Detroit Tigers add a pair of minor league relievers

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 11: James Russell
CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 11: James Russell /

The Detroit Tigers have added a pair of former big league relievers to compete for a spot in the bullpen in 2018.

The Detroit Tigers, like so many other teams this offseason, have been slow to make any big moves. A pair of major league signings in Leonys Martin and Mike Fiers, along with the trade of Ian Kinsler to the Angels, will likely be all the big moves from this team as Spring Training approaches.

However, small minor league additions are the calling card for many rebuilding teams as they look to find diamonds in the rough. Indeed the Tigers have made plenty of those, adding (among others) Brayan Pena, Ronny Rodriguez, Pete Kozma, Ryan Carpenter and Phillippe Aumont.

This week, the Tigers added two more relievers on minor league deals. Each of them has considerable major league experience and will compete for a role in Detroit’s bullpen right off the bat in 2018. There are plenty of arms already competing for a spot in the pen, but a team can never have too many major league ready arms at their disposal.

James Russell

The Tigers reportedly added left-hander James Russell on a minor league deal. The club has yet to confirm.

Russell has considerable big league experience, having pitched in the big leagues every year from 2010-2016. All told he has put up a 4.09 ERA and 1.31 WHIP across 334.1 innings.

Russell spent 2017 on the Independent circuit, throwing 58 innings with the Texas AirHogs. The 32-year-old compiled a 2.79 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP with them. He also tossed 31 innings in the Mexican League, posting a 2.03 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP.

Russell’s big league calling card is as a LOOGY. He has posted a strong 7.74 K/9, 1.16 WHIP and 3.60 FIP against left-handers in his career.

For him to crack the Tigers bullpen, he would need to beat out one (and possibly both) of left-handers Daniel Stumpf and Blaine Hardy. Russell isn’t likely to break camp with the team, but an injury could leave the Tigers thin on left-handed pitching. Having a left-hander who has posted strong numbers against lefties waiting in the minor leagues is a great depth piece for a team that has seen their fare share of injuries to their pitching staff.

Johnny Barbato

The Tigers used their final 40-man roster spot to claim right-hander Johnny Barbato off waivers from the Pirates.

Barbato, 25, was originally drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Padres. He spent 2017 split between the Pirates and Yankees. He spent most of the year at Triple-A, eventually throwing 28.2 innings with the Pirates.

While Barbato posted a 4.08 ERA, his 5.46 FIP and 5.65 BB/9 are definite red flags going forward.

It’s worth pointing out that Barbato has not had control issues in the minor leagues, and his 94 mph fastball and 11.3% swinging strike rate are both solid.

At just 25 years old, Barbato has a chance to develop into a solid big league reliever. At the very least, he represents a good depth piece who pitched well at Triple-A last season and will help the Tigers in the upper minors.

Overall, Barbato should push Warwick Saupold, Chad Bell and Victor Alcantara for the final spot in the bullpen.

Next: Predicting the 2018 Bullpen

The Tigers have had success with minor league free agents in the past (hello J.D Martinez). While most have limited productivity in the major leagues, minor league signees can contribute during a rebuilding phase.

Expect a bevy of relief pitchers to get handed the ball next season as the Tigers try to develop a bullpen for the future.