Tigers bolster rotation, sign RHP Ureña

December 24th, 2020

The Tigers found the pitching depth they’ve been seeking all offseason with former Marlins starter José Ureña. Detroit announced on Wednesday that it signed the right-hander to a one-year deal. Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but sources told MLB.com it is worth $3.25 million. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that the deal includes $50,000 in bonuses beginning at 15 starts and every third start after that.

The deal is the first Major League signing the Tigers have made this offseason, though not for lack of trying. General manager Al Avila said earlier this month that Detroit was looking to add one or two starters. The club has been pursuing pitchers with upside in recent weeks, hoping to sign one-year deals to fill the innings it'll need coming off a 60-game season while allowing free agents a chance at a rebound under new pitching coach Chris Fetter. After falling short on similar pitchers who have signed one-year deals in recent days, the Tigers landed Ureña, a former Opening Day starter for Miami coming off two difficult seasons before being non-tendered.

“Once José became available, we had him identified as a player that could come in and help our ballclub win games,” Avila said in a statement announcing the signing. “We’re excited to add his experience pitching at a high level, and know he’ll contribute to our young staff in significant ways. José has a great ability to navigate a lineup and limit damage, while keeping his team in the game, which is exactly the stability we’re looking for heading into the 2021 season.”

The 29-year-old Ureña was a standout pitcher in 2017, posting a 14-7 record with a 3.82 ERA in 28 starts and six relief appearances. The right-hander went 9-12 with a 3.98 ERA in 31 starts in '18 and posted a career-best 1.18 WHIP and a 1.30 groundout/flyout ratio, the last part a product of a power sinker that averages near 96 mph. Those seasons came with Juan Nieves as Miami's pitching coach. The Tigers hired Nieves as their assistant pitching coach last month.

Opponents have hit the sinker the past couple years, including a .375 average and .625 slugging percentage in 2020, according to Baseball Savant. Ureña's numbers have risen in turn, including a 4-10 record and 5.21 ERA as a starter and reliever in '19. He began the '20 season in COVID-19 protocol, but he returned in September for five starts, posting a 0-3 record and a 5.40 ERA. His hard-hit rate jumped to a career-high 41.9 percent, though his average exit velocity actually dropped slightly from '19 to 90.6 mph.

Ureña's final start of the year ended with a non-displaced ulna fracture in his right forearm, but he’s expected to be fine for Spring Training.

Ureña joins Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer in the Tigers' rotation. Daniel Norris, Tyler Alexander and prospects Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize are in line to compete for the fifth spot. But with teams looking for ways to safely ramp up pitchers from 60-game seasons to potentially 162 games, Detroit could need several starters beyond its Opening Day rotation over the course of the season. They’re expected to pursue at least one more veteran starter on the free-agent market.

As a corresponding move, catcher Eric Haase was designated for assignment. The Detroit-area native played seven games for his hometown club last season, batting 3-for-17 with two RBIs.