What Casey Crosby’s return means for lefty mix

Casey Crosby wasn’t going to try to win a job in his first outing. He just wanted to get through an inning without any discomfort and show he’s healthy. He can pick it up from there.

“It was good to get back out there finally,” he said. “Obviously I kind of joined the party late, but it feels good out there. It feels comfortable, and I’m excited to get back out there.”

He faced three batters and retired two of them, so it technically wasn’t an entire inning. He replaced Blaine Hardy with one out in the sixth inning and then finished it out, getting a fly out to center and then stranding two by dropping a curveball on right-handed hitter Travis Tartamella for a called third strike.

He threw a lot of fastballs in the 89-90 mph range according to the Roger Dean Stadium scoreboard, topping out at 91. For a first outing, that was fine. He was happier with a changeup he was getting good feelings about from what he saw in the side sessions and live BP he needed to throw to get to this point.

“My changeup is very improved this year just talking with the catchers and seeing it myself,” he said. “I noticed if I keep the changeup low it has good bite to it.”

He can build the velocity he needs over the next couple weeks, especially since he no longer has to worry about building his pitch count like he did as a starter. The more important question is whether he has enough time to build his case for a bullpen spot.

Before the game, Brad Ausmus said he doesn’t necessarily need two lefties in his bullpen, but that there’s clearly an advantage if he can have it that way. It sounded a bit like the stretch run last season, when Jim Leyland noted during Phil Coke’s absence that Al Alburquerque and Joaquin Benoit could get outs from lefties because of what they throw. Eventually we saw what the lack of a second lefty meant during the ALCS. With Coke just coming back, Leyland opted for David Ortiz with the bases loaded in Game 2 with disastrous results.

Season opening bullpens tend to change quickly, but personally, I’d be extremely surprised if Ausmus went with only one lefty to open the year, especially with Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Chris Davis and Nick Markakis looming in the opening week.

Ian Krol shows every sign of taking on a big role, even with less than a full season of Major League work under his belt. Ausmus continues to downplay Phil Coke’s spring struggles, saying he simply needs to get in his work and build his velocity (he has been upper 80s so far). Still, his Tuesday outing against the Blue Jays has the chance to be a significant one.

A year ago, the Tigers used the mid-March deadline to cut ties with Brennan Boesch while owing him just a sixth of his previously agreed-to salary. Technically, they could do the same with Coke, who avoided arbitration just before the December non-tender deadline with a $1.9 million salary. In other words, they’d owe him just over $316,000 if they made a move this week. Despite the struggles this spring, though, I’d be surprised if that happens. They could wait it out until the end of camp and release him then for just $475,000.

When he’s on, Coke has the chance to be a situational kind of lefty with velocity, and those aren’t easy to find. Crosby, however, is the one guy in camp besides Krol and Coke who offers that potential. His fastball was always strong as a starter through all the injuries. As a reliever, he can bump it up without having to worry about pacing himself.

“I feel a lot more comfortable doing the short-inning stuff,” Crosby said, “not really thinking more, just going. Go, pitch, and just let it go. That’s what I’m most comfortable doing, I feel like.”

The question the Tigers will have to judge is where he stands on being ready for that after spending virtually his whole career starting save for an Arizona Fall League stint in 2011.

On his readiness, and how the injury affected it, Crosby said, “For relievers you get back in there and it doesn’t take long because you don’t have to build up very many innings. But me personally, I feel like I missed a lot, just because when you’re injured you just feel like you’re missing out on so much. You just feel you’re kind of not really a part of the team and all that.”

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