Garcia, Edwin Uceta, Trevor Rosenthal, Elvis Alvarado, Kervin Castro, Angel De Jesus, Brenan Hanifee.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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