Brayan Villarreal stepped onto the mound on Wednesday for his first throwing session of the spring and, according to the Detroit Free Press, felt no ill-effects of the sore elbow that shut him down over the winter.
“I didn’t feel anything at all, sore or anything,” Villarreal said. “I felt great — 100%.”
Tigers management had Villarreal stop pitching in winter ball as a precaution because of inflammation in his pitching elbow. The elbow also flared up on him last August.
It’s terrific that the discomfort didn’t turn into an injury and that he’s apparently able to begin a normal spring, but, as we’ve noted here in the past, it’s troubling that he’s building up a history of such soreness. He made 50 appearances and threw 54 innings last season – not a bad number – but, if his arm is going to flare up with regularity, the Tigers will be looking to play it safe.
The Tigers will want to count on Villarreal for some amount of high-leverage duty this upcoming season. With a big question mark at the closer spot, Detroit will need all of their late-inning bullets available in case they need to mix and match their way through games. Jim Leyland has stated in the past – to various degrees – that he doesn’t like pitching Joaquin Benoit and Al Alburquerque on back-to-back nights with regularity, but Villarreal could be potentially headed for that list as well.
In fact, that’s probably the real weakness of the Tigers’ bullpen. It’s not that they don’t have a proven closer that could lock down the ninth inning – there are a number of guys (or combinations of guys) that could do that job just fine – but that they don’t really have anyone that can be counted on for 75+ appearances an 75+ innings of late-inning relief. Benoit did pitch in 73 games and threw 71 innings, but he appeared to wear down late in the season and in the playoffs – where it only seemed like every fly ball went over the fence.
Villarreal won’t be an eighth or ninth inning guy this next year, but he’s going to need to provide reliable production during the sixth and/or seventh innings so that guys like Benoit, Dotel, Coke, and Rondon can be focused on, and available for, the last two innings. And it goes without saying that in order to be a reliable six/seventh inning man he’s going to need to stay healthy all year.