Detroit Tigers: Zack Hess among Emerging High-Leverage Relievers in the AL Central

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Zack Hess #68 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during the Spring Training game against the Houston Astros at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium on February 24, 2020 in Lakeland, Florida. The Astros defeated the Tigers 11-1. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Zack Hess #68 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during the Spring Training game against the Houston Astros at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium on February 24, 2020 in Lakeland, Florida. The Astros defeated the Tigers 11-1. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The American League Central is highly regarded for its starting pitching prospect talent, but there are also several emerging, under-the-radar bullpen arms that could blaze their path through the division this season including one that is rising on the Detroit Tigers’ prospect rankings.

Impact relief pitching prospects rarely generate too much buzz or excitement, especially beyond the confines of the player’s own fan base. However, bullpens are becoming an increasingly crucial piece to the winning baseball formula. It’s hard to win without at least a few reliable stoppers that can close out a game, just ask the 2013 Detroit Tigers.

Every year there are a few relief pitchers that pop up from the minors and flat out dominate. We saw this in 2019 with Indians pitcher James Karinchak and, more recently, Royals righty Josh Staumont. There are a few names in the upper levels of the minors that could be the next reliever to take the AL Central by storm:

Matt Canterino, MIN

Matt Canterino, who checks in at #128 on the newly published Fangraphs top prospects list, was the Twins 2019 second-round draft pick out of Rice. After signing for $1.1M, Canterino debuted with the Twins in the Gulf Coast League, where he continued working as a starter as he did in college. He made it as high as A ball in 2019 before the season ended and enjoyed tremendous success at every level he encountered.

Canterino possesses some of the most devastating pure stuff in all of the minors. His fastball sat in the low-to-mid 90s out of college but has shown a significant uptick in velocity over the past season, and now regularly hits 98 mph. He pairs the fastball with two breaking balls, a slider and curveball, that he is able to differentiate well. He has also been working on a changeup that initially showed promise, though we haven’t seen much of the pitch recently.

Canterino made his Spring Training debut on Sunday and immediately displayed his electric fastball to waiting Rays hitters. Unfortunately for those hitters, they couldn’t touch him, as he cruised through the inning unscathed with two strikeouts. Despite working as a starter thus far in his pro career, Canterino is viewed by many scouts as a future high-leverage reliever. His delivery is high-effort and his movements on the mound are very herky-jerky and lack fluidity. His delivery is reminiscent of Indians standout reliever James Karinchak – both pitchers rock back on their plant leg before bending their body and exploding toward home plate, while their arm follows over the top. Canterino might not have the same grit and edge that Karinchak displays on the mound, but his nasty stuff isn’t far off.  Look for him to help the Twins bullpen sooner rather than later.

Garrett Crochet, CHW

As the 11th pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, Crochet has the most prospect pedigree of any player on this list by far. Even casual fans likely know his name after he burst onto the scene with the White Sox in mid-September last season. Despite not pitching in any official minor league games, Crochet pitched six scoreless innings for the Sox, striking out eight and walking none.

The recipe is simple for Crochet – he has a blazing fastball and wipeout slider thrown from the left side. In an outing against Cleveland last September, Crochet topped 100 mph eleven times in one inning with his fastball. His wipeout slider is a perfect complement to the fastball, giving him two pitches that have a chance to be elite offerings.

The White Sox have been adamant that they plan to develop Crochet as a starter long-term, though health concerns and fringy command may lead them to change their mind with time. Regardless, Crochet will likely help a contending White Sox team from the bullpen this season, where he has a legitimate chance to develop into a top ten closer in all of baseball.

Zack Hess, DET

Zach Hess has been labeled a favorite to gain some prospect momentum by analysts in the Detroit Tigers community for several months now. However, his inclusion in the recent Fangraphs Picks to Click publication came as a bit of a surprise to even the most optimistic Tigers fans. Hess was included in the section titled, “Looks Weird, Huge Stuff”, which is a pretty accurate representation of what Hess brings to the table.

Standing at 6’6 220, Hess has a violent delivery that packs a punch. When he’s at his best, he features an upper 90s fastball and a sharp biting slider that both grades as above-average pitches. There was some buzz at the beginning of Spring Training that Hess could push to make the Tigers out of camp, but he has started slowly in his two outings this spring, sitting in the low 90s with his heater. Of course, it is Spring Training and Hess is coming off a long layoff, so there is little reason for concern.

If Hess doesn’t have enough of an incentive to hit 100 mph with his fastball already, check out the bet he made with his agent Rachel Luba and his interview with co-contributors Chris Brown and Rogelio Castillo back in June of last season.

Sam Hentges, CLE

Hentges looks like a player created in a video game that was made specifically to scare the other team. Standing at 6’8 and hitting 97-99 mph consistently from the left side with excellent extension, he makes for one of the most terrifying at-bats you’ll find in the minors.  He complements the fastball with a curveball that breaks sharply toward right-handed hitters.

As you might have guessed, Hentges’ control has been inconsistent at best throughout his time in the Indians’ organization. While working as a starter in 2019, he walked over four batters per nine innings and struggled to hit his spots with either of his offerings.

At age 24, it’s not surprising to see Hentges still figuring out how to control his 6’8 frame. He certainly has a long way to go before he can be trusted to protect a lead, but the Indians have an awesome track record with pitchers. A full-time move to the bullpen could help facilitate his road to the majors.