DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers lost another starting pitcher to injury this weekend, opening a new hole in an already decimated rotation. Will they look to the minor leagues, free agency or even the trade market to fill that vacancy?
The answer hinges on how serious the team is about staying competitive throughout the second half. With a sweep of the Minnesota Twins over the weekend, Detroit is just eight games below .500 -- quite an achievement after dropping to 15 games below at one point in mid-May.
Detroit’s starting staff was already taking on water before Jose Urena went down with a groin injury Saturday. Matt Boyd and Spencer Turnbull have been out for weeks and remain without a clear timetable for return, forcing the team to stick with Urena through a stretch of allowing 27 earned runs over 17.2 innings.
Now that Urena has landed on the 10-day injured list, the Tigers will have to dive even deeper into their organizational depth.
Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal -- both facing innings restrictions -- are the only two left standing from the Opening Day rotation, and the Tigers are lucky to have gotten such a massive lift from Wily Peralta. Beyond that trio, the final two spots currently belong to long reliever Tyler Alexander and a great big question mark.
There are a few options in the minor leagues, and that feels like the route the Tigers will probably choose. But if they’re really trying to hammer home a winning culture over the next couple of months, they might need to expand their search.
Here are nine starting pitchers the Tigers could consider.
Realistically, the Tigers will most likely turn to Manning to fill one of the openings, even though his first taste of MLB action has been a bit rocky.
Manning has allowed exactly two runs in four of his five starts. That’s proof that the game log page doesn’t always tell the full story. Overall, the 23-year-old has allowed 17 runs, 27 hits, eight walks and three home runs across 22 innings. Manning has struck out just nine of the 101 batters he’s faced.
The underlying numbers show Manning has induced swings and misses on just 6% of his pitches while allowing hard contact on 41% of balls in play. While his surface numbers are skewed by a nine-run ambush at the hands of Cleveland last month, the expected stats show Manning hasn’t been much better than his 6.95 ERA and 1.59 WHIP.
So far, Manning has been able to keep his head above water in three of five MLB starts. But it shouldn’t take the Tigers’ revamped analytics department too much digging to find these red flags.
Mark Leiter Jr.
Perhaps the best option if the Tigers are set on going the minor-league route is Leiter, who has allowed one run or fewer in five straight starts at Triple-A Toledo.
Leiter isn’t going to give the Tigers much depth -- he’s topped out at 68 pitches in Triple-A and gone exactly four or five innings in each start. But since his promotion in mid-June, the 30-year-old has allowed just eight runs on 16 hits and eight walks in 27 innings. That’s good for a 2.67 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP and .172 opponent batting average.
Leiter has struck out 34 batters with a 14% swinging strike rate over his six Triple-A starts. He’s never had any success at the MLB level, and his last appearance came in 2018, but beggars can’t be choosers. The Tigers are desperate for someone who can take the ball every fifth day and keep them in the game, even if he has to piggyback with Alexander or Kyle Funkhouser.
Pinto was promoted to Triple-A in early June after posting a 3.18 ERA and 1.059 WHIP in 28.1 innings with the Erie SeaWolves. He’s gone on to allow just eight runs in 33 innings with Toledo.
Pinto is only striking out 7.3 batters per nine innings this season, but his low home run and walk rates have allowed him to survive. In his last four Triple-A starts, Pinto has gone five shutout innings, seven shutout innings, seven shutout innings and five two-run innings -- for a total of two runs allowed in 24 innings.
During that four-start span, Pinto has a 0.75 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and .543 opponent OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).
It feels like a longshot because there are a handful of playoff contenders eyeing Hamels, but the Tigers should at least make him an offer. Nobody can offer him more job security than a team with two rotation openings.
I wrote last week about why Hamels was a worthy gamble for the Tigers, and that case is further strengthened by Urena’s injury. The 37-year-old worked out for several MLB teams and is expected to sign in the near future.
Hamels has been an all-star at his best, but even in recent seasons, he’s been useful. Over his past four seasons, Hamels has posted a 3.94 ERA, 4.40 FIP (fielding independent pitching), 1.282 WHIP and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He was a 3.0 WAR (wins above replacement) pitcher in 2019, a 3.4 WAR pitcher in 2018 and a 3.0 WAR pitcher in 2017.
The former Cy Young winner and longtime Detroit Tiger fully earned his unemployment over the past two seasons, but even when he wasn’t getting the job done, he was always eating innings.
Porcello, 32, posted a 5.64 ERA and 1.508 WHIP for the New York Mets last season, and his numbers weren’t much better in Boston the year before.
Still, he managed to pitch 59 innings in the pandemic-shortened 2020 and 174.1 innings in 2019. Porcello has made at least 32 starts in every full season since 2015. There’s little doubt he could at least be better than Urena.
The obvious question is whether Porcello is even ready to join an MLB rotation, and how long it would take him to get fully stretched out. If he wouldn’t be able to give the Tigers some length until mid-August, then they might as well go with an internal option and hope for Boyd or Turnbull to return.
Did you know Sanchez was a 3.1 WAR player in 2018 and a 3.3 WAR player in 2019? The former Tiger really struggled from 2015-2017, but reinvented himself for the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals.
He struggled during the shortened 2020 campaign and didn’t find a home this offseason. At 37 years old, it doesn’t appear Sanchez has officially retired, and if Hamels can make a return to the big leagues, why can’t Sanchez? Like with Porcello, it all depends on if and when he could even be ready to pitch at this level.
Al Avila should still have Porcello and Sanchez saved in his contacts. It wouldn’t cost the Tigers anything to pick up the phone.
The Tigers aren’t going to give up any meaningful prospects to patch up the 2021 rotation, so a trade target would have to be almost free -- think of a middling starter on a losing team.
Kelly is the exception. It’s possible he could generate some interest from contending teams this month while also coming at a reasonable price. He’s sporting a 4.46 ERA, 1.222 WHIP and just 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
Kelly, 32, is in a unique situation contractually. Since he didn’t debut until his age 30 season, he’s got three more years of team control remaining after 2021. Next season is a $5.25 million team option, followed by two years of arbitration. Since he’s been a 3.0 WAR pitcher across 25 outings since the start of 2020, the Diamondbacks (or whoever trades for Kelly) will likely pick up that option.
If the Tigers target Kelly, they would have to pay a little more than a rental price. But beyond 2021, this gives them a chance to add a cheap starter to their rotation for the next several years. It could be a savvy move.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Minor is someone the Tigers could acquire for next to nothing. He’s having a disappointing season, owed $10 million in 2022 and might not have a spot in the Kansas City rotation next season.
The Royals have Brad Keller, Danny Duffy and Brady Singer ahead of Minor on the priority list, and prospects Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar have all gotten a taste of MLB action this season. There’s not much room for a 33-year-old with a 5.67 ERA.
So why would the Tigers want Minor? Desperation and necessity, for the most part. Minor has lasted more than five innings in 12 of 19 starts this season, and he’s kept the Royals in the game for the majority of those starts. For someone they could probably get for free, that’s at least something.
While he leads the majors in earned runs allowed, Minor has been the victim of some bad luck this season. He owns a much more respectable 4.36 FIP to go along with a 1.317 WHIP and about a strikeout per inning. He doesn’t issue many walks, and his 0.2 WAR is better than Urena’s (-0.6) or Manning’s (-0.1).
It’s not clear if the Los Angeles Angels are buyers or sellers this deadline, but either way, they probably don’t feel too attached to Bundy. The 28-year-old has been awful this season, posting a 6.78 ERA and 1.453 WHIP en route to losing his spot in a bad starting rotation.
It feels like the perfect time for a team such as the Tigers to give Bundy a change of scenery. Last season, he posted a 3.29 ERA, 2.95 FIP and 1.036 WHIP while striking out 9.9 batters per nine innings. Bundy has maintained a low walk rate this season, but the home runs have completely buried him.
He’s a free agent at the end of 2021, and the Angels have already demoted him to the bullpen, so the price tag should be low. We’re talking garage sale cassette tape cheap.
Pitchers much older and less proven than Bundy have revitalized their careers following trades. This would be a low risk, high reward gamble for the Tigers.