DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have been much more active in free agency this off-season, but there’s still more Al Avila could do to give his team a chance to speed up the rebuild.
Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron, Ivan Nova and Zack Godley should help make the Tigers better and deeper for the 2020 season. But as free agency winds down and spring training draws near, there are still a handful of relief players who could give the Tigers options.
Look at last July. Shane Greene had been an average relief pitcher his entire career, but an incredible first half turned him into one of the most valuable bullpen chips available at the deadline. The Tigers sent him to Atlanta for a good pitching prospect in Joey Wentz and a young outfielder with upside in Travis Demeritte. Will those players work out? Who knows. But the more young players the Tigers collect, the better chance some of them will pan out.
Another example is the Justin Wilson trade on July 31, 2017. The Tigers sent Wilson and catcher Alex Avila to the Chicago Cubs for Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. Candelario had a terrible 2019 season, but he was a top 100 prospect at the time of the trade. Paredes has emerged as the team’s best position player prospect behind Riley Greene.
Al Avila has received mixed reviews since taking over as the team’s general manager, but those were two of his better trades. Why not play into that strength, sign one or two relief pitchers to two-year deals and see if it turns into a trade chip in July?
The top relief pitchers on the market -- Will Smith, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Chris Martin -- have already signed with playoff contenders. But the Tigers could look a little deeper.
2019 stats: 4.68 ERA, 4.66 FIP, 1.347 WHIP, 108 strikeouts and 58 walks in 150 innings
One glance at the overall numbers from last season will show you why Andrew Cashner has yet to sign a free agent deal. He had a high whip, a low strikeout rate and gave up 19 home runs.
But after the Boston Red Sox moved Cashner into the bullpen, his numbers got much better. He posted a 3.86 ERA and 1.243 WHIP while striking out 8.1 batters per nine innings. When he was starting, Cashner allowed batters to slash .260/.327/.427 against him. As a reliever, they slashed just .210/.309/.667.
Maybe Cashner is hoping to get back into a starting rotation somewhere, but it’s late in the process for a 33-year-old who couldn’t cut it as a starter in 2019. His best move might be to make the common transition from middling starter to back-end of the bullpen.
Dozens of failed or former starting pitchers find success in a one-inning role, and Cashner has an arsenal that could translate. He averaged 94 mph on his fastball last season, and that could certainly increase a tick if he’s in a permanent relief role. His change-up and slider both have whiff percentages near 30% and hitters batted lower than .225 against both pitches.
Somebody will take a flier on Cashner, and there are reasons to believe he could be a good reliever. It might be a worthy risk for the Tigers.
2019 stats: 4.70 ERA, 4.43 FIP, 1.232 WHIP, 82 strikeouts and 30 walks in 74.2 innings
Another former starter who has transitioned into a bullpen role, Collin McHugh was excellent out of the bullpen the last two seasons in Houston.
After his 2017 season was derailed by injury, McHugh returned as a relief pitcher in 2018 and made 58 appearances. He struck out 94 batters in 72.1 innings with a 2.72 FIP and 0.912 WHIP. He missed bats at an elite level while also keeping his opponent off the scoreboard.
McHugh’s numbers took a hit last season, but that’s mostly because he was terrible in eight starts. In 27 relief appearances, McHuge struck out 40 batters in 33.2 innings with a 2.67 ERA and a 1.248 WHIP -- not quite his 2018 form, but still excellent.
Batters hit just .208 with a .640 OPS against McHugh as a reliever. His walk rate was a bit high in those outings, but for an eight-year veteran with no history of control problems, it wasn’t enough of an increase to raise red flags.
McHugh, 32, doesn’t throw hard -- he sits around 90 mph with his fastball -- but the spin rate on his fastball and curveball is elite, and as a result, it’s almost impossible to make hard contact against him.
McHugh’s ridiculous slider generated swings and misses 39.6% of the time he threw it last year. Opponents hit .175 against that pitch. He’s an established pitcher at the MLB level and a proven ace reliever.
2019 stats: 2.25 ERA, 5.17 FIP, 1.500 WHIP, six strikeouts and three walks in four innings
The 2019 season was lost to injury for Arodys Vizcaino, who underwent shoulder surgery in mid-April and never returned.
In his last full season, Vizcaino allowed just nine runs in 38.1 innings while striking out 40 batters. He has a career strikeout rate of 10.1 per nine innings.
Vizcaino is one of the hardest throwers in baseball, averaging 97.4 mph on his fastball and 97.5 mph on his sinker in 2018. Before the shoulder injury, he would regularly hit triple digits on the radar gun. Then, he could drop in a slider with a swing and miss rate of 56.8% in 2018. That means more than half the sliders he threw that season -- he threw 193 total -- ended in whiffs.
How will Vizcaino rebound from a major shoulder surgery? For a pitcher whose success depends so much on velocity, that’s the biggest question. It’s also probably the only reason the 29-year-old remains unsigned.
In 2017 and 2018, Vizcaino struck out 104 batters in 95.2 innings with a 3.73 FIP, a 1.129 WHIP and very reasonable walk and home run rates. That sounds like a pitcher with upside especially when he has 100 mph in his back pocket.
2019 stats: 5.37 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 1.572 WHIP, 52 strikeouts and 15 walks in 55.1 innings
Last season was very, very strange for Robbie Erlin.
Erlin was placed on the disabled list April 21, 2016, with an elbow strain. Little did he know he wouldn’t pitch again until March 20, 2018.
The first season back from injury was split between the bullpen and the starting rotation as Erlin made 12 starts and 27 relief appearances. In his relief role he was dominant, posting a 2.05 ERA, 0.797 WHIP and holding batters to a .538 OPS. He isn’t a big swing-and-miss guy, but the underlying numbers back up his success.
The reason Erlin isn’t getting much attention this off-season is his strange 2019 season. His 5.37 ERA and 1.572 WHIP were disastrous, but a 3.61 WHIP and a career-high strikeout rate suggest he wasn’t as bad as the final stat line suggests.
Erlin allowed a nearly identical hard hit rate in 2018 and 2019, but last season, batters hit .312 against him -- largely thanks to a .375 BABIP that was up 66 points from the previous year and 56 points higher than his career number.
The expected batting and slugging stats support some of what happened to Erlin last season, but he was still very unlucky. He’s only 29 years old and owns solid FIP, WHIP and walk rates throughout his career.
2019 stats: 4.43 ERA, 4.51 FIP, 1.321 WHIP, 47 strikeouts and 12 walks in 44.2 innings
Nick Vincent is coming off the worst season of his career, but he ended it on a high note with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Vincent was released by the San Francisco Giants in August and signed with the Phillies eight days later. After allowing 19 earned runs in 30.2 innings with San Francisco -- a team that plays at the best pitcher’s park in the game -- Vincent went to the shoebox in Philadelphia and allowed just three runs in 14 innings. Baseball is weird sometimes.
Each of the three seasons prior to 2019, Vincent was as reliable as they come. He made 60, 69 and 62 appearances those years with very consistent numbers.
Overall, Vincent struck out 171 batters in 181.1 innings with a 3.62 ERA, 3.55 WHIP and 1.147 WHIP in that span. His average strikeout rate plays up because of a minuscule 2.1 walks per nine innings. A pitcher who strikeouts out four batters for every one walk -- Vincent’s career rate in 384 games -- has a spot in an MLB bullpen.
Vincent will turn 34 midway through the upcoming season, but the way he finished the season in Philadelphia assuaged concerns about his decline.
2019 stats: 3.32 ERA, 3.47 FIP, 1.059 WHIP, 55 strikeouts and 13 walks in 62.1 innings
Sam Dyson was in the midst of a career season in San Francisco before he was shipped to Minnesota and completely fell apart. In 49 games with the Giants, he allowed just 14 earned runs and 49 base runners in 51 innings. With the Twins, he allowed nine earned runs and 20 base runners in 11.1 innings.
For a pitcher with a track record as solid as Dyson’s 11 bad innings shouldn’t have much of an impact on his free agency.
He’s made 376 appearances in his career, posting a 3.40 ERA, 3.75 FIP and 1.278 WHIP. He’s never been much of a strikeout pitcher, but getting his walk rate under control was a breakthrough in 2018.
It’s worth noting Dyson has been at his absolute best in the cavernous Oracle Park, but he was also a very good reliever with the Rangers. In the last five seasons, Dyson has twice been traded on July 31 and once traded in June. All three times he was flipped for prospects.
Maybe the Tigers can make it a fourth.