Like other relievers before him, Cruceta's nasty stuff hinged on his ability to throw fastballs for quality strikes and force hitters to go after his stuff with movement. His struggles to do that over the last few weeks led to Tuesday's move, in which the Tigers designated him for assignment and purchased the contract of left-hander Casey Fossum from Triple-A Toledo to take his spot.
The Tigers now have 10 days in which to trade Cruceta, release him or outright him to the Minor Leagues. He is out of Minor League options, and the Tigers would have to pass him through waivers in order to outright him.
The move essentially ends Cruceta's brief tenure as the late-inning reliever of choice for the Tigers, who had signed him last fall with hopes that he could fill their seventh-inning setup role until injured Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya return. He was almost a mystery man when he joined the Tigers at the end of April, but this current West Coast trip showed his control problems becoming too familiar.
"Wasn't doing the job," manager Jim Leyland summarized.
Cruceta's impressive performance down the stretch for Triple-A Oklahoma last year, coupled with a strong start in the Dominican Winter League, convinced the Tigers to take a shot and sign him to a Major League contract, hoping they could turn his nasty splitter into a consistent out pitch that could help him emerge as a bona fide reliever. He hadn't pitched in the big leagues since 2006.
Visa problems coming out of his native Dominican Republic cost him his entire Spring Training, however, and he never really caught up. Once he was finally cleared to enter the United States in early April, he had what amounted to a brief rehab stint before joining the Tigers at the end of April. His dominance at Toledo, where he scattered two hits over seven innings with 15 strikeouts, helped build an anticipation of dominance once he arrived.
He didn't have much time to ease into a role before Denny Bautista's trip to the disabled list moved Cruceta into eighth-inning setup duty. After some early success, however, hitters started laying off the splitter and waiting on the fastball, which he struggled to command.
Cruceta converted one hold in three opportunities and either lost a lead or a tie score in his last three outings. The latest came Monday night against the A's. He entered the ninth inning with the game tied at 2, gave up a leadoff single, then watched Bobby Crosby line a high fastball into right-center field for a walk-off single.
"I threw a fastball for a strike and he jumped it," Cruceta said after the game. "I just want to try to throw my fastball for a strike. That's what I have to do [to set up the splitter]. The last couple games, I really struggled with my fastball."
Those struggles proved too much. President/general manager Dave Dombrowski made the decision Tuesday morning.
The 30-year-old Fossum signed with the Tigers at the end of Spring Training while Detroit was looking for a veteran reliever to replace the then just-released Tim Byrdak. He struggled early on out of the bullpen, but found some success when he moved into the rotation in early May. He went 3-0 with a 1.06 ERA for the month, allowing 14 hits over 34 innings with 10 walks and 39 strikeouts, and opponents hit him for just a .125 average.
"He needed to get some innings in," Leyland said. "He'll work in the bullpen here."
That doesn't mean, however, that Fossum will work as a left-handed specialist. With Fossum's track record and his recent success as a starter, Leyland said he could see both right-handed and left-handed hitters. Lefties batted just .118 against him, but he held righties to a .149 clip.
Fossum arrived at McAfee Coliseum around game time, then entered the game in the eighth inning.
He arrived in a stretch when the Tigers are trying to fill innings until a slew of injured relievers return. Foremost among them are Rodney and Zumaya, neither of whom have pitched for Detroit this season but both of whom should be back this month, barring setbacks. Nearer-term, Bautista could be back later this week after making the second of back-to-back rehab outings Tuesday for Toledo. Lefty Clay Rapada threw off a mound Monday for the first time since going on the DL with biceps tendinitis on May 21.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.