DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have a good problem on their hands: too much pitching. With a full starting rotation at the MLB level and a flock of top prospects due for promotions, the competition for even the Triple-A and Double-A rotations is heating up this spring.
It’s no secret the Tigers have some of the best minor league starting pitching depth of any organization in baseball. They have three pitchers widely considered among the top 50 prospects in the game and three others who could move into that realm with strong 2020 seasons.
Now that they’ve been in the organization for a couple of years, most of these top prospects are starting to inch toward their MLB debuts. There are probably 12 or 13 pitchers in the organization who deserve to be at the MLB or Triple-A levels to start the season, but obviously, there isn’t enough room.
A lot can still happen this spring. Detroit could get struck by the injury bug, like when it lost Matt Moore and Tyson Ross early last season. Performance could also force the coaching staff’s hand one way or the other.
But as it stands now, here’s a look at what the starting rotations should look like when the season begins.
There’s no suspense at the top of the organization’s pitching chart. Matt Boyd will be the ace of the MLB staff, and barring an injury, he’ll get the ball on Opening Day.
Boyd struck out 238 batters in 185.1 innings last season while issuing just 50 walks. Those underlying numbers are elite, but he allowed a league-leading 39 home runs, which resulted in a 4.32 FIP.
The strikeout gains are immensely encouraging for Boyd, but the home run barrage wasn’t necessarily bad luck. Boyd is pitching up in the zone with his fastball, both to set up hitters and to put them away. But when a pitcher works up so often, especially when his velocity tops out in the low 90s, he’ll be susceptible to home runs.
Especially in today’s environment, being home run prone is a problem.
Boyd will always have upside as long as he strikes out nearly five times as many batters as he walks, but he’s still a step behind the top tier of pitchers in the game.
Last season, Spencer Turnbull was a surprise Rookie of the Year candidate and the second-best pitcher on the roster. He made 30 starts, struck out nearly a batter per inning and had a 3.99 FIP.
A few brief injury stints threw Turnbull off throughout the season. His walk rate was a touch high at 3.6 per nine innings, and his WHIP ballooned to 1.436 as a result.
But overall, it was a positive first season. His unbelievable 3-17 record was a product of the team’s struggles.
Turnbull has been electric so far this spring, allowing just one hit while striking out seven and facing the minimum through five innings. If he can take another step forward, he’ll be a solid No. 2 pitcher behind Boyd.
The reason my confidence level in Daniel Norris isn’t 100% is because of how the Tigers used him down the stretch last season. He was technically a starter, but he only pitched three innings at a time, and he flourished in that role.
Norris is an overwhelming favorite to begin the season in the starting rotation, but in the off chance he struggles the entire spring -- he surrendered four earned runs on six hits in two innings Monday -- the Tigers could possibly decide to move him back to the bullpen in favor of someone who earns their way onto the roster.
In 20 appearances as a conventional starter last season, Norris posted a 4.79 ERA with an .805 opponent OPS and a 10% swinging strike rate.
When the Tigers decided to manage his innings down the stretch and limit him to three innings per start, he was much more effective. Norris allowed just 20 hits and seven walks in 27 innings while striking out 27 batters. His swinging strike rate soared to 14% and batters hit just .208 with a .683 OPS.
Ideally, Norris would carry that success into a full-time starter’s workload. If not, the Tigers might go back to what worked and pair him with a long reliever every fifth game.
The Tigers didn’t need to make any big moves for the starting rotation this off-season, so they settled for veteran innings eater Ivan Nova.
Nova was a fine signing for the Tigers. He posted a 2.1 WAR last season despite allowing the most hits in the league, striking out just 5.5 batters per nine innings and finishing with a 4.72 ERA.
There’s no doubt Nova will begin the season in the starting rotation, as long as he’s healthy. Will he stay in the rotation throughout the year? Not necessarily. The Tigers only invested $1.5 million in him, so it would be easy to replace him with a prospect if that time comes.
Nova is here to help the Tigers get through 2020. He won’t be fantastic, but he’ll be serviceable more times than not.
Jordan Zimmermann will be in the Tigers’ starting rotation because they owe him $25 million, but I’m leaving open that 5% chance in case they realize they have to pay his contract either way, so they might as well try someone else.
There’s not much more to say about Zimmermann. He’s posted a 5.61 ERA, a 1.431 WHIP and a 6.4 K/9 over four years in Detroit. He’s still on the roster because he’s the second-most expensive player on the team. When this season ends, so will his tenure in Detroit.
Could he be the one displaced by a prospect later in the season, when the financial implications are less severe? Possibly. An injury seems more likely, though, as Zimmermann has never made 30 starts for the Tigers.
Toledo Mud Hens
Nobody has better odds than Alex Faedo of starting the season in Toledo. The former 2017 first-round pick has spent the last season and a half in Double-A Erie -- most recently striking out 10.5 batters per nine innings in 2019.
Faedo has a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate -- is K/BB is actually higher than Boyd’s, at 5.36 -- but like Boyd, home runs have been a problem. Faedo allowed 17 homers in 115.1 innings last season, which bumped his ERA up near 4.00 despite his excellent underlying numbers.
Still, Faedo was hard to hit and posted a 1.118 WHIP. He’s obviously ready to take his chances at the next level, and could very well be the first of these prospects to see MLB action if all goes well.
Like Faedo, Matt Manning spent the entire 2019 season in Erie, racking up 133.2 elite innings. Manning was named the team’s Minor League Player of the Year thanks to a 2.56 ERA, a 0.980 WHIP and 10 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Tigers have done a great job with Manning, helping him through the transition from high-upside athlete to legitimate pitcher. His walks were at an all-time low last season and he was remarkably consistent.
Manning is considered the top prospect in the organization by many outlets, and he’ll be just one step away from Detroit when this season begins.
Even though he threw a no-hitter in his first Double-A outing, Casey Mize is much less established at that level than Faedo and Manning.
In his first full season of professional ball, Mize posted a 2.55 ERA and 0.942 WHIP while striking out 106 batters in 109.1 innings across Single-A and Double-A.
The only justification for keeping Mize in Erie would be the way he finished 2019. In nine Double-A starts before a shoulder injury, Mize allowed just 49 batters to reach base while striking out 50 in 52 innings. Hitters posted a .191 average and a .504 OPS while swinging and missing at 14% of his offerings.
After the injury, he surrendered 21 earned runs in 26.2 innings and allowed an .846 OPS.
He only made 15 total starts at Double-A, so it’s possible the team would want him to at least start the season in Erie and reassert his dominance there before bumping him up to the International League.
But it feels more likely Mize will join Faedo and Manning in Toledo.
Mize is the team’s consensus No. 1 prospect and Manning is the trendy No. 1 prospect, but Tarik Skubal has more momentum than either of his right-handed counterparts.
Skubal is the talk of Tigers spring training after striking out three batters and allowing just one base runner in two impressive innings against the Boston Red Sox. He showcased his devastating off-speed pitches and capped the outing with a 98 mph fastball.
A left-hander who can reach the upper 90s with two strong off-speed pitches is guaranteed to be a top prospect. One who can strike out 17.4 batters per nine innings over nine Double-A starts earns Skubal hype.
Again, it was only nine Double-A starts. But 82 strikeouts in 42.1 innings is more dominant a stretch than Mize or Manning have ever experienced. Skubal wasn’t a first-round pick, but his results last season were the most encouraging of any prospect in the system. An immediate promotion to Triple-A wouldn’t be unwarranted, though a little more time in Erie would also be justified.
I know -- Faedo, Manning, Mize and Skubal are much more exciting names than Tyler Alexander, but the Tigers aren’t just going to dump anyone who isn’t on the top 30 list.
Alexander made 13 appearances and eight starts for the Tigers last season, posting a 4.15 FIP, a 1.398 WHIP and 47 strikeouts in 53.2 innings. He wasn’t great, but he was a serviceable fill-in who had four very good outings in eight starts.
He doesn’t miss bats at a high rate or induce weak contact, but Alexander throws strikes, and that will likely earn him another chance as soon anyone in the MLB rotation suffers an injury.
Would the Tigers demote Beau Burrows, their 2015 first-round pick, in order to make room for younger prospects? They absolutely should, based on performance.
Burrows’ struggles in 2018 were enough to knock him off the top 100 prospects list, but they weren’t enough to keep the Tigers from promoting him. While battling injuries in 2019, Burrows made 15 starts in Triple-A, and the results were ugly.
Burrows walked 4.4 batters per nine innings in Toledo, which is way too high for a pitcher of his strikeout caliber. He posted a 1.531 WHIP and a 5.51 ERA and was victimized by home runs.
At 23 years old, there’s still hope for Burrows to get his career turned around. But he’s never had success above Single-A Lakeland, so it feels like the Tigers rushed him a bit.
If Burrows can master Double-A next season, he might be able to regain his place among the team’s top starting pitching prospects. If not, the others will pass him by.
Burrows wasn’t the only prospect who struggled at Triple-A. Kyle Funkhouser allowed 60 earned runs in 63.1 innings, with a 2.100 WHIP and 7.7 walks per nine innings.
Injuries played a part in his struggles, but those numbers are downright alarming.
Funkhouser limits home runs and has a high strikeout rate, so there’s still hope for a bounce-back season. He’ll be 26 years old by Opening Day, so the clock is ticking on him to hold off a move to the bullpen -- a move that’s starting to look more and more likely.
Funkhouser throws hard and has enough upside that the Los Angeles Dodgers once selected him in the first round of the 2015 draft. He seems like a good candidate for the bullpen if he can’t cut down on the walks.
Tigers fans desperately wanted a hitter in return for Shane Greene last season, but instead, they got another exciting pitching prospect.
Joey Wentz was only in the organization for five starts, but those starts were very impressive. He allowed just 20 hits, four walks and six runs in 25.2 innings while striking out 37 batters and posting a 2.10 ERA and 0.935 WHIP.
Wentz got swings and misses on 19% of his pitches with the SeaWolves, including two starts of at least 20 whiffs.
The former first-round pick was a top 50 prospect in baseball as recently as 2018, and he appeared to regain that form when he joined Mize, Manning, Faedo and Skubal in the SeaWolves rotation. The Tigers need to see how he reacts to suddenly starting the season as the ace of the Erie rotation while the other four move onto Triple-A.
When Mize went down with a shoulder injury, Anthony Castro did a solid job filling in as a starter for the SeaWolves. He made two-thirds of his appearances as a starter last season and figures to get another chance to do so in 2020.
Castro struck out 116 batters in 102.1 innings, but that came with 65 free passes. He needs to bring down his 1.368 WHIP, which is directly tied to his high walk rate.
Castro was much better as a starter, posting a 3.23 ERA, a 1.239 WHIP and 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 18 starts. Batters hit .197 against him with a .646 OPS in his starts, compared to an .869 OPS when he came out of the bullpen.
A full season of positive results as a starter would cement Castro as a secondary prospect behind the elite tier mentioned above.
Elvin Rodriguez quietly put together a strong season in Lakeland last year, making 23 starts and posting a 3.77 ERA and 1.175 WHIP in 133.2 innings.
Those numbers are deserving of a promotion for the 21-year-old right-hander. He’s not a great swing-and-miss pitcher, but his 11% swinging strike rate is at least average. Rodriguez was able to limit the free passes and induce weak contact, especially late in the season.
In his last eight starts, Rodriguez walked just nine batters in 47 innings with a 12% swinging strike rate. There are enough encouraging signs to give him a shot against Double-A hitters.
Others to consider
Here are some of the pitchers who will make up the Lakeland and West Michigan rotations (with my predictions in parentheses) or could compete for a spot in Erie this season.
- Franklin Perez (Lakeland)
- Paul Richan (Lakeland)
- Garrett Hill (Lakeland)
- Wilkel Hernandez (Lakeland)
- Robbie Welhaf (Lakeland)
- Hugh Smith (West Michigan)
- Brad Bass (West Michigan)
- Carlos Guzman (West Michigan)
- Xavier Javier (West Michigan)
- Carson Lance (West Michigan)
- Logan Shore
- Jesus Rodriguez
- Tom de Blok
- Gio Arriera
- Adam Wolf
- Chance Kirby
- Jack O’Loughlin
- Marco Jimenez
- Chavez Fernander
- Keider Montero