Clearwater, Fla. — The name Will Vest never came up in the discussion. Still, his ears might’ve been burning back in Lakeland Thursday morning.
Because even though he wasn’t mentioned directly, the Tigers’ reliever was the embodiment of the topic at hand: When it comes to making those final roster cuts, how much weight is put on a player’s track record vs. his spring performance.
“So, does spring training matter or not?” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “The answer is, it’s on an individual basis and on why the player is either struggling or why the player is doing well. And relievers are the toughest ones to map out.
“Wind-blown homers, missed calls, you’re trying to throw certain pitches you wouldn’t throw during the season – it all factors in.”
Vest is having a dreadful spring. He’s trying to work through some mechanical issues and has done most of his pitching on the back fields. In the five spring games he’s worked in, he’s been tagged for 13 hits and 13 runs, in just four innings.
But Vest was a valuable part of the Tigers’ bullpen last season. He wore down physically over the final six weeks of the season, but up until early August, he’d posted a 3.21 ERA and limited hitters to a .230 average in 42 innings.
Throwing off a mid-90s four-seamer, Vest limited hitters to a .216 batting average with his slider and a .161 average with his changeup, getting 30% whiff rates with both.
How much rope did his performance last season earn him?
“That’s why we talk about a broader view,” said Hinch, again speaking generally, not specifically about Vest. “And the track record matters. But also the sharpness toward the end of camp will factor in when you are talking about getting off to a better start. We’re going against what is a very difficult schedule – Tampa, Houston, Boston, Toronto. There’s not a bad offense in any of that.”
Given that scenario, Vest’s final two or three spring outings are going to be critical. He has a minor-league option left, so there is a safety net there if he still needs time to get back to form.
The opposite of Vest’s case, or even Tyler Alexander, who until his last outing had struggled, is right-hander Trey Wingenter, who has been consistently solid this spring but hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2019.
Same with Rule 5 rookie Mason Englert. He’s been brilliant this spring, but not only hasn’t he faced big-league hitters consistently, he has only three starts above High-A ball.
“We have to balance our enthusiasm for what a player has done with the reality of what they’re doing now,” Hinch said. “Those are the sleepless nights, the last 72 hours, trying to weigh it properly and take the best team we can into the first series.”
The sleepless nights have already begun for Hinch. The Tigers played a split-squad road doubleheader Thursday and Hinch made sure he was in Clearwater for the afternoon game to see Joey Wentz and Garrett Hill pitch before going to Sarasota to manage the game against the Orioles, where lefty bullpen combatants Tyler Holton and Jace Fry were scheduled to pitch.