DETROIT – On Tuesday, a month before the Detroit Tigers play their first spring training game of 2019, we predicted what the starting lineup and defensive positions would look like on Opening Day.
The starting rotation won't look any more promising than the offense, at least not at the beginning of the season. Last season, Tigers starters ranked outside the top 20 in ERA, batting average allowed, innings pitched and strikeouts.
There are a couple of new faces that could shake up the rotation, but none that will make the Tigers drastically better than a year ago.
Here's a look at what we can expect in the starting rotation.
1. Michael Fulmer
2018 stats: 132.1 innings pitched, 7.5 K/9, 4.69 ERA, 1.32 WHIP
Michael Fulmer is just 75 starts into his major league career, but he's already been a bit of a tough player to understand.
As a rookie, Fulmer posted a 3.06 ERA and 1.12 WHIP across 26 starts, winning the Rookie of the Year award and finishing in the top 10 of Cy Young voting. In 2017, he had a great first half, posting a 3.19 ERA and 1.12 WHIP while striking out 3.23 batters for every walk.
He made the 2017 American League All-Star team, but hasn't been the same since.
In the second half of 2017, Fulmer allowed 29 earned runs in just 49 innings, good for a 5.33 ERA. His WHIP ballooned to 1.25 and his strikeout-to-walk rate plummeted to 2.14.
Last season, as the ace of the Tigers' staff, Fulmer went 3-12 with a 4.69 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. He fell 32 innings short of his 2017 total despite making just one fewer start, and his 4.52 FIP suggests his numbers weren't the result of bad luck.
Fulmer has shown he can be a good pitcher, but his dominance numbers aren't on par with a typical MLB ace. If he can increase his strikeout rate and reduce opponents' hard contact rate -- up to nearly 40 percent last season -- Fulmer should be able to take strides in his at 26 season.
2. Matthew Boyd
2018 stats: 170.1 innings, 8.4 K/9, 4.39 ERA, 1.16 WHIP
In a season with very few bright spots, Matthew Boyd showed some promising signs for the Tigers, piling up 170 innings over 31 starts.
In parts of three previous seasons with the Tigers, Boyd showed flashes of being a solid back-of-the-rotation starter, but his low strikeout rate left him susceptible to big rallies and the occasional disastrous outing.
Last season Boyd upped his strikeout rate to 8.4 batters per nine innings while also decreasing his walk rate from 3.5 to 2.7 free passes per nine innings.
The result was a solid overall campaign for the 27-year-old lefty. Other than Mike Fiers, who was traded to the Oakland Athletics at the deadline, Boyd was the Tigers' best pitcher in 2018.
Boyd went at least six innings in nine of his first 13 starts, never allowing more than four runs in that stretch. Though his strikeout rate was low, he held hitters to a .202 batting average and posted a 3.23 ERA.
A brutal five-start stretch in June and July crippled Boyd's season numbers, as he allowed 25 earned runs in 23 innings and allowed an .892 opponent OPS.
Boyd quietly bounced back, though, striking out 69 batters over 68.1 innings in his next 12 starts, holding batters to a .683 OPS. He walked just 13 batters over that stretch and posted a 3.29 ERA.
Boyd isn't overpowering, and he wouldn't be the No. 2 starter for a team in playoff contention. But he's coming off a solid year that could have been even better.
If Boyd can once again improve on last year's numbers, he'll further cement himself as a member of the Tigers' rotation going forward.
3. Tyson Ross
2018 stats: 149.2 innings, 7.3 K/9, 4.15 ERA, 1.30 WHIP
If the Tigers were getting pre-2016 injury Tyson Ross, he would be the ace of the staff. Instead, they're getting a guy who showed plenty of positive signs in his first season back from shoulder surgery but wasn't near his old self.
From 2013 to 2015, Ross struck out 526 batters in 516.2 innings while posting a 3.13 FIP and 1.23 WHIP. Last season, he struck out just 7.3 batters per nine innings and posted a 4.39 FIP.
Ross cruised through the first half of 2018, striking out 90 batters in 95 innings and holding them to a .222 average. He was inducing swings and misses on 10 percent of his pitches.
Then, Ross allowed 15 runs over seven innings in his next two starts, striking out just two of 39 batters and watching his ERA balloon from 3.32 to 4.41. His final 13 games were solid between the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals, but his swinging strike rate fell to 7 percent and he walked 22 batters compared to 30 strikeouts over 47.2 innings.
The Tigers are hoping Ross simply ran out of gas in his first full season back from surgery. If he can put together a full season reminiscent of last year's first half, this will be a bargain for the Tigers and a valuable trade chip at the deadline.
4. Jordan Zimmermann
2018 stats: 131.1 innings, 7.6 K/9, 4.52 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
Jordan Zimmermann was supposed to be the signing that extended the Tigers' window of contention in 2016, but instead, the contract has turned into an absolute disaster.
Zimmermann has appeared in 73 games for the Tigers, posting a 4.88 FIP, 1.41 WHIP and striking out just 6.4 batters per nine innings. Last season, though his strikeouts jumped -- yes, jumped -- to 7.6 per nine innings, ZImmermann still struggled to keep runs off the board.
This will be the fourth season of a five-year deal the Tigers can't wait to see come off the books. Zimmermann is making $25 million, so he'll certainly be one of the five starters in the Opening Day rotation, even if there are better options.
In three seasons with the Tigers, Zimmermann has posted WARs of 0.2, 0.3 and 0.6, so he's an extremely expensive replacement-level pitcher.
5. Matt Moore
2018 stats: 102 innings, 7.6 K/9, 6.79 ERA, 1.66 WHIP
There's no reason for the Tigers not to take a flier on a pitcher who once had very high upside, but the last two seasons have been an absolute nightmare for Matt Moore.
The former Tampa Bay Rays phenom led MLB in losses and earned runs in 2017 before going to Texas and losing his spot in the starting rotation in 2018.
He wasn't effective as a starter or a reliever for the Rangers, allowing 77 runs in 102 innings and posting a 1.66 WHIP. His strikeouts were relatively low and his walks were high, which isn't a good combination, especially for a pitcher who allowed 11.3 hits per nine innings.
There were no positive signs for Moore in 2018, but the Tigers are hoping he can recapture some of his pre-2014 injury form, when he was an AL All-Star and a rising youngster in the league.
The Tigers would love to see former top prospect Daniel Norris earn a spot in the starting rotation, but he's been very inconsistent since being acquired, along with Boyd, in the David Price trade.
Detroit's top five prospects -- Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Franklin Perez, Alex Faedo and Beau Burrows -- are all right-handed starting pitchers who could contribute at the MLB level in the near future, but not to start 2019.
The organization's No. 9 prospect, Kyle Funkhouser, got an invite to spring training, though, and could have an outside shot to enter the discussion. He'll be 25 years old by Opening Day, so it's nearing the time for his prospect status to turn into MLB production.
He's a strikeout-per-inning pitcher but struggles with control. Funkhouser will try to ride his electric fastball during the spring.
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