Some of you might be wondering whether the Tigers ought to call up Robbie Ray to make a spot start or two while Anibal Sanchez‘ torn callous heals. That’s not without it’s costs. Some of you might also be wondering why on earth Jose Ortega was called up and given the ability to lose the game for the Tigers on Saturday. We’ve seen Ortega pitch in the big leagues before and haven’t liked the results, so he’s not going to be a guy that fans give the benefit of the doubt.
To understand how to answer either of those questions it’s important to look at the context in Toledo… we like to imagine that all teams have a bunch of AAAA starters down there in AAA that can be called up for an occasional spot start, without the need to rush any of your top prospects or make snap changes to the 40-man roster. We also like to imagine that the Tigers specifically have great depth in terms of minor league bullpen arms. This month, neither of those assumptions appear to be true. Ortega had an ERA of about 4.00 and 6 walks in 11 1/3 in Toledo – so there was some writing on the wall that he might not be sharp enough to get big leaguers out at the moment. But… he was still the best guy to call up for a bullpen that needed a warm body. The bullpen in Toledo right now is suffering from epidemics of hittability and lack of command and one or the other illness has seemingly affected everyone. Phil Coke would likely not be a Tiger right now – in my opinion – if lefties in Toledo like Nate Robertson, Mike Belfiore, Casey Crosby and Duane Below weren’t walking as many batters as they were striking out (50% more in the cases of Robertson & Belfiore). It isn’t just those lefties, though… righty Jhan Marinez has walked 14 in 12 and a third and certainly was not going to get the call in place of Ortega. Some of the interesting prospects / organizational pieces that haven’t been walking all and sundry have unsightly numbers at the moment due to that hittability epidemic… Lefty Kyle Lobstein, who I’d figure as a decent alternative to Robbie Ray to make a single start OR a decent alternative to Phil Coke if you want to get Adam Dunn out, has (as always) good looking peripheral stats has allowed more than a hit-and-a-half per inning with 4 HR in 5 starts, leading to a gruesome 7.84 ERA. Melvin Mercedes – probably the most talented relief arm they’ve got down there – has also given up a few too many hits (and home runs) en route to a 5.91 ERA. Blaine Hardy and Derek Hankins (not exactly household names, even among Tigers prospect watchers) have also been hit just a little too hard down there. As for the next best starting pitcher prospect the Tigers have in the high minors: Drew VerHagen‘s numbers have been mediocre (an ERA of 4.39, low walks and low Ks) – which makes him look pretty good compared to most non-Ray pitchers in Toledo – but mediocrity in AAA does not inspire confidence that he can last 5 innings against, say, Cleveland.
With less than a month of games in the books, these numbers don’t say much about a guy’s talent or his future. But… what they do say something about is whether they guy is performing his best right now and worthy of a cup of coffee right now and right now, the answer for everybody but Robbie Ray is apparently “not on your life”. Of course we have hope that some of them will get straightened out and look very much “ready” in a month or two, but not now. Also – sadly – the story seems pretty similar in AA Erie at the moment. Corey Knebel is the bullpen prospect we’re most closely watching and the ERA right now looks good, but the command has been a little iffy. He may very well hit the bigs this seasons and he may look great when he does, but I’d be uncomfortable calling him straight up from AA right now – lest he too allow 4 runs without a hit in his first appearance. Other AA arms like Kenny Faulk and Jose Valdez have struggled with walks. The only starter down there that has looked decent would be Kyle Ryan – but the only pitchers that ever really get called up straight from AA without the need to prove themselves again and again over long periods of time are blue chip prospects who are dominating the level and Ryan is no blue-chipper and isn’t exactly dominating the level either. The sky isn’t falling – but at this precise moment of time the Tigers look to have basically NO organizational depth to call upon as issues like blisters and Coke arise. We’ll have to hope it doesn’t continue this way.