The Tigers didn’t have a good bullpen when the season started, and while Joe Nathan was no longer high-leverage-able, he was probably still an MLB caliber reliever. He’s done for the year. Al Alburquerque was supposed to be one of the anchors, and a few weeks in, it looks more likely that he’ll need a long DL stint than anything else. Ian Krol’s already been sent down with a case of being Ian Krol.
Three of the Tigers seven relievers from Opening Day are gone or broken, and that Opening Day bullpen was already on life support. The Tigers need to improve their relief core in some way, shape, or form, and it’s obviously too late to sign the Weinberg Five (Neshek, Gregerson, Frasor, Duke, and Cotts) and the free agent market is a Rafael Soriano and not much else. It’s also too early to pick up good relievers from cellar bound teams because no one sells until July, and even when that time comes, the Tigers don’t really have a lot of stuff to trade after last year’s big purge.
So the team is left to promote from within, but that’s also tricky because if they had good relievers lying around, they would have made the club out of Spring Training. Except that isn’t quite true, because there’s one category of pitcher who slipped through the cracks: starting pitching prospects.
Last winter, I suggested Lobstein should head north with the club as a reliever, and if and when we see Verlander again, I’d advocate for Lobstein to shift to the bullpen for the duration of the year. But there’s another arm in the system who’s off to a good start that could jump into the pen soon and offer something better than they’re getting from the rest of the group; Buck Farmer.
Farmer is 24 years old and off to a solid start in Toledo after an eye-opening 2014, technically across four levels. Granted, almost all of the work was in A-ball, but he got his feet wet in Erie, Toledo, and Detroit. I don’t think many people are of the opinion that Farmer could handle an MLB rotation spot today, but that’s not what the Tigers need from him.
In his career, he’s been a high strikeout, maybe-high-walk kind of guy. There’s some raw stuff there but it’s not polished to the point where MLB hitters would struggle multiple times through the order. And we saw that last year when he got hit around in his brief 9 inning stint in the show. But Farmer is on a strikeout crazy mission this year, already punching out 32% of batters in four starts after being in the 25-26% range in 2014, mostly against lesser competition. And as Carson Cistulli pointed out last week, Farmer is getting a ton of swings and misses in AAA.
I wouldn’t argue that he’s tearing up the competition or that his 2015 stats portend a meteoric rise in prospect status to the point where Farmer is headed for greatness, but rather that they support the notion that Farmer has swing and miss potential and he’s carried that into at bats against relatively advanced hitters.
And that’s the kind of skillset the Tigers need desperately in the MLB bullpen. I haven’t seen him myself this year, but non-Tigers scouts had him up to 96 with the fastball this spring with a changeup working in the mid-to-upper 80s (Cistulli GIFs!), and a low 80s slider. Interestingly, while the Tigers are committed to Farmer as a starter for now, I heard from another organization that they see him as a 7th/8th inning guy. Which, hey, that’s just what the Tigers need!
So the questions are “can Farmer actually help?” and “is it going to hurt his development and should we care?”
To the first question, I don’t know for sure, but the Tigers would be foolish not to experiment given the state of the pen right now. They need relief help and Farmer is flashing the necessary skills to get outs out of the pen against batters who only see him once per game.
As far as his development, I think it’s a good thing for pitchers to get some MLB experience before they’re pushed into a starting role to sink or swim. Certainly, he’s going to miss chances to stretch out and work on his endurance, but lots of pitchers spend a few months in the pen before going back to work as a starter and Farmer isn’t an elite prospect to the point where ruining his development would be a colossal screw up. In fact, it might be beneficial for him to work through some things against better hitters instead of just blowing stuff by AAA batters.
So I think I would give it a shot. I don’t expect him to fall backwards into Wade Davis numbers, but I think there’s a serious chance that he’s a better option than what is out there right now and the Tigers can’t afford to keep goofing around with the bullpen. I’d call him up, use him in low leverage situations for a few weeks and then slowly start getting his feet wet mid-inning and mid-rally.
If he doesn’t show an ability to get MLB hitters out, you send him down to start in AAA and forget all about it. If he does show that ability, you’ve got a reliever that can be useful for you for the next five months.
Hat Tip to avid reader Stephen Pershing for pushing me to think about this idea.