2015 Spring Notes: Lefty Battle, Toledo Stars

Plenty of big leaguers got playing time on the back fields on Tuesday, including a pair of left-handers vying for a job in the bullpen, as well as Victor Martinez. Beyond them, the Toledo lineup drew plenty of attention, as Dixon Machado, Daniel Fields and Steven Moya were all in action. Plus, a young lefty throwing heat had scouts flocking to the intrasquad game on one of the back fields.

After Monday was rained out, it was back in action for the minor leaguers, with the Double-A and Triple-A clubs facing off against the Braves on the back fields in Lakeland.

As is common, a handful of players in big league camp ventured to the back fields to get some work in – this included Victor Martinez, who served as both teams’ designated hitter, as well as relievers Al Alburquerque, Ian Krol and Tom Gorzelanny. Martinez is just trying to get at-bats at this point in the season to get up to speed after missing so much time, while Alburquerque was just getting in some side work. Gorzelanny and Krol on the other hand are in the midst of a battle for one of the final bullpen spots, so their performance and how they threw was hugely important.

Each pitcher worked an inning of relief, Gorzelanny in the Double-A game with the Erie team, and Krol in the Triple-A game with Toledo. Much like the rest of spring training, while results are worth noting, what’s going to be more important is how the pitcher actually throws, how he’s handling whatever it is he might be working on, etc.

For Krol, the outing was mostly good, with one big exception. Krol was consistently hitting 94 MPH on the radar gun, and throwing strikes, both with his fastball and his breaking pitch. Unfortunately, there was one mistake pitch in his otherwise quick inning, which he left up and out over the plate, that a Braves hitter turned on and belted over the left field wall for a home run.

It’s the sort of mistake pitch that can happen to anyone, and usually in a spring training effort isn’t paid much attention to. But for a guy like Krol, who was susceptible to giving up the long ball last year and the year before (1.65 HR’s per nine innings in each of the two seasons), mistake pitches are the sort of thing that Krol can’t afford.

As has been well documented, including here on TigsTown, Krol is more focused this season and put in extensive work in the off-season to ensure he was prepared for this year. But mistake pitches are the sort of thing that will leave the Tigers leery of giving Krol the top left-hander job in the ‘pen.

Gorzelanny doesn’t have the stuff that Krol has, and was never expected to. However, while his only blemish in his inning of work was a one-out walk, it wasn’t a better showing for him, either. Gorzelanny has never been a hard thrower, but was sitting at around 88 MPH in his inning of work. In addition, he struggled to throw strikes, missing the strike zone with his fastball frequently. On the upside, he did keep the ball down, and the only contact generated was weak and put the ball on the ground.

With Brad Ausmus and Jeff Jones watching, it doesn’t appear as if this particular outing helped inform much as to who would get the inside track for the job they’re both vying for.

Moya, Fields and Machado Highlight Toledo Lineup

Each year, there are certain position groups that stand out as a highlight of the Tigers farm system – last year for example, the West Michigan rotation was loaded with talented arms, all of whom were among the TigsTown Top 50. This year, the Toledo lineup might not be able to claim that, but they’ll certainly be a well-stocked unit.

One player that will receive plenty of attention is Machado, who had an offensive breakout in 2014, and continued to hit well for the big league team this spring, hitting .304 in 23 at-bats. While his body is still lean, he has clearly filled out some, and no longer appears to be the rail thin teenager he once was. He still doesn’t make hard contact, but he’s generating enough power that the ball has some velocity coming off his bat, which wasn’t always the case.

In addition, his defense remains stellar and is a scout’s dream to watch field the ball. On one play in particular, a short chopper to the left of the mound in theoretical no-man’s land, Machado charged the ball, scooped it, and rifled to first base to get the runner by a step – a play most shortstops at any level would have likely just eaten the ball at.

The day wasn’t as encouraging for Fields, who looked crossed up at the plate – in multiple at-bats, he took pitches for called strikes, only to then subsequently chase off-speed pitches outside the zone. You never want to draw too much from any one day or at-bat, but Fields didn’t do much to ease concerns about his approach or ability to make contact on this day.

Moya on the other hand looked (and was acting like) a new player. More jovial in the dugout with his teammates, he appeared more relaxed than he was just a couple days earlier, when he was sent out of big league camp. His liveliness seemed to carry over to the field as well, where his approach was more together. In one sequence, he worked a five-pitch walk, and within seconds of reaching first base, took off for and successfully stole second base.

Last spring proved to be Moya’s announcement that he was ready to start fulfilling his enormous potential. While this spring didn’t come with a similar proclamation, don’t be surprised if Moya continues to mash once he’s in Toledo and settled in.

Newcomer Soto Draws a Crowd

For those that aren’t familiar with the Tigers spring training complex, the “back fields” or minor league complex is directly beyond right field from Joker Marchant Stadium. The site used to be a training facility for pilots, and a long stretch of pavement which used to be a runway acts as the divider between the stadium, and big league camp, and the minor league facility. The back fields includes a typical quadrant style setup, with four fields, two of which are accessible to fans to watch, and the other two of which face away from the stadium, and are only accessible by approved personnel.

I explain this setup because it means that those two back fields can only attract people authorized to be back there – players, scouts, media, etc. No bleachers, or fans sitting on lawn chairs or little kids playing catch with a foul ball. It’s baseball in its purist form, and so occasionally things happen that draw the attention of a knowledgeable baseball observer.

One of those things is the loud ‘POP’ of a catcher’s mitt. You’ve heard it before at a game when you’re up close, a hard-throwing pitcher comes in, and suddenly, the noise the mitt makes every time the catcher hauls one in takes on a different tone. And that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday, and had a handful of scouts rushing over to get a look at who exactly was making this noise.

The POP’s could be attributed to 20-year old left-hander Gregory Soto, who was just brought stateside from the Dominican this year. A shorter, but well-built lefty, Soto was bringing heat against a group of Tigers’ players, most of whom will be targeted for extended spring training. Soto was sitting 93-94 MPH on the radar gun, with one observer getting him topping out at 96.

As people flocked to watch, Soto also flashed an impressive curveball that was making hitters look quite silly, flailing at a pitch breaking far more than their eyes and bats expected.

Soto posted a 3.20 ERA last year with the DSL Tigers rookie club, with 57 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings of work, earning his Stateside assignment. According to Tom Moore, Tigers’ director of international operations, none of the 15 brought Stateside are expected to make a jump to full season ball, so fans are probably still a year away from seeing Soto in action. But he’s the sort of guy that the Tigers and their new player acquisition philosophy are banking on developing in the coming years.

We’ll talk more about that evolving philosophy in a feature with Moore in the coming days.

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