Tigers add Flaherty to rotation on 1-year deal

December 20th, 2023

While procrastinators look to wrap up their holiday shopping on last-minute deals, the Tigers have seemingly rounded out their rotation with a potential bounceback candidate. Detroit finalized a one-year, $14 million contract on Wednesday with former Cardinals and Orioles right-hander .

The deal includes performance bonuses that can raise Flaherty's base salary up to $1 million for games started during the season: $250,000 for 26 starts, $250,000 for 28 starts and $500,000 for 30 starts.

“I’m just excited to be here, for the opportunity to go out and learn with these guys,” Flaherty said. “There’s a lot of belief in this team, a lot of belief in these guys. It’s one of those things that excited me about the opportunity to come here and to be a part of it.”

It’s the kind of signing that Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris has found value in during his years doing deals in San Francisco and Detroit. A 28-year-old right-hander, Flaherty was one of baseball’s bright young starters in St. Louis not long ago, finishing fourth in National League Cy Young voting in 2019 before posting two quality starts to help the Cardinals upset the Braves in the NL Division Series.

“It's no secret Jack is betting on himself with this contract,” said Harris, who noted Flaherty had a lot of interest from other clubs. “Now it's on us to create the environment that can best support him and help him make the adjustments that are going to bring out the best version of him, and therefore, the best version of the Tigers' rotation.”

Flaherty was the Cardinals’ Opening Day starter in 2020 and ’21, going 9-2 with a 3.22 ERA in the latter season. A left oblique strain denied him a likely All-Star selection that year, but a right shoulder injury the following season proved to be a greater interruption to his career rise. He made just nine appearances in 2022 before opening this past season in the Cardinals' rotation.

Flaherty’s campaign was an inconsistent mix of strong starts and struggling slogs, with more of the latter as the season went on. He allowed 10 runs in just 2 1/3 innings on May 4 against the Angels, then tossed seven scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts against Milwaukee 11 days later.

Flaherty was 7-6 with a 4.43 ERA in 20 starts for the Cardinals before being traded to the Orioles at the Aug. 1 Deadline. He threw six innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts in his O’s debut on Aug. 3, but struggled the rest of the way, eventually closing the season in Baltimore’s bullpen.

“To get through last year, it was a step,” Flaherty said. “Not the results that I wanted at all; more of a frustrating season on that end. But if you were to take something away from it, to walk away healthy and be able to get through the year healthy was a good start. But there’s a lot to improve upon. There’s a lot that can be made better, a lot of small things that can be tinkered with.”

For the season, Flaherty went 8-9 with a 4.99 ERA in 27 starts and two relief appearances. He struck out 148 batters over 144 1/3 innings, good for a 9.2 K/9 ratio, but also walked 66. His 10.1 hits per nine innings marked the highest ratio of his career.

“It's no secret that Jack didn’t have the 2023 that he intended to have,” Harris said. “But we did a lot of [research] work on him, we watched a lot of video, and we noticed some encouraging signs of progress throughout the season.”

Not only did Flaherty stay healthy for the full season, Harris said, his fastball velocity picked up as the season went on. While a lot of attention went toward Flaherty’s slider, Harris called Flaherty's curveball an elite swing-and-miss pitch capable of drawing whiffs in and out of the strike zone.

“Despite the topline performance that he showed in Baltimore, we noticed that he started to recapture the fastball shape and playability that he had earlier in his career," Harris added. "That pitch started to play better in Baltimore, and we think that planted a seed that we can hopefully continue to grow here in Detroit. We think recapturing the fastball that he had earlier in his career is going to be one of the keys that help him perform better in Detroit.”

Flaherty’s average fastball velocity of 93.1 mph was down a half-mile from his 2021 average and 1.2 mph from his 2019 form, according to Statcast. However, it rose to 93.5 mph in August and 93.8 mph in September. The slider didn’t have the same effectiveness: the whiff rate on the pitch dropped from 40.5 percent in 2021 to 35.4 percent in 2022, then just 26.5 this past season. Opposing hitters average 89.9 mph of exit velocity when they hit it, a velo higher than they hit his fastball.

The Tigers have assembled a system of pitching instruction over the last few years, led by pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistants Juan Nieves and Robin Lund, with the goal of helping young hurlers on their way up and veteran pitchers looking for a way back. The setup worked last season for Michael Lorenzen, who signed a one-year deal, became an All-Star for the first time in his career, then was dealt to the Phillies at the Trade Deadline for infield prospect Hao-Yu Lee.

“He’s extraordinarily talented,” Harris said, “and we were really excited to add this caliber of talent to our organization. That said, there are some things that we think he can do a little bit better. We were pretty direct with Jack throughout the recruitment about how talented he is, but also to some of the adjustments that we think he can make to recapture some of the performance that he had earlier in his career.”

Flaherty was drawn to that. But he also emphasized being drawn to an opportunity to help a young team win.

“Everything else is going to take care of itself,” he said. “If we go out and win, I’ve gone out and done my job, and so have 25 other guys. And so, [I was] looking for a place that has an opportunity to win, which I think that we do here, and a place where you felt that the staff cared, and these guys do.”

Flaherty joins a Tigers rotation that added 36-year-old veteran Kenta Maeda on a two-year deal a couple of weeks ago, and boasts a young core led by Tarik Skubal. But with former No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize returning from Tommy John surgery, former first-rounder Matt Manning coming off just 15 starts in a season shortened by foot injuries, and Reese Olson coming off a career-high 119 2/3 innings in his rookie season between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo, Harris made no secret of his search for another starter.

“We’re always going to be looking for pitching. I tell you that every time I talk to you guys,” Harris said Wednesday. “I don’t know that we’re going to be in the starting pitching market anymore after this signing, but I know there’s still heavy demand for starting pitching in the market, and we’re excited to be able to add two of them before Christmas.”