DETROIT -- Chad Smith spent the first year of his pro career rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Two years after his return, the right-handed sinkerballer is getting a chance in the big leagues, and the Tigers are getting a look at yet another reliever to try to address their overtaxed, underperforming bullpen.
After seven relievers combined for eight innings in relief of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer the past two nights, the Tigers purchased Smith's contract from Triple-A Toledo. In the short term, it adds a fresh arm to a Tigers bullpen that has had to cover too many innings recently. Beyond that, however, it adds a sinkerball-style pitcher to a relief corps that is heavy based around fastballs and sliders.
"He's not a guy that was really on the radar in Spring Training," manager Brad Ausmus said, "but he has pitched his way onto the radar over the first three months of the season."
Whenever Smith takes the mound, he will become the 14th player to pitch out of the Tigers' bullpen this season, a list that includes starters Drew Smyly and Robbie Ray and shortstop Danny Worth.
Smith has been a quiet success story for a Tigers organization that has struggled at drafting and developing relievers out of the middle rounds. Detroit took him out of USC in the 17th round of the 2011 Draft just two weeks after he had Tommy John surgery, knowing he would need a year of rehab before he could throw a professional pitch. Since Smith finally got into the system two summers ago, however, he has consistently delivered at every level, which made for a quick trip through the organization.
Smith was not on the radar entering the season because he had not pitched above Class A ball. Smith spent all of last season at West Michigan, but he pitched well enough to skip Class A Advanced Lakeland and open the season at Double-A Erie. He needed just seven outings there in April to earn a call up to Triple-A Toledo, where he has picked up where he left off.
Add up the two levels, and Smith posted a 5-2 record, 1.80 ERA and .220 batting average allowed. His stuff has the potential to translate to the big leagues.
"I didn't think it was going to be this early in the season," Smith said of his big league shot. "I was thinking maybe something later in the season or maybe next year. But it was clicking. I was throwing well."
Asked what clicked, Smith said: "My overall command of my fastball and my sinker down in the zone. I'm throwing the ball where I want to throw it for the first time since the surgery."
Smith's surgically repaired right arm can still throw in the mid-90s. More importantly, he throws it with sink, resulting in a 1.87 ratio of groundouts to flyouts with the Mud Hens. That ratio was 2.83 with Erie. At the same time, he is posting a near-even ratio of strikeouts to innings pitched.
"The catcher kept calling it, I kept throwing it and they weren't hitting it," Smith said of the sinker. "I just kind of rolled with that, sinker-slider pitcher."
Smith replaces hard-throwing Evan Reed, who was designated for assignment Wednesday morning after his month-long struggles dropped him from early-season bullpen savior to essentially a long reliever.
Reed's 4.88 ERA was essentially split between two stretches. He held opponents scoreless in 13 of his first 16 appearances this season, posting a 2.81 ERA, then gave up 19 hits over 11 2/3 innings in his final 11 appearances. While his strikeout rate rose, so did his damage as he struggled to keep his pitches down.
"I don't know that his pitches weren't working -- it's that he wasn't commanding the pitches, and he was getting behind hitters," Ausmus said. "He's at his best when he attacks the hitters. He's got a power arm and the ability to pitch at the Major League level. But he's got to get more consistent with his mechanics, especially with his slider."
Before he was released, Reed said he was executing his pitches but having trouble keeping them down in the zone. The Tigers have 10 days to trade Reed, release him or outright his contract to Triple-A Toledo. Because Reed was also designated last year with the Miami Marlins, he has the option of declining an outright assignment and becoming a free agent. If he did, however, he would forfeit his Major League contract.
Reed has been under investigation since April for an alleged incident with a woman at a downtown Detroit hotel on the weekend before Opening Day. Prosecutors reportedly have investigation results from Detroit police but have not decided whether to file formal charges.
Tigers alarmed by frequency of bullpen use
DETROIT -- Somebody had to pitch the ninth inning, manager Brad Ausmus said Tuesday night. The way the Tigers have been struggling early in games, that's the way a lot of final innings have been going lately.
The workload is piling up.
"It's a concern long term, for sure, looking ahead to August, September," Ausmus said. "Somebody had to pitch the ninth. Really didn't want to have to use Al [Alburquerque], Joba [Chamberlain], or Joe [Nathan] or [Ian] Krol for that matter. Somebody had to pitch it."
It ended up being Alburquerque, whose 35th appearance of the season put him one behind Cleveland lefty Marc Rzepczynski for the American League lead. Ausmus said last weekend that he wanted to watch Alburquerque's workload, and he had been using him in one- or two-batter stints to save his pitches. Alburquerque has been stretched out to full innings twice since then.
Alburquerque is not alone among Tigers relievers nearing the league lead in appearances. Ian Krol, who has not pitched since Saturday after dealing with shoulder soreness, still ranks just outside the AL top 10 with 33 appearances. Joba Chamberlain has 31 appearances.
All those totals come on a Tigers team that has played fewer games than any other team in baseball thanks to early-season rainouts and off-days. The club will have to make up games over the second half, which means more innings to cover.
Either Detroit will need other relievers to step up, or its starters will have to resume their inning-eating ways from past years and earlier this season. If not, the workload on the core relievers could prove unsustainable.
Hunter still optimistic about weekend return
DETROIT -- Torii Hunter hit the field Wednesday at Comerica Park to test out his sore right hamstring a bit while playing catch with third-base coach Dave Clark to keep his arm fresh. However, he was still eyeing this weekend's series in Cleveland for his return.
Hunter said Wednesday morning his hamstring, which cramped up on him last weekend before forcing him out of Monday's game running to first base on a base hit, was feeling "a lot better," but it was still not playable. He has not swung a bat, let alone run bases.
J.D. Martinez made his second consecutive start in right field.
All-Star voting at Comerica ends; online still open
DETROIT -- Wednesday was supposed to mark the close of the Tigers' homestand before a makeup of a rainout extended it. It still marked the end of in-person balloting at Comerica Park for next month's All-Star Game.
Thus, fans in Michigan looking to vote for Miguel Cabrera or anyone else for the Midsummer Classic will need to turn online at MLB.com to vote.
Fans can cast their votes for starters at MLB.com and all 30 club sites -- online or on a mobile device -- using the 2014 All-Star Game MLB.com Ballot Sponsored by Experian until Thursday, July 3, at 11:59 p.m. ET. The 2014 All-Star Game will be played at Target Field on Tuesday, July 15.
Fans may submit up to 25 online ballots, but they can also earn a one-time bonus of 10 additional online ballots. To access these additional online ballots, you must be logged into your MLB.com account when you submit any online ballot. If you do not have an MLB.com account, register on the site in accordance with the enrollment instructions for a free MLB.com account.