Scouting Toledo for a Tigers Starting Pitcher

With the injury news to Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers are going to need a spot starter within the next ten days, and last season's default for the role, left-hander Jose Alvarez, was traded to the Los Angeles Angels. So, who will get the nod? TigsTown takes a look at the candidates, with scouting notes on each from the first month in Toledo.

LHP Robbie Ray

2014 Pitching Stats
Toledo 44023.12016551601.931.072-2

When spring camp broke a month ago, it would have seemed unlikely that Ray would have even been under consideration for the role of spot starting in Detroit in May, even if he's the most highly regarded prospect of the bunch. Ray is not a member of the 40-man roster, had only half a season of experience above A-ball, and was considered relatively raw when he came over in the trade.

My how things can change in a month. Ray has a sub-2 ERA in Toledo over four starts, with his last start a gem, tossing 8 1/3 innings of shutout baseball, scattering four hits and a walk with seven strikeouts. He's been easily the best starter in Toledo so far this season.

Ray has been so effective by relying heavily on his hard fastball, which has been sitting 92-94 MPH this spring, dialing it up to 96 when necessary. His challenge remains his off-speed pitches, which are still inconsistent at times and likely need further refinement, especially his changeup, before he can consistently get big league hitters out as a starting pitcher.

Despite the need for further development, Ray may well be the best option the Tigers have currently, and unlike other organizations, they're not shy about calling youngsters up, placing them on the 40-man roster, and starting their arbitration clock. They would have to clear a spot on the 40-man roster, but that's not an unmanageable hurdle.

Ray is slated to start on Monday night in Toledo (giving him ample time to rest should the Tigers need him on May 6) – if all goes well, Tigers fans could get to see just what the team got in exchange for Doug Fister this past off-season.

LHP Kyle Lobstein

2014 Pitching Stats
Toledo 55020.2324201872007.841.892-2

As TigsTown's reigning 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Lobstein would have been the early season favorite to lay claim to the spot starter role. Already a member of the 40-man roster, he pitched well in 2013 across Erie and Toledo, and while he doesn't possess a high ceiling with a high-80's fastball, has a good curveball and very good changeup, allowing him to get by usually on below average velocity.

But this spring he struggled in big league camp, with an ERA over seven in five appearances, and those struggles continued to Toledo, where after his most recent rough outing on Saturday night (seven runs on nine hits in four innings), his ERA is almost up to eight. His average on balls in play is an absurdly high .406, so there's some inflation in these numbers, but even accounting for that, it'd be a tall order to ask him battle major league hitters when he's struggling to get guys out in Triple-A.

Lobstein has a hittable fastball that is at the source of his issues currently. He's struggling to command the ball well, missing corners and consistently getting behind in the count, putting the opposing hitters in an advantageous situation, sitting on a fastball that from some reports has lost movement and is coming in flat. As is widely-known with soft-tossing left-handers, the margin for error is slim, and Lobstein just simply doesn't have "it" right now.

As the only member of the rotation on the 40-man roster, he'd be the easiest choice, but would be a very difficult call to make right now given his struggles. In addition, with an off day on April 30, his next day in the rotation is slotted for May 2, meaning to be ready for May 6th, he'd have to go on short rest, or take an extended break between now and then.

LHP Duane Below

2014 Pitching Stats
Toledo 44019.018288151603.791.742-0

Below is a familiar name to Tigers fans, as he appeared in 41 games over two years for the Tigers in 2011 and 2012, before being released and moving on to the Miami organization last year, where he struggled in his only two relief appearances. Below came back to the organization as a free agent this past off-season with an invite to big league camp, but was quickly sent to the back fields.

The easiest way to describe Below so far this season would be "effectively wild." He's walked 15 batters in 19 innings, and hasn't been able to make it more than five innings in a start yet this season. Despite that, his ERA is respectable at 3.79, and he's only allowed more than two runs in one of his four starts.

Below was regarded for having very good velocity, but has lost at least a couple ticks in his fastball this season. Couple that bouts of straight-up wildness where he's been prone to losing complete control, and it's tough to see him getting strong consideration for a major league spot start.

But, he's also the only member of the rotation with any big league experience, which might count for something. In addition, his next scheduled start would be May 1, putting him in line to start on May 6th on normal rest. Would the Tigers clear a prospect off the 40-man roster though just to give Below a look? Seems unlikely.

RHP Drew VerHagen

2014 Pitching Stats
Toledo 55026.2260131371424.391.240-3

VerHagen has been a top ten prospect in the organization two years running, but is still limited on experience, where similar to Ray, split 2013 between High-A and Double-A, and is now knocking on the door in Toledo despite his limited experience. His start Sunday was the best of his young season, giving up a run over seven innings of work, walking one and striking out five.

He profiles as a prototypical number four starter; a guy that pounds the bottom half of the zone with a low 90's fastball that has some movement, complemented by a good change-up. However, His strikeout totals prevent him from being viewed as much more than that, as even with his strong outing on Sunday, he's only at 2:1 K:BB ratio, after being below that level in 2013.

Thus far this season, he's still not missing many bats, though there have been reports of an improved curveball at times this season, which is encouraging development for the future, but still likely means it's more of a show-me pitch at the big league level than a pitch that is heavily relied upon.

VerHagen isn't on the 40-man like Lobstein, and doesn't the same swing-and-miss stuff that Ray does. He's still a good prospect with a bright future, but it's unlikely he'd be ready for this challenge. Like Lobstein, if they chose him, they'd likely have to give him an extended break, as he couldn't make a start between Sunday and May 6th and be ready to go.


There is no clear cut case for any of the starters in Toledo (note: Derek Hankins and the entire rotation in Erie were looked at, but none appear to be candidates under consideration). However, of the options, all signs would indicate that Ray is the odds-on favorite, barring something unforeseen happening between now and May 6, when the extra starter is needed.

The biggest hurdles and drawbacks to Ray getting the nod are that he's still in the developmental stages, and a move to the big league club, even temporarily, would start his big league clock (meaning he'll reach arbitration and free agency sooner) and require them to open a spot on the 40-man roster. Neither of those have ever been serious considerations for the Tigers – when they've needed someone, if someone is standing out among the rest, they don't hesitate to deal with those other aspects.

And right now, the best option is Robbie Ray.

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