DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers revealed the list of players invited to spring training this season, and it’s obvious they will have some critical decisions to make when rounding out the starting rotation: accept another year of bad pitchers or take a chance on upside.
Last season, the starting rotation was a mess because of injuries, inconsistency and a handful of flat-out terrible performances. Many of the same names are up for consideration this year, but the Tigers have added a few more players to the mix.
Here’s a look at the impending battle for the starting rotation.
Next to no chance
Short of striking out about every single batter they face in spring training, many of the team’s young prospects will start the year in the minor leagues.
Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal are the team’s top pitching prospects and will likely be optioned to Double-A or Triple-A. The same story will probably be true for Joey Wentz and Alex Faedo.
Those five players are the foundation of the rebuild. The Tigers have one thing going for them right now, and it’s an elite crop of pitching prospects. There’s no reason for them to rush those players to the MLB level before they’re ready.
They could be up at some point in 2020, but it won’t be for Opening Day.
Franklin Perez obviously won’t be on the Opening Day roster. The Tigers just want him to stay healthy.
Anthony Castro could get a chance soon, but he hasn’t quite mastered Double-A yet, and the Tigers have more established backup options.
The Tigers have three pitchers who are locks for the Opening Day rotation and deserve their spots as long as they remain healthy.
Matt Boyd is the unquestioned ace of the staff. He struck out 11.6 batters per nine innings last season and finished with 3.5 WAR -- making him the most valuable player on the roster.
Behind Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris showed some positive signs in 2019. There weren’t many positives during the 114-loss 2019 season, so two pitchers who combined for 5.2 WAR stood out.
It’s certainly not a playoff-caliber trio, but the Tigers could do worse than Boyd, Turnbull and Norris as the top three members of the starting rotation.
Michael Fulmer is also a proverbial lock once he’s fully returned and rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. The former AL Rookie of the Year had two disappointing seasons before the injury, but the Tigers will likely give him every opportunity to find his previous form.
Last season, the Tigers dealt with injuries to Matt Moore and Tyson Ross that limited the pair to nine combined starts. When the team tried to fill those gaps, there was nobody ready to step in.
Al Avila has done a better job making sure that doesn’t happen this season, signing a handful of players with some MLB experience to prevent getting caught unprepared. But some of those options are simply stopgaps.
One pitcher who has gone from ace to stopgap over the last decade is Jordan Zimmermann. Since signing with the Tigers in 2016, Zimmermann has struggled. He posted a 3.14 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 1.135 WHIP and 4.31 strikeouts per walk in his five full seasons with the Washington Nationals. In four seasons with Detroit, Zimmermann owns a 5.61 ERA, 4.86 FIP, 1.431 WHIP and 2.99 strikeouts per walk.
His contract will expire after 2020, but the Tigers don’t necessarily have to wait that long to replace him. He’s going to make $25 million whether he makes the roster or not, and the Tigers might be willing to accept their losses for a year.
Newly signed Ivan Nova is a less extreme example. The 33-year-old has been decent throughout his whole career and gives the Tigers an established innings eater. In 2019, he gave the Chicago White Sox 187 innings but finished with a 4.72 ERA, 4.98 FIP, 1.455 WHIP and only 114 strikeouts.
Nobody in the American League gave up more than Nola’s 225 hits. He’s firmly established as a fine back-of-the-rotation option, but he doesn’t have upside for the future. There’s no way Nova is a member of the Tigers’ starting rotation by the time they’re ready to contend for the postseason.
Avila also picked up a pair of less established pitchers last year. Tim Adleman hasn’t pitched in an MLB game since 2017 and is 32 years old. Dario Agrazal debuted last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates but struck out only 41 batters in 73.1 innings with a 5.90 FIP. Both got invites to spring training but don’t have much long-term upside.
Shao-Ching Chiang is a former Cleveland Indians prospect who spent parts of eight seasons between rookie ball and Triple-A. He posted a 4.30 ERA, a 1.248 WHIP and 6.3 K/9 in 663.2 innings before being signed to a minor league deal with the Tigers in December.
Even though he got an invite to spring training, Chiang probably isn’t going to make the MLB roster. He has a career 6.3 K/9 and 1.248 WHIP.
Fair warning: These upside starting pitchers don’t have Mize- or Manning-type upside. But they’ve either shown positive signs in the past or are enough of an unknown that there’s still a chance they could be useful pieces for competitive Tigers teams in the future.
The most interesting option is Zack Godley, who signed a minor league deal with the Tigers in December.
Avila was able to land Godley to such a low-risk deal because he’s had two bad seasons in a row. Godley posted a 597 ERA, a 1.500 WHIP and saw his strikeout and walk rates turn sharply in the wrong direction last year.
But in 2018, Godley showed some promising signs. He finished with a 3.82 FIP and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings. His underlying numbers suggest he fell victim to some bad luck, but the walks were also way too high.
The Tigers are hoping Godley can get his walk rate back down around 3 free passes per nine innings, which is where he was during a breakout 2017 campaign. Godley posted a 3.37 ERA, a 3.41 FIP and a 1.142 WHIP that year while striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings.
Godley was a 4.2 WAR player in 2017 and has been right around replacement level since. At his best, he’s an elite ground ball pitcher who misses bats at a high rate. If there’s any chance the Tigers can recapture some of his previous form, they should give him a shot.
If the Tigers prefer an in-house option, they could stick with Tyler Alexander, who held his own last season as a rookie. Alexander struck out 47 batters in 53.2 innings and posted a 4.15 FIP. The problem: He gives up way too many hits. Batters averaged 11.4 hits per nine innings against Alexander, which inflated his WHIP to nearly 1.4 despite a low walk rate.
There were some encouraging signs for Alexander last season, but if he gives up an .834 opponent OPS and only gets whiffs on 9% of his pitches, it could get ugly.
Two of the team’s top 20 prospects could get a look this spring because they’re on the 40-man roster and have been in the organization for nearly five years.
Beau Burrows was the team’s first-round pick in 2015 and started off his professional career among the game’s top 100 prospects. He fell off the map in 2018, though, and last season was basically washed out by injury. Even when Burrows returned to the mound in Toledo, he wasn’t the same.
Luckily, Burrows is still only 23 years old and, being at Triple-A, he’s only one step away from the MLB roster. He needs to get back up around a strikeout per inning and control the walk rate.
The Tigers were especially excited to draft Kyle Funkhouser in the fourth round of the 2016 draft after he elected not to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers despite being a first-round pick in 2015.
Funkhouser is known for his velocity, and though that carried him through the lower levels of the minors, Triple-A has been an unmitigated disaster.
After getting a promotion to Toledo midway through 2018, Funkhouser started 2019 with the Mud Hens. He allowed 60 earned runs in 63.1 innings this season, walking nearly a batter per inning and allowing far too many hits.
The strikeout rate has remained high throughout his minor league career, which is why the Tigers haven’t given up on Funkhouser. But he’ll be 26 years old by Opening Day, so it’s about time for him to scratch the MLB surface.
Finally, a name that’s unfamiliar to most Tigers fans: Rony Garcia. The No. 1 pick in this year’s Rule 5 draft, Garcia has to be on the Tigers’ roster or they’ll forfeit him back to the New York Yankees. The question is whether he’ll be able to crack the starting rotation right away.
Garcia, 22, had a nice 2019 season with the Trenton Thunder. He posted a 4.44 ERA, a 1.253 WHIP and struck out 104 batters in 105.1 innings. Garcia had manageable walk and home run rates to go with a 12% swinging strike rate between Single-A and Double-A.
While he feels destined for a bullpen role at the jump, the Tigers should see what he has to offer as a starter during the spring. Cashing in on every opportunity is key to a successful rebuild, and having the No. 1 pick in the Rule 5 draft was an opportunity for the Tigers to add a contributor. We’ll see if Garcia becomes an early factor.
Boyd will be the team’s Opening Day starter and ace, as long as he stays healthy. Turnbull and Norris will be members of the rotation in some capacity, even if Norris remains in the opener role in which he flourished at the end of 2019.
The final two spots should be up for grabs, but anyone who’s followed this rebuild can see the writing on the wall.
Unless one of the younger players explodes during the spring, Zimmermann and Nova seem most likely to round out the rotation when the Tigers come north from Lakeland. They’re veterans. Zimmermann is making $25 million. Nova is a proven innings eater.
That’s not the decision I would make, but it’s justifiable for a team that’s still nowhere near contention. The Tigers risk some of the upside players getting passed by Mize, Manning, Wentz and Faedo without ever truly seeing what they have to offer, but if all those prospects work out, it’ll be a moot point anyway.
It will be another long summer for baseball fans in Detroit, but there’s at least something to look forward to with young players working their way toward the major league roster. If the rotation looks unexciting in April, the team is simply playing it safe and buying more time.
Only when some of the top pitchers in the system take the mound at Comerica Park will the team’s record actually begin to turn around.