One big point of emphasis during spring training are the position battles, particularly among young, up-and-coming players in a team's system. For some, however, it is about making one last stand because they are “out of options” moving forward.
A quick refresher on options. They allow for teams to send players freely to the minor leagues without becoming subject to the waiver wire. Players on the 40-man roster of a club are permitted a max of three “option years.” One such year is used up when, at any point throughout any given season, the player is in the minors for more than 20 days.
It's also important to remember that option years do not need to happen in succession, and teams can apply the rule without the player's consent if the player has accrued less than five years of major league service time. Officially, the Detroit Tigers have six such players who are out of options for the 2018 season.
- Matthew Boyd, P
- Mike Fiers, P
- John Hicks, C/1B/DH
- Dixon Machado, 2B/SS
- Leonys Martín, OF
- Drew VerHagen, P
Now we assume that at least five of these seven will be penciled into the 25-man roster for the Tigers come Opening Day: 1) Boyd and Fiers are slotted into the rotation; 2) Hicks is the backup catcher/first baseman/designated hitter; 3) Machado is stepping into a starting role at second base; and 4) Martín will at the worst serve in a platoon or bench role in the outfield, if not start every day in center field.
So that leaves Drew VerHagen, a former Detroit draft pick who has taken a less-than-ideal, more circuitous route to establish himself in the show. There is also Buck Farmer, who would be on this list as well. However, he used up his three “option years” in less than five years, earning him a fourth option.
… because he actually HAS been optioned in 4 separate years (2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017) but
because he only spent 9 days on optional assignment in 2014 it did not burn one of his option years.
— Evan Woodbery (@evanwoodbery) February 19, 2018
Still, it seems like it is make-or-break for him as well. And given the relative uncertainties of their respective futures, it's safe to assume that both VerHagen and Farmer could be making their last stand with the Tigers.
Buck Farmer —
Buck Farmer was drafted three times in his baseball career, once out of high school and twice out of college. The Tigers took the Georgia Tech product in the fifth round of the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft.
Barely a calendar year later after, Farmer is making his major league debut in August of 2014 with the Tigers after just making 31 career starts in the bushes (32 total appearances). To say the young Buck was rushed to the show would be an understatement, and those within the Tigers brass would be the first to admit that.
Farmer that season appeared in four games for Detroit, making two starts. Understandably so, the ERA was… well, not ideal. But given he was a pitcher who had virtually no Double-A experience and absolutely zero Triple-A experience prior to his major league debut, it was more than expected. The Tigers were searching high and low for pitching options at the time.
Farmer since then has split time between Detroit and Toledo each of the past three seasons. And after showing considerable improvement early on, he took a step back in 2017:
|Buck Farmer w/ DET||2014||2015||2016||2017|
|GAMES (STARTS)||4(2)||14 (5)||14 (1)||11 (11)|
You can see that Farmer is sort of all over the map when it comes to the yielding the true outcomes (walks, strikeouts, home runs). But up until last season, he was steadily improving in the run prevention department.
He shot out of a cannon in his first two starts of 2017, pitching 13 consecutive scoreless innings and allowing just six hits and three walks in the process. But the ERA in his final nine times out was north of 9.00, for a Tigers team that struggled to get some semblance of pitching consistency down the stretch.
When one watches Farmer pitch, it's easy to see that he has the “stuff” to get it done. But his usage breakdown of said “stuff” could be the cause for his struggles last season. Have a look:Credit: FanGraphs
According to FanGraphs, Farmer used his slider more than 13 percent more in 2017 than he did in 2016, and his changeup seven percent less in '17 than in '16. The results? More damage done to each pitch in '17 than in '16. It's worth noting he threw 23.2 more innings last season, but if he wants to get back on the track he was prior to 2017, he may want to consider a sequence ratio that more resembles 2016.
Drew VerHagen —
Drew VerHagen is another fascinating case. The Tigers' fourth-round pick in 2012 out of pitching-prominent Vanderbilt University logged a very solid 3.29 ERA in his first 53 appearances (48 of which were starts) before, like Farmer, making his major league debut in 2014.
VerHagen got the call after completing 18 starts for the Mud Hens. He made one start with the Tigers in July of 2014 before being sent back down to Toledo. However, an unfortunate injury where he suffered a stress fracture in his back sidelined him for the rest of that season.
VerHagen did not resume pitching in a game until June of 2015. He picked up right where he left off in the minors, logging a 3.41 ERA in 20 games with both Toledo and Double-A Erie. That earned him a call-up to Detroit late in the season where he thrived, registering a very remarkable 2.05 ERA in 20 relief appearances, most of which came in the seventh inning or later.
That strong finish to 2015 earned VerHagen a spot in the Tigers' bullpen to open the 2016 campaign. He struggled mightily though, as his ERA in 19 games was above 7.00. That resulted in a demotion back to the minors. Unfortunately for Drew, the injury bug bit him again. This time it was thoracic outlet syndrome, a more rare arm injury that involves compression of nerves and blood vessels, typically between the neck and shoulder. It's been commonly known around the sport as just having a “dead arm” feeling.
The TOS diagnosis has been sort of a new-age Tommy John surgery for big league pitchers and like the TJ route, recovering from TOS has brought about mixed outcomes. For VerHagen, it very well may have affected him physically and perhaps psychologically. He returned in 2017, making 24 appearances with the Tigers but compiled a 5.77 ERA. In 19 starts with Toledo last year, the ERA barely improved to 5.46.
Much like Farmer, VerHagen has sort of gone away from his bread and butter.Credit: FanGraphs Credit: FanGraphs
Fewer fastballs and curveballs in favor of more sliders, which has not paid dividends yet. That change in pitching sequence has also resulted in fewer ground balls (second photo, third column from left), which made him very effective in 2015.
Don't be surprised if both Farmer and VerHagen, two players who are out of options, make the Tigers' 25-man roster for Opening Day, even if they underperform to a certain degree when compared to players who still have options remaining. But both players certainly need to do their part and make sure parting ways with them is not on the minds of the Tigers' front office.
It is officially now or never for Buck Farmer and Drew VerHagen.