TAMPA, Fla. — Left-hander Casey Crosby came into spring training one month ago with a legitimate shot to stick as the second left-hander in the Detroit Tigers bullpen.
But after elbow problems delayed his first Grapefruit League appearance until Sunday, Crosby — despite having a future with the team — was among six pitchers and two catchers optioned to the minors on Wednesday morning.
Right-handers Drew VerHagen, Melvin Mercedes and Jose Valdez joined southpaws Robbie Ray, Duane Below and Crosby in the roster moves. Catchers James McCann, a rising star in the farm system, and Ramon Cabrera also were optioned.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said they all have "bright futures," but moves had to be made to assure players getting ready for the major-league season receive ample at-bats and innings.
Luis Marte, 27, was given his unconditional release. Marte, who sat out most of last season after rotator cuff surgery, was 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA in 17 games with Detroit in 2011 and 2012.
"He wasn’t going to make the major-league roster," Ausmus said, "and there wasn’t a place for him. It’s always hard to tell a player, but the truth is, it’s better now than later. This gives him a chance to catch on with another organization."
Crosby, 25, had been one of the organization’s top starter prospects. However, he had a 9.49 ERA in three starts for the Tigers in 2012 and was 2-5 with a 4.84 ERA in Toledo in 2013. A left-shoulder strain and surgery to remove loose bodies from his left elbow ended Crosby’s season in mid-June.
He pitched 2/3 of an inning Sunday, and allowed no runs on one hit, one walk and one strikeout. Afterward, he was excited about his move to relief — regardless of whether it was with the Tigers or Mud Hens.
"I feel a lot more comfortable being in short-inning situations," said Crosby, whose only previous relief pitching was in the Arizona Fall League in 2011. "I feel good out there now, and my changeup is improved."
Ausmus noted that Crosby threw some good curveballs in bullpen sessions and likes his future as a reliever.
"You know, left-handed relievers stick around forever," Ausmus said, "and you never have too many of them."
Ian Krol is one lefty reliever who appears to have a roster spot assured. Southpaws Kyle Lobstein, Blaine Hardy, Jose Alvarez and Phil Coke also are competing to make the team.
VerHagen, who comes in quick on hitters at 6-foot-6, has yet to pitch past Double-A.
"He has great mound presence," Ausmus said, "and really good stuff."
VerHagen didn’t appear in a Grapefruit League game. His one scheduled appearance wasrained out, but he did face Florida Southern.
Ray, obtained in the Doug Fister trade with the Washington Nationals, is considered the starter in the minors closest to pitching in the majors. He’s also yet to pitch at the Triple-A level.
"It’s important for him to not only gain experience but to work on his secondary pitches," Ausmus said. "He needs to get tighter on his breaking ball. But I liked what I saw and he’s definitely close. His fastball plays in the major leagues right now."
Ray got into three spring games and pitched 3 1/3 innings. He allowed two hits and three walks, but didn’t strike out anybody.
"Fine-tuning my mechanics is a big step for me," Ray said recently. "This is my first big-league experience, and facing these guys is a big step for me."
Mercedes gave up a game-winning homer Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays, but had a 2.25 ERA and didn’t walk anybody and struck out three in four innings.
"He’s come a long way in terms of throwing strikes," Ausmus said, "and he’s pitched well here. I hope to see him be a part of this team."
Below, who has pitched 43 games in the majors, just returned from elbow problems and threw a bullpen session on Wednesday.
TURNER PITCHING FOR MARLINS
Jacob Turner, once the top pitching prospect for the Tigers, will start for the Miami Marlins against his former team in a 1:05 p.m. game Thursday on FOX Sports Detroit. Turner, 22, has gone 4-12 with a 3.64 ERA in 27 starts for Miami over the last two seasons.
He appeared in six games as a Tiger before becoming the best of three players sent to the Marlins in the 2012 trade that brought pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante to Detroit.
Turner’s still young, but that deal has the makings of being terribly one-sided.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Ausmus was asked how many at-bats he needed to get ready for the season. He smiled and said, "You can make the argument that in September, I still wasn’t ready."
Ausmus batted .251 with 1,579 hits in 18 seasons. His best offensive output, might have come in the 2005 postseason, when he hit .268 and helped lead the Houston Astros to the World Series.
Ausmus hit a game-tying homer off former Tiger Kyle Farnsworth with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 4 of that NLDS. Houston went onto beat the Atlanta Braves 18 innings.