Since we're a little late getting this piece up, some of the things we noticed in spring training have started to become evident in early season games. One of the most notable is the breakout of Luke French. From the second he stepped on the mound, French looked like a different pitcher. His body was tighter, his mound presence much improved, and his stuff was at least a tick better. He was routinely working in the lower third of the zone with a fastball that more routinely touched 90-91, rather than 87-88. He commanded both sides of the plate with his fastball and looked confident while doing so. His breaking ball had more bite and his change-up was a solid pitch against the righties I saw him face. He was truly a different, more developed, and more promising pitcher. Keep an eye out for a guy that may be refining himself into a legitimate back end innings eater.
Three Toledo relievers that were on the mound included lefty Fu-Te Ni, and righties Casey Fien and Nick Regilio. Regilio looked like your solid middle relief type; a guy that could hit 90-92 with a large frame and the ability to mix pitches. He's not going to blow anyone away this year, but he's a nice depth arm.
Fien looked like a guy that didn't really want to be back in minor league camp (not that I can blame him), and so far this year, he's pitching like a guy in that stereotypical funk after he believes he should have been in Detroit. If he gets things together, his low-90s fastball and slider are both pitches that can get MLB hitters out.
This was my first live exposure to Ni, and he was impressive in many respects. He is very poised on the mound, understands how to mix pitches and locations to set up hitters, and he simply looks like he belongs despite a significant language barrier. If I had to wager, I'd say he'll be helping in Detroit by the end of the year.
Working with the Erie crew (and since assigned there), Josh Rainwater looked to be coming along nicely. His fastball still worked in the low-90s, but in an interesting and very telling twist, he was working exclusively from the stretch. His permanent move to the bullpen has been rumored for the better part of three years, but this is the most discerning sign that it may actually be happening. I like what he can bring in a 6th/7th inning role, and think he just needs to refine the command of his breaking ball to be a truly successful reliever at Double-A.
It's been a bump road for Ramon Garcia, but he might have finally found his niche and be ready to take off as an advanced prospect. The move to the bullpen has allowed him to really let loose with his fastball, hitting 94 on four occasions in the inning I saw. His change-up is still superb and his breaking ball is also above-average; making him a devastating left-handed bullpen option. Don't lose sight of him in this role, he's got some serious stuff and as he adjusts to the mentality required for such a job, he could really take off.
With the A-ball crews, there was plenty of action and plenty of popping catchers mitts. Seeing Mauricio Robles, Brandon Hamilton, Victor Larez, Erik Crichton, Jared Gayhart, Brayan Villareal, Brett Jacobson, Robbie Weinhardt, and Rob Waite in the span of two days meant plenty of big time fastballs.
In a surprise, the most impressive of the bunch may have been the duo of Villareal and Gayhart. Villareal's slight frame is very deceiving, as he routinely pumped 94-95 mph heat, and hit 97 on two occasions in his two inning stint. He was aggressive on the mound and after seeing him live for the first time, I understand why some were gushing over him last summer and fall when he returned from Tommy John surgery.
Gayhart was a huge sleeper in last year's draft, having played mostly outfield while at Rice, but showing tons of potential on the mound. He's clearly raw but he has improved since I saw him last fall, and he has the makings of a power bullpen arsenal that could be lethal once he commands his pitches better and further understands the nuances of pitching.
Bloop Hits: Zach Simons was lacking the command he showed with Lakeland last year, but there is little doubting the raw stuff….Though he didn't pitch while I was in town, Charlie Furbush was the topic of many rumblings; he's back folks….I was astonished that Rob Waite was heading to Lakeland, but he showed a good fastball and average breaking ball with a gun-slingers mentality….For those wondering, there's reason for Robbie Weinhardt to stick in Lakeland; the command simply isn't there within the zone, though he almost needs to move up in order to be forced to improve it….Erik Crichton's return from surgery is quite possibly complete, as his fastball is back touching 95….Chad Linder had a nice arm and deceptive delivery from the left side, and he could be one to watch in the short season leagues….Mike LaLuna has some learning to do on the mound, but that's to be expected given his experience; but the long loose arm action leaves plenty to dream on….I love Brandon Hamilton's arm and slightly smoother mechanics, but I hate the lack of control….Luis Sanz is now officially a big boy, and he's approaching a big boy fastball to go with it; sleeper alert.
And to watch videos of some of the Tigers' pitchers in spring training, click the videos below: