DETROIT – When spring training resumed at the start of July, the Detroit Tigers had their starting rotation set in stone.
Matt Boyd was the ace. Spencer Turnbull was an up-and-comer. Daniel Norris was the No. 3. Jordan Zimmermann and Ivan Nova were just getting us through two-fifths of the games.
Then, Norris tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19) and Zimmermann suffered an injury that could very well end his time as a starting pitcher in Detroit. Boyd and Turnbull have been excellent in summer camp, and Nova is still healthy, but who will make up the last 40% of the rotation?
As the clock ticked down on Friday’s opener and Norris still hadn’t reported to camp, the Tigers appeared ready to turn the now-healthy Michael Fulmer into a starter who would give way to long reliever Tyler Alexander every fifth game. With rosters expanded to 30 players for the first two weeks of the season, the team could afford to use two roster spots for what would essentially be one starting pitcher’s worth of work.
Then, Zimmermann went on the 45-day injured list.
There’s no reason to sugarcoat the results. Nobody wanted to see Zimmermann suffer another injury, but his time in Detroit has been a disaster any way you slice it. He averaged a 3.14 ERA, 3.30 FIP and 1.14 WHIP in 31 starts per season his five full years with the Washington Nationals from 2011-2015.
Immediately after that stretch, he averaged a 5.61 ERA, 4.86 FIP and 1.43 WHIP in 23.75 starts per season for four years in Detroit. The main takeaway from his time in the Old English D is that he was ineffective, and the second takeaway is that he wasn’t even an innings eater because of injuries.
In the aforementioned five seasons with Washington, Zimmermann posted a combined 18.9 WAR. If he doesn’t return in 2020, the Tigers will have gotten 1.2 WAR for a $110 million contract over five seasons.
Zimmermann’s injury, while not much of a blow to the team’s slim hopes of being competitive during the shortened season, complicates things.
The Tigers have a handful of options and little time to choose one.
Split Fulmer and Alexander
Proposed rotation: Boyd, Turnbull, Fulmer, Alexander, Nova
The option that seems most likely is the Tigers simply split up Fulmer and Alexander. Instead of combining the two as a piggyback duo every fifth day, they would each get their own spots in the rotation.
This makes sense because the Tigers are short on time. Both Fulmer and Alexander are stretched out to at least four or five innings at this point and could easily handle the workload, especially with an expanded bullpen.
Also, they’re both probably just plain better than Zimmermann -- and Nova, for that matter.
Even at his worst, Fulmer was a 1.0 WAR player who kept the Tigers in most games and worked into the sixth inning. Alexander racked up 1.0 WAR in just 13 appearances last season.
If both Fulmer and Alexander begin the season in the starting rotation, the Tigers could also keep an extra player in the bullpen, because Alexander wouldn’t occupy one of those slots. It’s been a crowded competition among relievers this summer, so that could be looked at as a positive.
Promote a long reliever
Proposed rotation: Boyd, Turnbull, Fulmer and Alexander, Nova, Beau Burrows and/or Shao-Ching Chiang
Fulmer had knee surgery and Tommy John surgery since 2018 and hasn’t pitched in an MLB game in 21 months. Tigers brass might want to ease him into game action using the Fulmer/Alexander combo, even now.
If so, the Tigers have a couple of former starting pitchers competing for bullpen spots who could possibly fill in until Norris is ready to return or for the entire shortened season.
Beau Burrows is an interesting choice. He is a former first-round pick and was a top 100 MLB prospect as recently as 2018. But injuries led to inconsistencies which snowballed into a career free fall for Burrows, culminating in a March spring training outing so bad that he was designated for assignment weeks before the season was to begin.
The three-month layoff was actually a positive for Burrows, who returned this month looking much closer to the pitcher the Tigers selected No. 22 overall in 2015. He’s throwing more strikes and getting weaker contact, though the swing-and-miss rate is lower than the Tigers would hope.
Burrows isn’t stretched out as much as the presumed starters, but he’s been working multiple innings in summer camp and has been a starter his entire career. It’s not unreasonable to think he could work up toward four innings his first time through the rotation and get up to five or six by the time rosters have to be cut down to 28 players.
Shao-Ching Chiang is in a similar spot, with less of a prospect pedigree. Since he came over from the Cleveland Indians, the Tigers have been enamored with his mid- to upper-90s fastball but less satisfied with the actual results.
Chiang has the kind of stuff the Tigers think would play up in a relief role, but again, maybe he could return to starting in a pinch.
The problem with both Burrows and Chiang is although they’ve been starters, there’s not much reason to believe they would be effective. Maybe that’s not the main concern for a Tigers team expected to finish well below .500, but it could be a major mental setback to throw Burrows or Chiang into the fire if they’re not ready.
If the Tigers do go in this direction, though, it’s likely one of the two would start and the other would come in, possibly after three innings, much like how they used Norris at the end of 2019. Giving Burrows and Chiang each one trip through the opposing lineup before handing it off to the bullpen might be the best way to protect them from getting shelled while also getting through every fifth game.
Proposed rotation: Boyd, Turnbull, Mize, Fulmer/Alexander, Nova
For the record, it doesn’t seem like there’s any chance of this happening, but top prospect Casey Mize has at least earned consideration for the role.
He’s clearly one of the three best pitchers in the organization already, but the Tigers won’t want to lose a year of control over their future ace just for an extra couple of starts -- and it’s hard to blame them for that.
Since service time is prorated over the 60-game season, the Tigers would only need to keep Mize down for about a week to get an extra season of control. If they keep him down for the full year, he could come up late next April and be under control through 2027.
As maddening as it’s sure to be watching Nova give up line drive after line drive after line drive this season while Mize practices in Toledo, there’s no reason for the Tigers to mortgage the future to be a few games better in a two-month 2020 season that might not even finish.
Mize is by far the best option on this list in terms of making the 2020 rotation better. But he’s also by far the least likely candidate to actually get the job out of the gates.