VerHagen could be Tigers' reliever of choice

Young right-hander may be able to fill multiple-innings role in 2016

VerHagen could be Tigers' reliever of choice

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Tigers are placing a new emphasis on developing young relievers through their system. The club's most immediate hope for that spent most of his Minor League career as a starter.

Drew VerHagen says he feels like a reliever these days. Depending on the makeup of the rest of the Tigers' bullpen, the 6-foot-6 right-hander could be a critical one.

By acquiring Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson, general manager Al Avila has assembled a proven late-inning trio, which could end up being a reason against top prospect Michael Fulmer making the jump from starter to bullpen. What the Tigers have to identify are versatile relievers beyond that, capable of pitching multiple innings, but also capable of entering in a jam.

Alex Wilson showed last season that he can do this, though he's currently working his way back from shoulder soreness, playing catch at 90 feet. With or without Wilson, that could be where VerHagen, too, finds his role.

"He can do anything," manager Brad Ausmus said. "You know, if he pitches like we think he can, he can probably spell one of our back-end guys for a day if he needed a rest. And I think he also has the ability to pitch multiple innings if we need to get from the fifth to the seventh."

VerHagen pitched one inning in Sunday's 9-5 loss to the Pirates, working through the middle of Pittsburgh's order in the fifth. That included a strikeout of Andrew McCutchen on a pitch sequence that showed VerHagen's starting roots. After a first-pitch ball, McCutchen offered at a changeup for a strike, fouled off a fastball, then whiffed on a curveball.

"Fastball command was good today, down and away to righties. I've been working on that," VerHagen said. "That was something that was helpful in getting ahead of guys today. Threw a couple changeups that I was pretty pleased with, so that's another positive."

VerHagen has pitched better than the numbers so far this spring, allowing three runs on five hits in four innings, but also striking out five against one walk.

It's a continuation of the late-season relief work VerHagen performed last season after rejoining the team in mid-August. From that point on, he allowed four runs on 17 hits over 25 1/3 innings, walking 10 and striking out 13. VerHagen's final five appearances featured six scoreless innings on two hits with a walk and four strikeouts, including back-to-back holds against the White Sox at Comerica Park.

The fastball picked up, but so did the intensity. The lanky, laid-back VerHagen everybody recognized as a starter picked up an aggressive streak in relief.

"I developed some routines, and I developed a little confidence last year that I'm using," VerHagen said, "just kind of a good, aggressive mentality."

Said Ausmus: "I thought his velocity would tick up, and I think it has, really. You never know how they're going to take to a new role, but I think he understands that right now his best shot at being a Major League pitcher is in that role."

Ausmus said during baseball's Winter Meetings in December that VerHagen was just short of a lock for the bullpen. The procession of veteran signings, the last being Bobby Parnell as camp opened, changed the bullpen makeup. The way VerHagen can pitch, the way he pitched on Sunday, could make the 25-year-old the young reliever of choice out of this camp.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.