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Detroit Tigers bullpen battle: 16 pitchers left fighting for eight spots

10 relievers combine for 10 shutout innings this week

Gregory Soto #65 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 17, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Gregory Soto #65 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 17, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)

DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers still have more than a dozen relief pitchers still on the spring training roster, and many of them are firmly entrenched in the battle for one of the eight bullpen jobs.

With about two weeks left until Opening Day, only two relievers -- closer Joe Jimenez and setup man Buck Farmer -- appear to have locked down spots in the bullpen. The other six spots -- presuming the Tigers elect to begin the season with eight relievers -- are still mostly up for grabs.

Why haven’t the Tigers narrowed down the pool of candidates? Well, most are either having impressive springs, contributed to the team last season or have shown flashes of greatness.

Nobody has created separation this week because everyone’s been nearly perfect. Ten candidates -- David McKay, Bryan Garcia, Nick Ramirez, Tyler Alexander, Nolan Blackwood, Jose Cisnero, Shao-Ching Chiang, Zack Godley, Gregory Soto and Jimenez -- have pitched the last two days against the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates. Their combined stats: 10 shutout innings, two hits, two walks and eight strikeouts.

The only blemish for the bullpen the last two days came from Kyle Funkhouser, who allowed a walk-off run against the Astros and was subsequently optioned to Triple-A Toledo.

With the exception of Blackwood, who has only thrown three career innings above Double-A, the rest of the group are legitimate candidates for the bullpen this year, along with Farmer, Rony Garcia, Sandy Baez, Dario Agrazal, Tim Adleman, Alex Wilson and Hector Santiago. If you take out Jimenez and Farmer, there are 14 pitchers battling for six spots.

Spring stats

  • Tim Adleman: 4.1 innings, 7 hits, 0 walks, 2 runs, 4 strikeouts
  • Dario Agrazal: 6 innings, 6 hits, 1 walk, 2 runs, 4 strikeouts
  • Tyler Alexander: 7 innings, 6 hits, 2 walks, 3 runs, 4 strikeouts
  • Sandy Baez: 3.1 innings, 2 hits, 1 walk, 0 runs, 6 strikeouts
  • Shao-Ching Chiang: 2 innings, 2 hits, 1 walk, 2 runs, 2 strikeouts
  • Jose Cisnero: 3.2 innings, 7 hits, 2 walks, 5 runs, 5 strikeouts
  • Bryan Garcia: 6 innings, 3 hits, 2 walks, 1 run, 2 strikeouts
  • Rony Garcia: 4.2 innings, 6 hits, 1 walk, 2 runs, 5 strikeouts
  • Zack Godley: 4.1 innings, 4 hits, 8 walks, 5 runs, 5 strikeouts
  • David McKay: 6.1 innings, 2 hits, 2 walks, 1 run, 5 strikeouts
  • Nick Ramirez: 5 innings, 3 hits, 2 walks, 1 run, 4 strikeouts
  • Hector Santiago: 4.1 innings, 6 hits, 2 walks, 4 runs, 5 strikeouts
  • Gregory Soto: 4.2 innings, 4 hits, 2 walks, 3 runs, 5 strikeouts
  • Alex Wilson: 4.2 innings, 7 hits, 2 walks, 8 runs, 4 strikeouts

Struggling veterans

Two of the numbers that stick out from that list: Eight walks for Godley and eight earned runs for Wilson.

Godley was brought in on a minor-league deal as an experiment, and his inability to throw strikes will likely cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster, unless he shows marked improvement over the next few weeks.

Wilson has the familiarity advantage. When Ron Gardenhire got to Detroit, Wilson was one of the few reliable options. He had a rough 2019, though, and the spring hasn’t been promising.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Adleman hasn’t appeared in an MLB game since 2017 and is 32 years old. He probably needs to do more to wrangle a roster spot away from the younger options.

Santiago could be a long relief option, but he’s been generous with the base runners and runs scored, also.

Flamethrowers

Soto’s numbers look pretty pedestrian, but Tuesday was an example of why the Tigers badly want him to make the roster. He’s a left-handed flamethrower who touched 100 mph multiple times in the inning and got two strikeouts in a clean inning.

Likewise, Cisnero was lighting up the radar gun against the Pirates, touching 97 mph and retiring both of the batters he faced.

Soto and Cisnero are an interesting pair because they live in the upper 90s with the fastball and can be devastating at their best. But walks have been an issue in the past -- 4.8 BB/9 last season for Cisnero and 5.2 BB/9 for Soto -- so both have to prove they can throw strikes.

Chiang is another option who’s brought the heat this spring, albeit in only two appearances. He can also ramp up near 100 mph. As a starter for Cleveland’s Triple-A squad, he allowed 144 hits and 75 earned runs in 131 innings. The Tigers are hoping he can better capitalize on his nasty stuff as a reliever.

Youth movement

There are a wide variety of pitchers in this category, but they’re all younger than 27 years old and have very little experience at the MLB level.

Bryan Garcia seems to be the pitcher drawing closest to locking up a spot. He’s the team’s No. 15 overall prospect and put up phenomenal numbers throughout the minor leagues before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018.

Garcia made it to Detroit last year and struggled, but that was to be expected considering he was a first-time MLB pitcher fresh off a lost season. Coming into this spring, it felt like Garcia simply needed to prove he was healthy and getting back to his previous form.

So far, he’s allowed just one run on three hits and two walks in six stellar innings. The strikeouts haven’t been there, but they’ve been consistent throughout his professional career, so it’s not much of a concern in such a small sample size.

Relief pitcher Bryan Garcia #33 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 18, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Relief pitcher Bryan Garcia #33 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 18, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (2019 Jason Miller)

Baez is a former top 30 prospect in the organization, though he’s since fallen from those ranks. The 26-year-old hasn’t appeared in a game since Saturday, but 3.1 shutout innings with six strikeouts is a great start.

There’s still a chance Alexander could be a starting pitcher in the minors, but Gardenhire has made it clear he wants the lefty in his bullpen. He’s been decent so far this spring, though not overpowering.

Agrazal has a similar profile -- a possible long reliever who can go multiple innings but doesn’t have a great knack for missing bats.

The best thing Rony Garcia has going for him is the stipulation that if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, the Tigers will have to offer him back to the New York Yankees. That means Detroit would risk completely wasting the No. 1 overall Rule 5 draft pick.

Perhaps the most impressive numbers of the group belong to McKay, who’s tossed 6.1 innings while allowing just one run and striking out five. Most importantly, McKay has issued only two walks -- his 5.8 BB/9 in 2019 is way too high to survive at the MLB level.

Opponents are hitting .095 against McKay, who owns a 0.63 WHIP. He’s a proven strikeout pitcher -- 29 strikeouts in 19.1 innings for the Tigers last season -- so the upside is clear.

Nick Ramirez

There’s no real reason for Ramirez to get his own section, other than he isn’t a struggling veteran, a flamethrower or a young pitcher.

He’s 30 years old, has a slightly above-average rookie season in 2019 and is fighting to stay afloat in a camp teeming with prospects and hard throwers.

Ramirez is deserving of consideration, though. He’s a fairly reliable left-handed option who can go multiple innings. So far this spring, he’s surrendered just one run on three hits and two walks in five innings.

Making the roster is probably an up-hill battle for Ramirez, but he has some good will built up from last season.

Bullpen predictions

The best-case scenario for the Opening Day bullpen would be Jimenez, Farmer, Cisnero, Soto, Chiang, McKay and both Garcias.

Jimenez and Farmer are locks. Cisnero, Soto and Chiang are the hardest throwers and have a ton of potential. McKay and Bryan Garcia have massive upside, and the Tigers invested heavily in Rony Garcia this off-season.

That probably won’t be the final list, however. I’d guess the eight relievers who travel north will be Jimenez, Farmer, Cisnero, Soto, McKay, Alexander and both Garcias. But with 14 spring training games remaining, there’s plenty of time for the others to gain ground.


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