Small samples? Sure. Are pitchers supposed to be ahead of hitters in the first week of spring games? Yes. But even so, it’s worth pointing out the success that’s been had so far this March by a few Detroit Tiger relievers who aren’t exactly household names. In the process, maybe we can get to know them a little better.
We’ll start with Chris Bootcheck. On a minor league contract with a major league spring training invite, Bootcheck has appeared in three games and pitched an inning in each. In those, he has struck out three batters, walked one, and as far as hits has surrendered only a single (the one that broke up a potential combined no-hitter in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves). He erased half of his two allowed runners with a ground ball double play, and thus has faced just ten men in game action. To those ten, he’s had to throw just 20 pitches.
The 6’ 5” right-hander out of the Auburn University was once a first round draft pick of the Anaheim Angels. 12 years and at least four organizations (including the Yokohama Bay Stars) later, Bootcheck hasn’t been able to put things together at the major league level. Back in the states in 2011 with the Tampa Bay Rays’ Triple-A affiliate in Durham, he saw positive results. It’s likely the best we can hope for is that he’ll do the same in Toledo with the Mud Hens, but for now I’ll hold out hope that the Tigers dug up a treasure by signing this guy who still believes his breakout is coming. He relies on a mid-nineties fastball and complements it with a slider that, based on my brief observations, comes with a fairly violent delivery.
Jose Ortega, a right-handed prospect out of the Tigers’ Venezuelan academy (Detroit is one of five teams still unafraid to maintain an academy in Venezuela), is another Tiger who has put up good numbers this spring. In a pair of frames, he’s walked a batter, struck out none, and conceded no hits. Even with that base on balls, it took him just 11 pitches to retire six of the seven batters he’s faced. Ortega also threw an inning in last Friday’s exhibition against Florida Southern College, during which he lost one Mocs hitter to a walk but gave up no hits and set down out a pair on strikes.
As mentioned, Ortega comes from Venezuela and is part of the first wave of players to go through the Tigers’ academy, which launched in 2006, there. He joined Detroit’s U.S. ranks in 2008, and has since worked his way all the way up through the Tigers’ system. After having success at every level, Ortega pitched in Toledo all of last year and took a huge step back, finishing with a 6.30 ERA. As James Chipman wrote in November when he and John Verburg ranked him Detroit’s 38th-best prospect, this coming season is hugely important for Ortega. He’ll need to prove his ability to harness his electric fastball (which sits in the mid-nineties but has touched 98) and his plus slider and throw them both for strikes, something that, with his apparent problems repeating his mechanics, could be difficult. As Verburg noted, a bounce-back campaign would put Ortega back on track to soon reach his perceived ceiling as a late-innings reliever–maybe even a closer.
Finally, we have Luis Marte, another right-hander, who, after getting his first small taste of the big leagues last September, is generally thought to be at least in the running to land a spot in the bullpen when the team heads north. In two and two thirds innings of Grapefruit League competition, he’s struck out three men, allowed a hit, and issued no free passes. In one of his two appearances, he earned a save, and in the other, he rescued Jacob Turner who had lent Marte a bases-loaded, one-out jam.
While Ortega was plucked out of Venezuela, Marte was signed and brought up in the other player development haven on the Caribbean Sea, the Dominican Republic (in both countries, talented amateurs can be signed by MLB clubs at age 16). Signed in 2005 and sent stateside in 2007, Marte is a year ahead of Ortega by both measures, and is also a full two years older at age 25. Marte was stellar this past season at Double-A, posting a 1.70 ERA in 53 innings, after struggling a bit in 2010, and his performance, as mentioned, earned him a call-up at roster expansion time. Shoulder problems have littered his past, but little else seems to be working against him as he looks to have a long and successful career. He is a converted starter and largely employs a three-pitch repertoire with a high-eighties to low-nineties fastball, a curve ball, and a slider, both breaking offerings rated above average. As John Verburg outlined months ago, Marte has reinvented himself and become a guy who doesn’t need to overpower hitters, instead relying on good control and aptitude to smartly mix pitches. Verburg and James Chipman recently labeled him as the 22nd-best prospect in the Tigers’ organization. At that time, Verburg opined that Marte’s slider was once among of the best–if it wasn’t the best–in the system. He also believes Marte’s ceiling is as a middle innings reliever. As Marte has thrown precious few innings at the Triple-A level, I believe it’s likely he’ll start the season there while Collin Balester and Duane Below or Adam Wilk take the final two bullpen spots. That said, I think Marte will provide valuable depth and is extremely likely to be called to the majors at some point for an extended stay in the not-so-distant future.
Guys like Bootcheck, Ortega, and Marte, while vastly different pitchers in varying situations as far as ceilings and current chances for a roster spot, share the common trait of going mostly unnoticed by fans and media this spring despite good execution–overshadowed in the pitching department by more recognizable names like Doug Fister and Andy Oliver. This was my attempt to give the unheralded trio a little of what they deserve. It might be a long shot, but if any of them continue to perform throughout this month, they could transform from simply a pleasant spring surprise to a player Detroit’s brass simply can’t deny a roster spot. Regardless, after writing this, I feel like I know these three quite a bit better than I had and I hope you, after reading it, feel the same.