Tigers trade deadline invites Wentz, others, to get going

Detroit News

You can cut that MLB trade-deadline tension with a chainsaw, maybe, with the Tigers factoring in much of the suspense and potential roster drama.

By the time formal shopping ceases July 31, Eduardo Rodriguez and/or Michael Lorenzen have a shot at joining playoff teams — valid playoff clubs, and not those (hello, American League Central Division and Detroit) hanging within rationalization range.

Once the dealing’s done, Detroit could need one or two fill-in starting pitchers.

It puts a spotlight on several men — in particular, Joey Wentz, who has past big-league time with the Tigers and who was more than fine in Friday’s start at Toledo when he struck out 12 and walked one in 5.2 innings against the venerable Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.

“Right from the first inning, he was attacking hitters,” Toledo manager Anthony Iapoce said, as he offered a weekend review. “His fastball was up (velocity), his breaking ball was sharp, and he was able to throw his breaking ball for strikes and get them to chase his breaking ball.

“With the fastball, it made it tough on hitters.”

Wentz, of course, is a left-handed starter who is expected to eventually smooth into a reliable rotation piece for Tigers manager AJ Hinch.

It would be nice timing for the Tigers if Wentz’s settling-in happened in these next weeks, given the likelihood Rodriguez or Lorenzen or both are headed elsewhere.

Wentz is 25 and now has behind him a year of healing and limbering following his 2021 Tommy John surgery. He has pitched, unevenly, in 22 big-league games the past two seasons. But his latest return trip to Triple A that began in late June might have helped that mound-maturation process Hinch and his bosses needed to see before Wentz got a call-back.

His only tough inning Friday: the second, when Lehigh got a walk, two stolen bases, and two singles for both runs, even as Wentz struck out the side.

“What impressed was, in the second when things got a little rough, watching him navigate himself out of it,” Iapoce said, explaining that there were some “misfires” and a string of fouled-off pitches that were all part of a 28-pitch inning and the only offense Lehigh managed against Wentz.

“There are guys who could fold during that kind of inning. But he powered through it. He was pretty sharp, top to bottom. He can freeze righties and also get swings-and-misses from lefties.”

While the Wentz Watch continues and Detroit talks retail with other clubs, Iapoce this week will get his first look at a new Mud Hens starter: Sawyer Gipson-Long, a right-hander who had been working at Double-A Erie before he hit the Ohio Turnpike last week for a trip to Toledo.

Gipson-Long came to the Tigers a year ago as trade payment from the Twins in a deal for reliever Michael Fulmer. He also is 25, is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and was a sixth-round pick by the Twins in 2019 (Mercer University). He had a 3.74 ERA and 1.01 WHIP for Erie, which included his final start, July 16 against Hartford: five innings, four hits, no runs, no walks and six strikeouts.

“I think adding a cutter and adding a sinker have really made him a complete pitcher,” said Gabe Alvarez, the Erie manager who last summer saw Gipson-Long work seven games for Erie.

“Last year, he was strictly using a four-seam fastball. Now, he’s got multiple ways to attack a hitter. And especially, he has the mentality, the makeup, and the work ethic.

“And he’s such a good person. He has a lot of people rooting for him.”

The Tigers might have been tempted a year ago to think two Erie pitchers in 2023 would beat Gipson-Long to Toledo — and even to Detroit: right-handers Ty Madden and Wilmer Flores.

But no go.

Flores has had season-long issues finding the fastball-slider octane that made him a hit in 2022. His situation in 2023 has been steadily mystifying, as was the case Thursday at Binghamton.

Flores was at 97 with his first-inning fastball, last year’s velocity, as he struck out Binghamton’s first three batters. An inning later he was at 91-93. A couple of weak singles preceded a three-run homer in a four-run Binghamton burst.

His five-inning shift included six hits and four earned runs to a weak-hitting team. He walked two and finished with seven strikeouts.

Flores is only 22 and has obvious time on his side. But his numbers in 2023 have dropped markedly from his 2022 work at Erie: 3.01 ERA to 3.93; 1.05 WHIP to 1.29. Strikeout (10.2 to 8.9) and walk (2.3 to 3.8) ratios have also taken a hit.

Also concerning is that the Tigers have either been reluctant to talk about Flores, or have been instructed, formally, to say nothing.

It is a bewildering season and stance accompanying last year’s Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

Madden’s situation is somewhat different. And yet, given his status when he arrived two years ago, fresh from the University of Texas, this season has been something of a setback for the 2023 draft’s 32nd-overall pick, who has been on a bit of a hot-or-lukewarm run.

It helps that Madden’s last two starts have been solid: no runs in a combined 9.2 innings, four hits, with three walks, and 10 strikeouts, including eight in 4.2 innings last Tuesday.

“He’s been holding his velo (velocity) into his latter innings, which is great to see,” Alvarez said. “A lot of 98s during that last start. And before that (June 21), he was great at Hartford. We had him at 100 for one pitch.”

Madden’s numbers from 2023 show how that most profound of pitching words – command – has been lacking: 1.35 WHIP, hurt mainly by 27 walks in 66 innings, against 77 strikeouts.

What it means, for a big-league team in Detroit, is all too clear:

Should the deadline shopping involve a couple of men named Rodriguez and Lorenzen, Hinch will need help from below as the season’s final two months are tended to.

Wentz is on notice to have suitcase and shave kit stuffed.

He, at least, could be hitting soon those northbound lanes of I-75, destined for a Comerica Park reunion and for what a team hopes, finally, will be a longer-term stay in Detroit.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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