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Tigers notes: Preparing for pitching logjam

Detroit will need to sort out which top arms will open in Toledo, Erie
Casey Mize has struck out six batters over four innings during Grapefruit League play this spring. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
March 10, 2020

LAKELAND, Florida -- When a question came up about Joey Wentz, who joined the Tigers from the Braves at last year's Trade Deadline, Detroit vice president of player development Dave Littlefield offered a reply that sums up his farm system and applies to most of his club's top prospects these

LAKELAND, Florida -- When a question came up about Joey Wentz, who joined the Tigers from the Braves at last year's Trade Deadline, Detroit vice president of player development Dave Littlefield offered a reply that sums up his farm system and applies to most of his club's top prospects these days.
"You can never have enough pitching, as everyone knows in the business," Littlefield said. "We'll take as many arms as we can get, and whoever delivers them to us."

That's prescient this spring because the Tigers are about to have a problem -- a very good problem. Detroit, which ranked as having the second-best farm system for pitching, could see a logjam in its rotation at Triple-A Toledo, if not on Opening Day then in the very near future.
From July 31, 2019 -- the day Wentz joined the organization -- onward, seven pitchers made at least three starts for the Tigers' Double-A affiliate in Erie. Of those seven, five of them occupy the top nine spots in Detroit's prospect rankings per -- No. 1 Casey Mize, No. 2 Matt Manning, No. 4 Tarik Skubal, No. 8 Wentz and No. 9 Alex Faedo. The sixth was No. 16 Anthony Castro. (The seventh was José Manuel Fernández, who also saw time out of the SeaWolves bullpen.) 
It'd be easy to say in a vacuum that all players, especially ones as talented as The Big Five, should begin the next season one level higher than they ended the previous campaign, but baseball rosters aren't made in vacuums. Simply moving Mize, Manning, Skubal, Wentz and Faedo straight to the International League would squeeze out more experienced Triple-A hurlers like Beau Burrows, Shao-Ching Chiang and Dario Agrazal -- none of whom have the ceilings of the others but might deserve longer looks at the rotation of the Minors' top level before being shuffled off to the bullpen.
The upper-level starting groups are going to be parts of one giant puzzle that will take Detroit's entire brain trust -- consisting of the general manager, assistant GMs and Major and Minor League staffs -- to put together.
"It's not one person," Littlefield said. "It's a bunch of people including Al Avila, Ron Gardenhire, David Chadd and Rick Anderson. Some of the people most involved in the Tigers, especially with pitching. We'll have some feelings, based on what guys have done in the past, their age, maturity and experience in professional baseball. But those people at the Major League level will also have feelings based on how they've thrown, the future and the overall macro view of where we are with the Tigers. The good news is they're all healthy and performing well. So we'll see how it plays out. We're certainly happy with those five. They'll play at the upper levels this year and not far away from the Major Leagues."

The pitchers have certainly done their parts to make the decisions difficult this spring. Skubal has been the club's standout during Grapefruit League play, repeatedly touching the upper-90s while showing off his three above-average offspeed pitches. He has fanned six over 4 1/3 innings, and that's not including a stellar start against Southeastern University last month. Mize --'s No. 7 overall prospect and the 2018 first overall pick -- most recently threw two no-hit innings in a start last Thursday against the Yankees. Faedo and Manning have each made three appearances out of the bullpen. Wentz is the only member of the Big Five who didn't step foot on a Grapefruit League mound due to a forearm issue in February. He has since resumed throwing and should be good to go for Minor League Opening Day, according to Littlefield. Wentz was reassigned to Minor League camp on Tuesday to continue that throwing ramp-up.
It's notable that Castro was also among those Tuesday moves, and that he was optioned to Erie, not Toledo. Though these types of spring options don't automatically indicate where a player will start the season, moving Castro to the Erie roster could be the Tigers tipping their hand a bit. (Burrows was optioned back to Toledo earlier this month.) At least for now, Mize, Manning, Skubal and Faedo remain in Major League camp under the watchful eye of their potential future skipper, Gardenhire.
"He's a manager, so he has a say in a lot of things," said Littlefield. "But certainly, he's maybe seen bits and pieces of them in the past, whether it's video or Spring Training. Mainly for this group, it's been [looks from] this year. They'll be in the mix of our thoughts on where guys go at the end of Spring Training."
Beyond just the skipper, others are taking notice. No. 10 Tigers prospect Jake Rogers opened 2019 in Erie with Manning and Faedo before eventually jumping to the Majors and noted just how abuzz the Detroit clubhouse is, knowing the arms that are coming.
"It's awesome," said the 24-year-old catcher. "They deserve the chance to get up here and show what they can for a little bit of time, and they've been taking pretty good advantage. I'm happy for them. They're great dudes, a great group of guys. I know they're having fun up here and enjoying throwing, especially being able to showcase what they can do in front of [Gardenhire] and those guys."
If there are educated guesses to be had about who opens in Toledo and who will hang back in Erie, look to Littlefield's own criteria -- most notably, experience. Manning, Faedo and Wentz each spent all of last season at Double-A. Manning would seem to have one foot already in Triple-A, having been the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year with a 2.56 ERA and 148 strikeouts over 133 2/3 innings with the SeaWolves. Faedo (3.90 ERA, 1.12 WHIP 134 strikeouts in 115 1/3 innings) was solid in his own right and should get a long look, while Wentz showed major improvement in his time from the Braves, finishing with a 2.10 ERA, 37 K's and only four walks in 25 2/3 frames for Erie. Mize, who battled shoulder issues in his first full season, and Skubal were both called up to Double-A in the middle of the season, and that lack of experience could send them back to Erie, even if their ceilings are as high as anyone else's in the whole organization.
No matter who goes to Toledo and who goes to Erie, the truth of the matter is that Mize, Manning, Skubal, Wentz and Faedo will open 2020 just a short distance away from the Major Leagues. Those are welcome developments for Detroit fans waiting for this rebuild to produce at the highest level and the Major Leaguers themselves anxious to see the future of the Detroit rotation enter the present.
"For me, it's in the back of your mind," Rogers said. "I can't speak for the other guys, but for me, it's there. You know you're close. You want it to happen. But you're just playing. For me, I fit right in, and guys welcomed me. We all hit the ground running. I'm sure it's in the back of their minds. It's that 'dream come true' moment. Those guys are just going to be them, when they get on the mound. They're pretty good mentally, and once they step on the mound, everything gets blocked out. I'm sure they'll handle it well."
Cut day: The Tigers removed 13 players from Major League camp on Thursday. Right-handers Kyle Funkhouser and John Schreiber, infielders Sergio Alcántara and Isaac Paredes and outfielders Daz Cameron and Derek Hill were all optioned to Toledo. Castro, as mentioned, was optioned to Erie. Right-hander Franklin Perez was optioned to Class A Advanced Lakeland. Right-handers Gerson Moreno and Wladimir Pinto, left-hander Wentz and catchers Cooper Johnson and Jhon Nunez were reassigned to Minor League camp. The Tigers still have 54 players at Major League camp.
Perez on the mend: Perez, the 12th-ranked prospect in the Tigers system, may have been moved Tuesday, but the important part was that he was able to participate in Major League camp at all. The 22-year-old right-hander only made two starts last season due to right shoulder tendinitis but has been healthy enough to make three Grapefruit League appearances this spring before Tuesday's transaction.
Early results were mixed. Perez allowed one earned run over two innings in his first two innings but struggled last Friday, surrendering four earned runs on two hits (including a homer) and two walks while recording just one out against the Phillies. When healthy, Perez is capable of two plus pitches in his fastball and curveball and an above-average changeup, but for now, Littlefield stressed the Venezuela native is still in the early days of getting to back to showing that true potential.
"Stuff looks like it's not back to where it was, based on the little I've seen," said the Tigers exec. "But it's what I'd expect based on him just getting back out there and getting healthy. The great thing we're at right now is having him pitch in a couple Major League games, and he felt good after he's thrown. Just like a lot of players coming off an injury, it takes a little while to get back to full health and get the reps needed to get the stuff back to where he once had."
Seeing Greene: If Skubal is the non-roster invitee to impress the most this spring, No. 3 prospect Riley Greene is the Minor League call-up to do the same. The Tigers pushed last year's No. 5 overall pick quickly through their system in 2019, allowing him to climb three levels and see Class A West Michigan by season's end. That aggression has not stopped this spring as Greene has appeared in seven Grapefruit League games. He's made the most of those looks, going 5-for-12 with two homers and six walks so far. Those six free passes are the most by any Detroit hitter this spring, and his 1.528 OPS (in a very limited sample) is third-best on the club. 
Expect Greene to open his first full season back with West Michigan, but how quickly he'll climb after that is anyone's guess, including the organization's.
"To have him do as well as he's done at his age is a good sign," Littlefield said. "We're happy. There are a lot of good signs, obviously. He was drafted very high and got off to a good start. We're very confident in his bat and future power and what he's going to bring to us. He'll be one of those building blocks, a little further back than these pitchers we're talking about. But you never know with the way he swings the bat."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.