1: RHP Melvin Mercedes – Setup man or middle relief
Currently serving as Toledo's closer, he has the sort of repertoire that would make him a desirable late inning option for a Tigers organization that puts an emphasis on velocity. Mercedes routinely sits in the 94-95 MPH range, and can top out at 98. More noteworthy, the ball has heavy sink, inducing lots of weak contact though not always ground balls, as he can't locate his fastball consistently.
Mercedes' challenge remains his control, which can come and go in a given outing. It's the sort of problem that minor league hitters usually can't take advantage of because his fastball is that good, but a big league hitter will likely feast on when he is sitting on the fastball. The lack of control usually doesn't show up in his walk numbers, so box score scouting for his readiness won't be effective.
One encouraging development this spring was a somewhat slimmer and fitter Mercedes, hopefully an indication he's taking conditioning more seriously, a problem for him previously. In 2013, while listed at 250, he was probably closer to 300 pounds in Lakeland, and put on an estimated 25 pounds more in his couple months in Erie.
ETA: Memorial Day. It's always hard to say when a pitcher might improve his control, but the reality is that his fastball is big-league ready now, so a couple of months of learning to make adjustments against more seasoned hitters in Triple-A is the only thing standing between him and the show.
Quotable: "He threw the heck out of the ball, he's got a great arm." - Erie manager Lance Parrish
2: RHP Corey Knebel – Setup man or middle relief
The other late-inning option, Knebel has a plus fastball in the low to mid 90's and a devastating slider. He spent the summer last season in West Michigan, where he was simply no match for Midwest League hitters. The Tigers contemplated converting him to a starter, but elected to keep him in relief and put him on the fast track to Detroit.
The two things standing between Knebel and the majors are his inexperience and his issues with consistency in his delivery. Despite multiple suspensions at Texas, his make-up is not a concern. His mechanics are a red flag for many scouts, which created very mixed reviews in the Arizona Fall League from scouts. His delivery has been described as quirky, with lots of head movement and unusual arm action.
Despite the concerns, he gets plenty of swings-and-misses and wants the ball in late game pressure situations, two necessary qualities to shine in the late innings in relief.
ETA: All Star break. Knebel has the sort of stuff and makeup that should make him move up the ladder quickly, but having never pitched above A-ball prior to this season, there's still work to do. Half a season against more advanced competition, should be enough.
Quotable: "I think despite some less-than-ideal qualities, Knebel has a late-inning mindset, the stuff to back it up and enough command to make it work." - Scout.com National Baseball Analyst Kiley McDaniel
3: LHP Blaine Hardy – LOOGY or middle relief
At 27, it might be tough to still refer to Hardy as a prospect – he came to the Tigers from the Mariners organization, and has spent the last few seasons in Triple-A. But a strong second half in 2013 combined with a respectable showing the AFL has the Tigers thinking Hardy might have a bit more than just being a 4-A player.
Hardy won't wow anyone with his velocity as he usually sits below 90 MPH, but he has a very good curveball, and so long as he is commanding his fastball, he can use the two pitches in tandem to be successful, especially in a limited, situational role.
ETA: Easter. This might be a tad facetious, but the reality is that Phil Coke is likely just a couple more bad appearances away from being sent packing, either temporarily or permanently, and Hardy was the last left-hander sent out of big league camp and has done well in his relief appearances in Toledo.
Quotable: "His curveball is a plus major league pitch. I've watched him throw in the batter's box and in bullpens, and you don't see too many breaking balls like that." - Former Toledo manager Phil Nevin
4: RHP Jose Ortega – Middle relief
Ortega is another pitcher the Tigers have been hoping and waiting for to break out, but due to an inability on his part to gain any control over his fastball, he's been languishing in Toledo, though he did get a handful of appearances in Detroit last year with a bit of success.
Ortega has a fastball that can reach the upper 90's on the radar gun with good movement due to his lack of prototypical size for a hard thrower. His slider can be dangerous as well, but again can't be controlled. He's walked four in 7 1/3 innings so far in 2014, and hasn't had a season in which his walk totals weren't way too high since his VSL days.
Given his age (25), it might be tough to expect much improvement in his ability to control his pitches. On the other hand, the raw stuff still remains some of the best in the organization. Can the Tigers trust a pitcher with control problems? They probably shouldn't, but if your other relievers aren't getting outs, you might not have a choice.
ETA: May 18. Why May 18? Well, as has been stated, unless Ortega magically finds a way to harness his pitches, he's a risk to put out there. But, it's also proven to be a risk to use Joba Chamberlain, so the Tigers are in risky territory here. May 18 is the conclusion of a three-game set in Boston, where the Tigers bullpen went to die in last year's ALCS, and so it would only be fitting that the Tigers would leave Fenway with a battered relief corp and in need of alternatives, and with prior big league experience, that could well be Ortega.
Quotable: "The control has never come along and he's a max effort guy; leaving me doubts that it ever will come for him. He can probably have success in the middle innings as an 11th or 12th man on a staff, but I wouldn't trust him in tight spots." - Anonymous AL Scout
5: LHP Casey Crosby – LOOGY or middle relief
Crosby made his big league debut two years ago, but failed to have success in his three starts, and since has failed to fix the issues that plagued him then – namely a lack of a reliable third pitch, and poor mechanics that result in control that is all over the map.
Given his extensive injury history and lack of a third pitch (along with a dip in velocity), the Tigers finally are trying him in relief, which makes sense to try a left-hander that used to throw 97 in short stints and see if he can be effective there. It will be an adjustment for him mentally, but is clearly the better fit physically-speaking, where he can hope to regain his mid-90's velocity and mask his erratic mechanics by avoiding long stints on the mound.
ETA: Dog days of summer – late July. There's no telling if the bullpen experiment will work or not, but he's going to need at least a few months to adjust mentally to the role, along with refining some things that didn't get worked out last year due to injury. Late July will be put up or shut up time with the trade deadline approaching, so if they think Crosby can help, they'll need to know before July 31 passes.
Quotable: "(Crosby) has a great arm and at times he goes out there and shuts people down. "But he has not really stretched out as a starter where he's giving a lot of innings on a consistent basis." - Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski