Notes from the first full week of Detroit Tigers spring camp

Bless You Boys

The Grapefruit League calendar gets underway with a home game against the New York Yankees at 1:05 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon. While the broadcast schedule is typically dissatisfying in the minimal number of games that will be televised, the fanbase and no doubt the teams themselves are ready to get things going with actual games. After a week of camp, there are several interesting notes from the beat writers to consider before things get started.

Grapefruit League season opens this weekend

For now, RHP Reese Olson is slated to start against the Yankees. RHP Mason Englert and LHP Brant Hurter are schedule to throw after Olson. The former was the Tigers 2022 Rule 5 draft selection and didn’t showcase much beyond a very crushable fastball last season, but does have a quality slider/changeup combination. Hurter really performed well beyond expectations at Double-A Erie and worked his way up to 16th on our 2024 BYB Tigers prospect rankings this winter.

Our prospect reports and system overview articles will be pinned to the BYB front page all season for reference. Here’s the link to the 34 scouting reports on the Tigers prospects down on the farm.

He’s still a low 90’s sinkerballer and doesn’t really project as a regular major league starter, but Hurter presents a tricky angle with good armspeed that gives him some deception. He also has a good slider and a changeup that improved a lot last season. Probably Hurter is more of a middle relief lefty, but a little more improvement as he moves to Triple-A Toledo this year could still make the 25-year-old a viable depth starter as well. Jeff Seidel has a piece on Hurter for the Detroit Free Press, but it’s for subscribers only. The piece did come with some really enthusistic quotes on Hurter from AJ Hinch and others.

“I love Hurter,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “I mean, he’s a big, physical dude, man.”

“His stuff is good,” Hinch said. “His demeanor is good. From what the minor league people tell me, his routines are incredible and very advanced, and he believes in his stuff because he throws a ton of strikes.”

Jason Benetti set to debut for Bally Sports Detroit

On Sunday, there will be a debut of a different sort, as new play-by-play man, Jason Benetti, calls his first televised broadcast of the Tigers for Bally Sports Detroit. That might be the biggest performance to look for this weekend as the players are still just beginning to ramp up their workload with Opening Day over a month away.

Right-hander Alex Faedo will get the Sunday start on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s a start, but don’t take that too seriously. It’s spring camp, and it’s their first road game. This may be the last time Faedo takes the mound to start a game as he is bound for a bullpen role at best. He does have one option remaining, so he’ll get some time to make that transition, but time is running short either way.

Right-handed pitching prospect Keider Montero is scheduled to pitch after Faedo on Sunday. The young right-hander pitched his way across three levels in 2023 and features a good mid-90’s heater and an outstanding set of secondary pitches he’s still learning to command consistently. He’s our 9th ranked prospect in the Tigers system right now, and the young Venezuelan product was added to the 40-man roster prior to the 2023 Rule 5 draft, and is likely to be the first pitching prospect up from Toledo should the need arise early in the season.

RHP Beau Brieske looks to be a full-time reliever at this point, and he should get a look in one of the two weekend games as well.

Tigers add Urshela

The biggest piece of news arrived on Thursday afternoon, as the Tigers inked veteran infielder Gio Urshela to a one-year, $1.5M contract with $500K in incentives if he plays enough. After a good season for the Minnesota Twins in 2022, Urshela burned out somewhat with the Los Angeles Angels last year. He only managed 62 games, and was struggling somewhat at the plate before breaking his pelvis during an awkward stumble and fall trying to beat out a base hit.

Surgery wasn’t required, but the injury ended Urshela’s season and required a lengthy rehabilitation. Now healthy, the Tigers might have scored a nice bargain if the 32-year-old can put 2023 behind him and get back to a more typical level of performance. He doesn’t have to play everyday, but with the club set to mix and match at third base, Urshela is now their lynchpin with far and away the most MLB experience at the position.

Urshela is a bit atypical for Scott Harris as a hitter. A right-handed hitter, the Colombian native controls the strike zone in terms of reliably putting the ball in play consistently. He strikes out in only around 17-18 percent of his plate appearances, but he rarely draws walks and chases pitches out of the zone more than anyone on the Tigers roster other than Javier Báez. That results in a lot of weak balls in play, but Urshela is pretty good at using all parts of the field, making him difficult to position against. In particular, Urshela hits left-handed pitching well while struggling with right-handers, the opposite of other third base options like Matt Vierling and Zach McKinstry.

On the other hand, Andy Ibáñez showcased most of the same strengths as Urshela last season but with better defensive numbers, and the Tigers still seem set on playing Matt Vierling at third base against right-handed pitching for the most part. They also have prospect Jace Jung coming on strong, and potentially ready for a look this summer. So we’ll have to see if Urshela has much tangible impact or not. At this point, the Tigers seem to have some redundant infielders on the 40-man roster, so we’ll see if there’s another move to come.

At very least, the Tigers will start the season with another veteran bat, and one that should be effective against left-handed pitching in particular. This signing doesn’t really move the needle much in terms of the Tigers’ projections, but it may help them get off to a better start offensively this season just by giving Hinch more options for matchups. And just maybe, they catch a little lightning in the bottle and Urshela gets off to a hot start and has a bounceback season for them.

Kenta Maeda is drawing a crowd

Another really interesting scene in camp this week was the substantial contingent of Japanese reporters following every move starting pitcher Kenta Maeda makes. Maeda joked about it, saying he had about 10 Japanese reporters to Shohei Ohtani’s 50 or more, but the Tigers have to be loving this.

Maeda’s primary job is to pitch well and give the club a solid veteran presence in the rotation. His secondary role is to help establish the Tigers as a potential landing place for Japanese players coming to the major leagues. Not necessarily by being a pitchman for the organization, but simply by bringing some awareness of the Tigers to NPB players who might look to play in the major leagues eventually. Maeda has put together a long and successful big league career since moving to MLB in 2016, and that, along with his winning personality, continues to earn him attention and respect from Japanese media and baseball fans.

We’re also going to get catcher Jake Rogers learning a decent bit of Japanese, and that should be fun.

Jeff Seidel has the story for the Freep.

“He’s a veteran guy,” said Junko Ichimura, who was in Lakeland to cover the event for a newspaper in Japan. “He’s so successful and respected. He has a lot of expectation for this team as a veteran guy, so it’s going to be interesting season for us to cover. Many of us try to cover (Shohei) Otani now, but we still want to cover those important topics like Kenta.”

Notes from the beat writers

Early in the week, top prospect RHP Jackson Jobe opened some eyes with an outstanding bullpen session in which he, with Matt Manning goading him on, pumped a 99 mph fastball to finish his session. Not to be outdone, the Tigers number one starter Tarik Skubal hit 100 mph on the gun in a session on Tuesday. This led to some overreaction on social media as you’d expect. Throwing hard is good, and to throw hard? You have to throw hard. As long as they aren’t out there going max effort all session long, this is a positive sign that both are healthy and feeling strong and ahead of the curve this spring.

Cody Stavenhagen has two good human interest articles up on the Tigers for The Athletic Detroit subscribers. One is a fun piece on the many young Tigers who got engaged or married this offseason. I guess that’s one sign that you have a young roster. The other tells the story of new right-hander Shelby Miller’s renaissance as a reliever and how he was driven by his son’s illness to put together a strong second act to his career.

A few clips of beleaguered Tigers’ shortstop Javy Báez hitting left-handed in BP brought confusion and jokes this week. However, Báez had a pretty good rationale for mixing in some left-handed swings for balance.

“It is for fun, but I also use it to stretch my back,” Báez said. “I do that to level my back and adjust it. The way I take so many swings right-handed, I take a couple left-handed and my hips feel better.”

Casey Mize was the big topic of conversation on Thursday as he faced Báez, Spencer Torkelson, and rookie Colt Keith in live BP. Rogelio Castillo from Tigers Minor League Report and Motor City Bengals is in Lakeland, and wrote up his thoughts on Mize as the reporters got their first good look at the former number one overall pick since his UCL reconstruction and back surgery cost him most of 2022 and all of the 2023 season.

Per Castillo, Mize has improved the induced vertical break on his fourseam fastball, and that is a positive sign for him on the comeback trail this year. Improving the fourseam movement should help his splitter play off of it more effectively. We’re also looking to see if the emphasis on the high fourseamer leads Mize to use his knuckle curve, which mirrors the fastball’s spin angle, more this season rather than being as fastball-slider heavy as he was in 2021-2022. An improved north-south approach can only be good for the splitter too.

Mize had a hiccup with the pitch clock on Thursday as he shook off a pitch and took too long. That’s an element he’s just dealing with for the first time this season. He looks pretty sharp in the clips below, although I didn’t see any velocity readings being reported.

Finally, outfielder Riley Greene had his first live BP session since his UCL surgery, and reportedly felt good out there. Everything is on track, and while Greene wanted to push for a chance to face Tarik Skubal, the coaching staff cooled him down and kept him against right-handed pitchers for his first session. Per Evan Woodbery of MLive, Greene considers himself 100 percent good to go and will come off the official injured list shortly.

“I’m going to do everything by the book, so I know nothing is going to come up in the future,” he said.

Things all seem to be going according to plan as Greene ramps up to game action. The Tigers have a deep roster, but still lack in top talent, so they really need Riley Greene and Tarik Skubal to be healthy this season and, along with Torkelson and Kerry Carpenter, give the club some high-end performance. Their depth will keep them afloat, but it’s their most talented young players who will have to carry them as far as they go in 2024.

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