Pals in Detroit system now mound opponents

August 1st, 2021

DETROIT -- had just joined the Tigers organization as a second-round Draft pick in 2015 when he first met at Class A Connecticut. Watkins was a 30th-round pick a year earlier who was opening some eyes in his first full pro season.

“He’s taught me a lot,” Alexander said. “He helped me learn how pro ball works.”

They ended up being teammates at four different levels, all the way to Triple-A Toledo in 2019. They shared dreams of taking the mound at Comerica Park. On Sunday, they’ll be sharing the mound as opponents when the Tigers and Orioles finish their four-game series.

As much as pitchers talk about not worrying about the other starting pitcher, it’ll be hard for them to block it out.

“I told him I’m going to write him dirty messages on the back of the mound,” Alexander joked. “He said he was going to be all over it.”

Watkins was more diplomatic.

“It’s been an unreal experience to be able to see those guys in the big leagues after we played together,” Watkins said. “And then obviously, stepping on that mound for the first time is going to be an incredible feeling. But knowing myself as a competitor, once I get out there, it doesn’t matter the name, I’m attacking the hitter. So I think the lead up to it is going to be the emotional piece for me.”

Watkins, 28, pitched parts of six years in the Tigers system. The only year he pitched at one Minor League level was his first, finishing the summer of 2014 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. In 2018 and '19, he made starts at then High-A Lakeland, Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo.

Watkins was never a ranked prospect. He pitched wherever there was a need in the system. While the Tigers had a rotation of top prospects at Double-A Erie in 2019, Watkins had two stints there as depth.

“He was an organizational innings-eater. I think that’s a good way to describe it,” Alexander said. “He was a guy that just kind of went up and down wherever a team needed innings. He’s always been good at eating innings.”

Watkins had some success doing it. He went 9-3 with a 3.22 ERA at West Michigan in 2017, then 8-4 with a 2.24 ERA at Lakeland. His '19 season didn’t go as well, finishing with a 6.07 ERA in 24 starts and three relief appearances across the system. He had a good clubhouse presence and a sense of humor that allowed him to fit in wherever.

“He was big for me in my early years," Tigers rookie right-hander and former top prospect Matt Manning said of Watkins. "From Connecticut up into West Michigan, he was the guy that I played catch with. I had a stretch in West Michigan my first time there where it wasn’t going well, and he was there for me. We worked on things."

“Awesome guy, easy guy to get along with,” catcher Grayson Greiner said. “His work ethic was really good.”

Watkins was in Minor League Spring Training with the Tigers in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season. Once the Minor League season was all but canceled, the Tigers released him.

Watkins kept pitching last spring and summer in hopes of hooking on with another organization. Pitching instructor Jon Huizinga set up a Backyard Baseball Lab in Arizona and invited Watkins to work out with several other pros, including former Tiger Edwin Jackson and Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader.

Once winter came around and Watkins was still a free agent, he lined up a coaching job and planned for retirement. Then the Orioles called to offer a Minor League contract.

Watkins went 1-2 with a 3.58 ERA in six starts for Triple-A Norfolk, allowing 25 hits over 32 2/3 innings with 27 strikeouts. He earned a promotion to Baltimore a month ago when the O’s needed pitching help, and things took off. He pitched one-run ball in each of his first three starts, including six innings with seven strikeouts to beat the Rays on July 19.

Watkins developed a cutter that has flummoxed hitters, but he said he also learned to pitch to his strengths.

“I credit a ton of that to this organization for building me in my years,” Watkins said. “And then when I got to [the O’s], our pitching coaches just had a couple little things that really resonated with me. It was just talking about who I am as a pitcher, how do I maximize my arsenal against hitters.”

Alexander, meanwhile, has gotten a similar chance in Detroit. Though he’s best known for striking out nine consecutive batters in a relief outing last season, he has also made 15 starts over the last three seasons. With injuries up and down the Tigers rotation, he’s getting an extended opportunity now.

Their paths will intersect on Sunday.

“Keep your head down, keep working, and eventually things will work for you,” Alexander said. “And that’s what he’s done.”