Tigers have decision to make with VerHagen

Detroit debating whether righty fits better as starter or reliever

Tigers have decision to make with VerHagen

DETROIT -- Drew VerHagen was on an operating table a year ago Thursday, addressing the thoracic outlet syndrome that had compressed nerves and arteries in his right arm, leaving him unable to pitch. He needed help doing basic tasks after the surgery, and he faced rigorous rehab to get back to pitching this spring.

In that sense, there are worse fates than getting roughed up by the Pirates in a 7-5 loss, as VerHagen did Thursday. In another sense, it might be the step that gives his career a direction.

The Tigers are approaching the same fork in the developmental road with VerHagen as they did with Shane Greene a year ago, debating whether he fits best as a starter or reliever. VerHagen was a promising arm in Detroit's bullpen down the stretch in 2015, but he wanted to start this year to give his arm a chance to stretch out, build strength and get into a routine. The Tigers respected the situation and gave him that choice.

"It's been good to get my feet back under me coming off of surgery," VerHagen said. "That's the main reason I did it. You get a different sort of repetition that you wouldn't get out of the bullpen. But at this point, I feel like I'm back healthy, so wherever they need me to pitch is where I'll pitch."

The Tigers needed VerHagen for two starts over the past week while Michael Fulmer recovers from a bout of ulnar neuritis in his right arm. If all goes well, he could be back in time to reclaim his rotation spot next week during a three-game series in Texas. And Detroit could be facing a decision with whether to keep VerHagen in its bullpen, put him back into the rotation at Triple-A Toledo or convert him back to reliever there.

"I've said this before: I think he really profiles as a reliever more than a starter," manager Brad Ausmus said. "I think he's a guy that can get ground balls. He throws 95 [mph]. He's got movement. He's got a real good curveball when he's throwing strikes with it. Right now he's in the rotation. He pitched pretty well for us out of the bullpen a couple years ago before he got hurt."

If that sounds familiar, it's a similar path to Greene, who missed a chunk of a season to fix a vascular condition in his right arm, came back as a starter, then shifted to reliever once Fulmer came up early last year. VerHagen isn't necessarily a closer in waiting, but he's a promising pitcher on a staff that needs depth.

Even as VerHagen struggled through the Pirates' lineup Thursday, his potential showed signs. His fastball averaged just under 94 mph and topped out just over 95. But it also went into the right-field seats when Josh Bell jumped a first pitch for a 437-foot home run. His curveball had break, and he dropped it into the zone for four called strikes, but it didn't help much as hitters stepped up the second time around.

"The break was all right on them. I just wasn't throwing them for strikes," VerHagen said. "Hitters were just taking them straight out of my hand. You could see in their swings and their body language, they were comfortable in the box. I didn't do a good job of commanding my pitches and making them uncomfortable. They were just able to wait on a fastball today."

Put those pitches out there in smaller doses, Ausmus said, and the results could be different.

"I think Drew VerHagen's a Major League pitcher," Ausmus said. "I think the debate is whether he's a starter or a reliever. We're in a situation where we needed a starter when Fulmer went down, so he's kind of forced into that role."

That debate could reach a head soon. Whatever the decision, VerHagen believes he's ready. It beats where he was a year ago.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.