DETROIT - The Detroit Tigers have long struggled to find more than a couple of reliable arms in the bullpen, but Nick Ramirez opened eyes this week by closing out a road series win in impressive fashion.
Ramirez, a 29-year-old left-hander, has only appeared in five games this season -- his first taste of MLB action.
Impressive long relief work
Ron Gardenhire is turning to Ramirez when he needs multiple innings out of his bullpen. He's pitched 16 innings in five outings, never getting fewer than six outs in an appearance.
Ramirez's most impressive showing came Wednesday in the rubber match against the Baltimore Orioles.
He came in to start the bottom of the sixth inning with the Tigers trailing 2-1. Ramirez retired all nine batters he faced, striking out five in three perfect innings. The Tigers scored one run in the eighth and two in the top of the ninth to win the series.
Ramirez threw just 35 pitches, generating 11 swinging strikes.
This wasn't the first time Ramirez showed excellent bat-missing skills. He got 15 swinging strikes over four innings against the Minnesota Twins -- one of the best offenses in the league.
Overall, Ramirez has allowed just 11 hits, four walks and five earned runs in 16 innings while striking out 17 batters.
He's sporting a strong swinging strike rate of 17 percent.
Tigers starting rotation
The question the Tigers must answer is whether Ramirez should remain in the bullpen as a possible valuable long reliever, or does he deserve a chance in the starting rotation.
Right now, the Tigers really only have three pitchers in their starting rotation. Matt Boyd and Spencer Turnbull have been the two best options, and Daniel Norris appears to have locked down a spot for now.
On every fourth or fifth day, the Tigers are running out Ryan Carpenter or calling up Gregory Soto. Carpenter has allowed 16 earned runs in 19 innings and is sporting a 1.47 WHIP.
Soto has shown flashes of why he's ranked among the Tigers' top 30 prospects, but he's clearly not ready to face MLB hitters, allowing 17 earned runs in 13.2 innings with a WHIP over 2.10 and a low strikeout rate.
Should Ramirez start?
Ramirez spent eight seasons in the minor leagues before getting promoted to MLB, but that's largely because he was trying to make it as a first baseman.
The Milwaukee Brewers converted him into a pitcher in 2017, and the results have been mostly positive. He owns a 2.53 ERA and 1.187 WHIP in 93 career minor league games.
Strikeouts are a new trend for Ramirez, though. His career strikout rate coming into 2019 was well under seven per nine innings. Across three levels -- Double-A, Triple-A and MLB -- this season, he's whiffing 11.6 batters per nine innings.
It's certainly a small sample size. He's only pitched 23.1 innings total, but the results are excellent. Out of 98 batters faced, Ramirez has allowed just 29 to reach base while striking out 30. His walk and home run rates are exceptionally low, which means he's had sucecss in the areas he can control.
Ramirez threw 72 and 77 pitches in his first two MLB appearances and started all five of his appearances in the minors this season, throwing 94 pitches in the final outing in Toledo. It's clear he can handle a starter's workload.
The question is: Would he be exposed if the Tigers try to put him in the rotation?
The most difficult part of moving to the starting rotation is facing the same hitters two or three times in the same game. Ramirez averages around 90 mph on his fastball, so he's not going to overpower MLB hitters.
Ramirez has a surprisingly deep arsenal for a player who's only been pitching for three seasons. He's only throwing his fastball about 30 percent of the time while using his change-up 37 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs. He also mixes in a slider, cutter and curveball, each 9 to 14 percent of the time, Fangraphs says.
If he's using a five-pitch mix, it's not impossible Ramirez could get through an opposing lineup a couple of times.
What do Tigers have to lose?
There's a chance Ramirez could move to the rotation and struggle, then carry those struggles back to the bullpen. But even knowing the risks, what do the Tigers have to lose in giving him a shot? A 29-year-old middle reliever during a rebuild?
Detroit has two massive holes in the starting rotation, partially due to injuries and partially due to a lack of depth in the upper minor leagues. Ramirez has been one of the few standouts on the MLB roster and could possibly help solidify a position of weakness.
The best-case scenario is that Ramirez will carry his long relief success into a starting role and give the Tigers a fourth serviceable options. Even though he'll turn 30 before the season ends, he's new to pitching and his upside hasn't been determined.
Putting Ramirez in a starting role would show the Tigers exactly what they have. If he succeeds, it could be a nice boost. If he fails, move him back to the bullpen.
The worst-case scenario is that Ramirez moves to the starting rotation and the hot start proves to be a fluke. He could have a few terrible starts, move back to the bullpen and fail to find the rhythm he's shown so far.
But even if the worst-case scenario plays out, the Tigers aren't competing for a playoff spot anyway, and since they appear to be a few years away from doing so, a bad 2019 season from Ramirez wouldn't affect the future of the franchise.
The rest of the 2019 season is about the Tigers finding out exactly what they have in some of these young or unproven players. Once they do that, they can react accordingly in the offseason, at the trade deadline and during the drafts.
Ramirez has shown flashes of being a legitimate pitcher. Why not find out if he's for real?
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