CLEARWATER, Fla. — Joey Wentz developed a fandom for European football this offseason, watching English Premier League games when his workouts allowed. He even caught a brief glimpse of Liverpool’s rout of Manchester United before his Spring Training start on March 5.
Maybe it’s fitting, then, that his chance at a spot in Detroit’s season-opening rotation is headed into extra time.
Considering Wentz’s situation revolves around Michael Lorenzen‘s readiness following a mild left groin strain, maybe it’s better termed as injury time. But as Wentz finished up his final start of the spring, tossing four-plus innings in Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Phillies at BayCare Ballpark, there was a sense of a dress rehearsal.
The Tigers still have a handful of days to see if Lorenzen improves before having to set their roster. They can push his spot to the back of their rotation. But Wentz, whose strong stretch run in Detroit’s rotation last season built momentum that carried into the Arizona Fall League and then this spring, is ready by all accounts.
“Obviously, Michael is going to be a big part of our team,” Wentz said. “We want him healthy and we want him out there. I don’t know if he will or not, but if he happens to be down, I feel ready and I feel like I can compete at this level and get guys out. But obviously, you want those guys to be out there.”
Normally, Wentz might have been in Minor League camp by now, working to get ready for the Triple-A season that begins next weekend. After all, the Tigers’ rotation was pretty well set coming into camp, though Matt Manning’s struggles added some suspense into the mix. Instead, the club not only kept Wentz in Major League camp, it stretched him out as a starter on a schedule.
The 25-year-old left-hander has taken advantage of the opportunity and put in work to improve, not just rest on his track record from last season. His cutter — a pitch he learned last year from Triple-A Toledo pitching coach Doug Bochtler and used to register a 38.9% whiff rate in his brief Tigers tenure — has looked like a potential game-changer for his arsenal this spring. Wentz used it to get five swings and misses Thursday against a Phillies’ lineup that included several regulars.
“I trust it a lot,” Wentz said.
His curveball, which was a big pitch for him in the Minors and had outstanding metrics in a small Major League sample last year, has been a point of emphasis this spring as a path to extra strikes and leverage counts.
“I think it’s been pretty good,” Wentz said. “I thought I had some good results with it today. I think it’s going to kind of be conscious work for me all season with it, get as comfortable as I can. But certainly I haven’t shook it [off] all spring and I feel comfortable throwing it.”
How well he mixes those two secondary pitches with his fastball will play a big role in his success, whether that comes in an early-season matchup against the Rays or Astros — two of MLB’s top nine teams in batting average against left-handers last season — or a promotion from Toledo down the road.
“I think his effectiveness, long term, as a starter is going to be [based] around finding leverage [on] first pitch and being able to throw something other than a fastball in the strike zone,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Last September demonstrated that he can get through lineups multiple times if he does that.”
He did that against the Phillies before his 19th and final batter proved to be his downfall. Trea Turner swung at Wentz’s fastball, curveball and cutter on consecutive pitches, fouling off the latter two to stay alive in a 2-2 count. Wentz went back to the cutter but elevated it in hopes of getting Turner to chase. He did, but hit it off the roof of the tiki bar in left field for a two-run homer that made it a 3-0 game.
Call it a late goal into the top corner.
“I’m kind of ticked off about the ending,” said the normally soft-spoken Wentz, who gave up three runs on five hits.
“He was one pitch away from having his best outing of the spring,” bench coach George Lombard said. “But a lot of good things. He faced a pretty good lineup. Joey did a nice job.”