One day before Friday's deadline to add prospects to the 40-man roster, a fourth spot was created when utility player Brandon Dixon was released. And the vacancy was filled by right-handed reliever Alex Lange. The franchise believes the 25-year-old could pitch in majors next year, making him a priority to shield from the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 10.
"He's an athletic, strong-bodied right-hander that's got a good arm and a real good breaking ball," Dave Littlefield, Tigers vice president of player development, told the Free Press on Friday. "The other thing is we brought him to the alternate training site (in Toledo) a couple of different times. Those are kind of the things behind it where we had a chance to see him more."
The No. 30 overall pick in the 2017 draft was acquired with righty Paul Richan from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for a short-term rental of slugger Nicholas Castellanos at last year's trade deadline.
Manning is the Tigers' No. 3 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, followed by Wentz at No. 9 and Faedo at No. 10. But Lange isn't among the top 30 prospects, so he wasn't a simple lock for the final vacancy. Conversations were had throughout various front office departments.
If it wasn't Lange, the Tigers could have protected infielder Wenceel Perez (the team's No. 16 prospect), or a slew of right-handed relievers: Will Vest, Jason Foley and Nolan Blackwood, or even right-handed starter Logan Shore.
They are at risk of losing right-hander Elvin Rodriguez, catchers Brady Policelli and Eliezer Alfonzo and outfielders Jacob Robson and Ulrich Bojarski, among others. Right-hander Wilkel Hernandez is a candidate, as well, but he will miss next season with Tommy John surgery.
The Tigers believe Lange, 25, is MLB ready, and another team would have surely added him to the active roster for the 2021 season because he transitioned to the bullpen after coming over from the Cubs.
"Look at his past," Littlefield said. "He spent 2019 in Double-A and last year we brought him to minicamp, and he was in and around our major-league people. We brought him to, once things got going again, to Spring Training 2.0, and then brought him to Toledo for some time.
"All these things point to that he's getting closer. We're going to have some opportunity in regard to some of our younger players. We've seen that in the past couple of years. He's among the group of guys that we think have a real chance to help us in Detroit."
Perez boasts the highest prospect ranking of the team's unprotected Rule 5 eligible players, but it would be difficult for any team to put a 21-year-old shortstop — who hasn't played above Single-A — on a major-league roster. Also, Perez only hit .233 in 2019 with three homers and 30 RBIs in 124 games.
That doesn't mean Perez won't be selected, but it explains why the Tigers weren't as concerned with leaving him up for grabs. Teams pay $100,000 to select a player in the Rule 5 draft, but if that player doesn't stay on the major league roster for the full season, he must be offered back to his original team for $50,000.
Had Lange been left unprotected, he would have been much easier to stash on an MLB roster as a reliever, just as the Tigers did this year with Rony Garcia, last year's No. 1 overall pick in the Rule 5 draft.)
Still, the Tigers won't force Lange's development.
"I think he needs more time on the mound and just competing at a higher level," Littlefield said. "As we saw him in Detroit (for summer camp) and Toledo, each level you move up, it gets more competitive. Those are some things we would like to see, how he does against upper-level hitters."
Lange pitched for nine games in 2019 for Double-A Erie, along with eight more in the Arizona Fall League, after he was traded. For the SeaWolves, he had a 3.45 ERA, 15 strikeouts and eight walks. He registered a 3.72 ERA, 13 strikeouts and three walks in Arizona that offseason.
If Lange doesn't make the Tigers out of spring training, he will open 2021 in Double-A Erie or Triple-A Toledo and be a candidate to reach the majors by the middle of the summer.
To get there, the organization wants to see his consistency and command improve.
"Competition gets stiffer, and it's less forgiving," Littlefield said. "You can't get by on stuff or velocity, you've got to really locate and execute pitches. He's like a lot of guys in that regard.
"He's got a good four-seam fastball (at 94-95 mph in the instructional league), hard down-breaking curveball that can be very effective at times, and we think he's committed to improving. That'll be a nice asset in the bullpen."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Detroit Tigers protected reliever Alex Lange from Rule 5 draft