Detroit Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson has plenty of experience grooming top talents

Ryan Ford
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson is key in the development of pitching prospects such as Matt Manning, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, especially as they arrive in the majors, as Mize and Skubal have.

But this isn’t Anderson’s first go-round polishing prospects into productive big-league starters.

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Before he joined manager Ron Gardenhire on the Tigers staff, Anderson held the same role under Gardenhire for the Twins form 2002-14. (The duo were roommates in the New York Mets farm system as well as coaches in the Twins organization under then-manager Tom Kelly.) Here’s a look at how some of that organization’s top pitching prospects developed under Anderson over that span.

The Detroit Tigers held workouts at Comerica Park Saturday, July 4, 2020. Pitching coach Rick Anderson watches prospect Casey Mize during his bullpen session.

2006: Boof Bonser

The buzz: Bonser had fallen from the 29th-best prospect in baseball in 2002 (while he was in the Giants organization) to 25th within the Twins system at the start of 2006. (The Giants traded him in 2003 to the Twins, along with Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan, for catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Ouch.) Still, his 2.81 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 86⅓ Triple-A innings in 2006 earned him a spot in the Twins rotation in late May. He debuted with eight strikeouts and one run allowed over six innings on May 21, then muddled around with a 5.56 ERA over his next 11 starts. Then, in September, it clicked: 30 strikeouts and a 2.63 ERA in 37⅔ innings (six starts) as the Twins went from six games back at the start of the month to Central champs on Oct. 1.

Bonser never had a run like that again, with ERAs of 5.10, 5.93 and 6.12 over his next three seasons, sandwiched around a 2009 rotator cuff tear that cost him the entire year.

2006-07: Matt Garza

Matt Garza was a prized prospect with the Twins in 2006 bur struggled down the stretch as a rookie right-hander.

The buzz: As soon as the Twins drafted Garza 25th overall in 2005 (out of Fresno State), he became the team’s seventh-best prospect, according to Baseball America. A 1.99 ERA and 154 strikeouts in 135⅔ innings at three levels of the Twins system confirmed that and earned him a promotion to the bigs in mid-August — as the Twins were chasing the Tigers for the AL Central title. Garza wasn’t as sharp in the majors, however, as he posted a 5.76 ERA in 10 appearances (nine starts) down the stretch.

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Still, he was the team’s top prospect to open the 2007 season, and BA’s overall No. 21. The Twins kept him in Triple-A — where he had a 3.62 ERA — until early July, when he received another promotion. This time, he succeeded in the bigs, with a 3.69 ERA in 83 innings, though only 67 strikeouts. After the season, the Twins flipped Garza to the Rays for former No. 1 prospect (and future troubled Tiger/ALCS MVP) Delmon Young. Garza never became an ace, but he pitched 10 more seasons in the majors (with the Rays, Cubs, Rangers and Brewers), including a no-hitter against the Tigers in 2010.

2006: Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano, 2005

The buzz: The key piece in the Pierzynski deal, Liriano was the Twins’ No. 5 prospect by the time he made his debut in September 2005 with a 5.70 ERA over four starts, and jumped to No. 1 for 2006. The then-22-year-old started the season in the bullpen, allowing no runs in nine of his first 12 appearances before joining the rotation in late May. In 16 starts from then, the lefty became one of the AL’s most dominant starters, with 112 strikeouts and a 1.92 ERA in 98⅔ innings. Only a stint on the DL for most of August and early September kept Liriano from winning the AL Rookie of the Year award. (He finished third, behind Justin Verlander and Jonathan Papelbon.)

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That DL time turned serious after the season, as Liriano needed Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2007. He returned in 2008 but never quite reached his dominating peak, though his 2013-15 run with the Pirates was enough to earn him several more seasons bouncing around the majors, including a stint with the Tigers in 2018.

2008: Nick Blackburn

The buzz: After getting rocked for 10 earned runs in 11⅔ innings in a September 2007 call-up, Blackburn entered 2008 as the Twins’ top prospect, which is probably not what they expected from their 29th-round pick in the 2001 draft (out of Seminole State College in Oklahoma). He made the rotation in spring training and excelled in the first half, with a 3.65 ERA over 118⅓ innings. Those innings caught up to him after the All-Star break, though, as he had a 4.68 ERA in his final 14 starts, including a Game 163 loss to the White Sox in which he allowed just one run. He finished eighth in that year’s Rookie of the Year voting.

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Blackburn never developed into a front-of-the-rotation arm, nor was he likely to — despite his lofty organizational ranking — due to knee injuries suffered in the minors. His time with the Twins was a testament to Anderson’s philosophy of pitching to contact and limiting walks: In 2009, he led the AL in hits allowed (240) while maintaining a 4.03 ERA, thanks to a measly 41 walks in 205⅔ innings. A bone chip in his throwing elbow, followed by another knee injury requiring surgery, ended his career after the 2012 season.

2013: Kyle Gibson

Minnesota Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson throws against the Detroit Tigers in the first inning of a baseball game Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in Minneapolis.

The buzz: The Twins’ first-rounder in 2009 (out of Missouri) as they started to fall into the rebuild portion of their usual franchise cycle, Gibson was the team’s top prospect in 2011, then fell to No. 8 in 2012 and No. 5 in 2013. That was mostly because the talent was there — 278 strikeouts in 298 minor-league innings from 2010-12 — even though the production wasn’t entirely there, with a middling 3.86 ERA over that span. Gibson’s June 2013 debut went well, with two earned runs over six innings, but he struggled in his final nine starts of the season, with 24 strikeouts — and 20 walks — in 45 innings.

Gibson peaked after Gardenhire and Anderson’s departure, as expected from a pitcher who debuted at 25, with his career-low in ERA (3.62) coming in 2018. He signed a three-year, $28 million deal with the Rangers in December 2019 and has a 5.73 ERA in 33 innings this season.

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