Detroit Tigers start spring with 9 options, but Opening Day starting rotation seems locked up

Without Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, who opens season in starting rotation?

Joey Wentz #43 of the Detroit Tigers throws a pitch in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park on October 02, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Mike Mulholland, 2022 Getty Images)

DETROIT – When pitchers and catchers showed up to Detroit Tigers‘ spring camp last week, two centerpieces of the organization’s long rebuild were notably absent.

Casey Mize, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2018, and Tarik Skubal, this era’s most successful call-up, are both rehabbing from major surgeries. Mize will miss the entire 2023 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, while Skubal’s timetable is less clear after a flexor tendon procedure.

Skubal developed into the ace of the starting rotation before being shut down last season, while Mize served as the face of the rebuild during his rapid ascent through the minors. Losing both placed another road block in front of a team that hasn’t had much go its way the last nine years.

Luckily, the Tigers were prepared for this situation -- well, as prepared as can be expected. Even after using first-round draft picks on Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, and Mize, the organization prioritized acquiring and developing minor-league pitchers.

So even without Skubal and Mize, the Tigers enter spring training with nine players on the 40-man roster who have spent time in an MLB rotation. The top five in that pecking order feels pretty secure, but if the injury bug bites again, who could enter the mix?

READ: Spring training optimism? 9 years into rebuild, Detroit Tigers fans left hanging again

Let’s take a look at the candidates in order of their likelihood of making the rotation.

Eduardo Rodriguez

  • Rotation status: Lock (if healthy)
  • 2022 stats: 91 innings, 72 strikeouts, 34 walks, 4.05 ERA, 4.43 FIP, 1.33 WHIP

There are only a couple of pitchers who, if healthy, are guaranteed to make the Opening Day starting rotation regardless of spring performance.

The first is Eduardo Rodriguez, who is coming off a tumultuous first season in Detroit. After the team invested $77 million to lock up “E-Rod” for five years, he made just 17 starts and wasn’t overly effective.

Over his first seven starts, Rodriguez pitched worse than his numbers suggested. Although he had a 3.72 ERA and four quality starts in that span, he allowed seven unearned runs (for a total of 23 runs in 38.2 innings) and struggled to miss bats (7% swinging strike rate, 7.9 K/9).

Rodriguez missed more than three months after his eighth start, which ended due to injury after he allowed six of seven batters to reach base in the first inning. His absence was extended when, for several weeks, team officials admitted they hadn’t heard from him as he tended to personal matters.

When he returned, Rodriguez posted a 3.81 ERA, 4.75 FIP, and 1.33 WHIP across nine games, while striking out just 38 batters in 52 innings.

Here’s the good news: Rodriguez is just a few years removed from a top-10 Cy Young season, and one year removed from being an above-average starting pitcher.

In 2021, Rodriguez struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings and posted a 3.32 FIP across 157.2 innings. Those numbers, combined with a 203.1-inning masterpiece in 2019, are what attracted the Tigers to “E-Rod” in the first place.

Since he’s due to make $14 million this season, Rodriguez will go into spring training with a rotation spot already locked up. If he can put a strange 2022 season behind him, he could be a Comeback Player of the Year-type revelation for the Tigers.

Spencer Turnbull

  • Rotation status: Lock (if healthy)
  • 2022 stats: None (Tommy John surgery)
Spencer Turnbull #56 of the Detroit Tigers throws a pitch against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park on May 29, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

There’s never been a time when Spencer Turnbull was in the Tigers’ rotation that he wasn’t effective. The problem has been his ability to stay in the rotation.

Turnbull’s latest (and cruelest) twist of injury fate came on June 4, 2021, when he left a strong start against the Chicago White Sox just 17 days after throwing the team’s first no-hitter in a decade. Detroit announced that Turnbull needed Tommy John surgery, and he hasn’t taken the mound since.

A full 20 months have passed, and now, Turnbull is ready to give it another shot.

In his first full season with the Tigers in 2019, Turnbull posted an unsightly 3-17 record and 4.61 ERA. But the underlying numbers were strong. Turnbull struck out nearly a batter per inning while maintaining a FIP under 4.00.

For his career, Turnbull owns a 4.25 ERA, 3.63 FIP, and 1.323 WHIP across 271.1 innings.

Now 30 years old, it feels like now-or-never time for Turnbull to establish himself as a middle-of-the-rotation arm who can make it through a full season. The Tigers probably aren’t going to push him too far (his career high is 148.1 innings in 2019), but if he can focus on delivering quality, the quantity can come later.

Matt Manning

  • Rotation status: Virtual lock
  • 2022 stats: 63 innings, 48 strikeouts, 19 walks, 3.43 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 1.175 WHIP

Manning, like most of the pitchers in the Tigers’ rotation, spent half of 2022 on the injured list. That’s the bad news. The good news is he performed much better when he actually did toe the rubber.

As a 23-year-old rookie in 2021, Manning allowed 55 runs, 96 hits, and 33 walks in 85.1 innings. Those numbers are concerning even before factoring in that he only struck out 57 batters.

His strikeout problems are far from fixed: Manning’s 2022 rate of 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings simply won’t cut it at the MLB level. But his swinging strike rate rose to 9%, which is a baby step toward the much more impressive bat missing abilities he showcased consistently in the minor leagues.

At the very least, Manning cut down on the walks and hard contact. His xERA (expected ERA), dropped from 5.47 to a more manageable 4.00, while all the other underlying metrics made progress.

Manning still has a long way to go to live up to his prospect hype, but he’s shown enough in 148.1 MLB innings to stick with the team out of spring training, as long as his March isn’t disastrous.

Matthew Boyd

  • Rotation status: Virtual lock
  • 2022 stats: 13.1 innings, 13 strikeouts, 8 walks, 1.35 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 0.975 WHIP

Matthew Boyd and the Tigers split up before 2022 after parts of seven seasons together, and it didn’t work out for either side.

Boyd, whose 2021 got cut short by injury, signed with the San Francisco Giants but never suited up before getting traded to the Seattle Mariners late in the season. He only appeared in 10 games out of the bullpen.

The Tigers, meanwhile, watched pitcher after pitcher hit the injured list en route to a near-100-loss season.

Now the two sides are back together, as new team president Scott Harris handed Boyd a $10 million deal for 2023.

Boyd has been the organization’s most consistent pitcher throughout the rebuild. His best season came in 2019, when he whiffed 238 batters in 185.1 innings. He owned a career-best 3.89 ERA and 4.10 WHIP midway through 2021 before hitting the injured list.

As long as Boyd can get through the spring healthy and somewhat effective, he’ll be back where he belongs: on the mound at Comerica Park. It’s been nearly 18 months since he last started an MLB game, though, so a smooth spring is no guarantee for the 32-year-old.

Michael Lorenzen

  • Rotation status: Virtual lock
  • 2022 stats: 97.2 innings, 85 strikeouts, 44 walks, 4.24 ERA, 4.31 FIP, 1.28 WHIP
Michael Lorenzen #25 of the Los Angeles Angels throws to the plate in the first inning against the Seattle Mariners at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 16, 2022 in Anaheim, California. (2022 Getty Images)

A lot has to go right for this experiment to work out, but Harris’ vision for Lorenzen is clear when you dig into the numbers.

Last season, Lorenzen signed with the Los Angeles Angels as a starting pitcher after spending the previous six seasons as a decent reliever for the Cincinnati Reds.

Injuries and inconsistency left Lorenzen with an underwhelming final stat line, but he pitched his best in September after a two-month stint on the IL due to a shoulder strain. In five starts to close the season, he allowed just seven earned runs and 15 hits in 26.2 innings while striking out 30 batters.

Hitters posted a .561 OPS and whiffed on 12% of Lorenzen’s pitches over that five-start span. The negative: Lorenzen issued 14 walks, continuing a trend that has plagued him as both a starter and a reliever. For his career, Lorenzen has walked 3.8 batters per nine innings -- a number that’s far too high for a guy who strikes out just 7.7 per nine.

The Tigers hope pitching coach Chris Fetter can work some magic and get the best out of Lorenzen, considering Fetter’s success with the likes of Drew Hutchison and Wily Peralta.

It’s frustrating that injuries and an unwillingness to spend in free agency have put the Tigers in a position to rely on these types of gambles, but Lorenzen does have some upside.

Joey Wentz

  • Rotation status: On the doorstep
  • 2022 stats: 32.2 innings, 27 strikeouts, 13 walks, 3.03 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 1.102 WHIP

In a perfect world, Joey Wentz would be a member of the Tigers’ Opening Day rotation, even if it meant taking six starters north (or west, since the team starts the season in Tampa Bay).

Wentz finally got his first shot with the Tigers in 2022, and he flourished. After giving up six earned runs across 2.2 innings in a disastrous debut against the lowly Oakland Athletics, Wentz came back three weeks later to shut out the Minnesota Twins across four innings, allowing just one base runner.

But once again, as soon as something went right for the Tigers, the injury bug came calling. Wentz was pulled from that fabulous start and wound up missing nearly two months.

He was excellent in seven rehab starts at High-A West Michigan and Triple-A Toledo, allowing just four runs while striking out 23 batters in 26.2 innings. He held batters to a .527 OPS and induced swings and misses on an incredible 16% of his pitches.

That earned Wentz a call-up to Detroit in September. He made five starts before the end of the year, allowing just five earned runs in 26 innings while striking out 22 batters. Wentz posted a 1.73 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and .161 opponent batting average during that stretch.

Wentz had a middling swinging strike rate at the MLB level last season, and he certainly wouldn’t pitch to a 3.03 ERA across a larger sample size. But the Tigers couldn’t have asked for more from a 24-year-old making his first MLB starts.

Wentz has nothing left to prove in the minors, and his first MLB stint was, at the very least, interesting enough to warrant another look. If he has a strong spring, Wentz should be rewarded.

Beau Brieske

  • Rotation status: On the doorstep
  • 2022 stats: 81.2 innings, 54 strikeouts, 25 walks, 4.19 ERA, 4.97 FIP, 1.20 WHIP

Beau Brieske might be the most difficult Tigers pitcher to understand.

After dominating the minors to the tune of a 3.12 ERA, 1.013 WHIP, and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 2021, he got his first MLB shot in 2022 and simply couldn’t strike anybody out.

Even more surprising: He was still... fairly effective?

Brieske doesn’t have an overpowering repertoire, so pitching to contact doesn’t feel like a winning strategy for him against the best hitters in the world. But his first 81.2 innings yielded a respectable 4.19 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.

Was it all luck? Maybe! Brieske finished with a 5.60 xERA, a brutal strikeout rate, and poor batted ball metrics. The question, obviously, is whether a 24-year-old who showed consistent minor-league dominance should be judged after just 15 starts.

You’ll be shocked (shocked, I say!) to hear Brieske’s 2022 season was also cut short by injuries. But not before he went on a tear from June 4 through July 12.

In eight starts, Brieske posted a 3.35 ERA, 3.64 FIP, and 1.05 WHIP across 45.2 innings. At one point, he held the New York Yankees to two runs across six innings (seven strikeouts), shut out the Toronto Blue Jays for 5.2 innings, and blanked the Texas Rangers for a career-high seven innings (six strikeouts).

His final three outings were each quality starts -- two agains the Kansas City Royals and one against the White Sox.

Brieske, like Manning and Wentz, needs to miss more bats to succeed at the MLB level, but the fact that he’s already enjoyed some success against elite lineups is cause for optimism. He’ll definitely have some sort of impact on the Tigers in 2023.

Alex Faedo

  • Rotation status: Outside looking in
  • 2022 stats: 53.2 innings, 44 strikeouts, 25 walks, 5.53 ERA, 4.62 FIP, 1.64 WHIP

The end of Faedo’s rookie season was immensely disappointing because he got off to such a strong start. It would take an incredible spring for him to even crack the top seven on this list, and once Skubal and Mize return, he could be better off vying for a bullpen spot.

Faedo, unlike most of the team’s other rookies, showed an ability to fool MLB hitters as soon as he arrived. Through his first seven starts, Faedo owned a solid 11% swinging strike rate, largely thanks to the very slider that inspired the Tigers to draft him in the first place.

That slider carried Faedo to a 2.92 ERA and 1.24 WHIP during that seven-start stretch, with each outing lasting at least five innings.

But then it all came crashing down.

The White Sox ambushed Faedo for seven runs in three innings on June 15, and he never recovered. Faedo made just four additional starts, allowing 14 earned runs, 19 hits, and 13 walks in 13.2 innings. Batters posted a .938 OPS against him, and his swinging strike rate plummeted to 7%.

Right hip surgery ended Faedo’s season, and now, at 27 years old and coming off a trio of injury-plagued campaigns, his MLB future feels very up in the air.

Garrett Hill

  • Rotation status: Outside looking in
  • 2022 stats: 60.1 innings, 40 strikeouts, 29 walks, 4.03 ERA, 5.15 FIP, 1.359 WHIP
Starting pitcher Garrett Hill #50 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the first inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field on August 16, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (2022 Getty Images)

If you tuned out of the Tigers’ season a bit early (who could blame you?), you might have missed the much-anticipated debut of Garrett Hill.

Hill rose up Tigers prospect lists in recent years after overwhelming minor-league hitters at every level. Take a look at these numbers:

  • 2019: 2.25 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 129 strikeouts in 124 innings at Single-A and High-A
  • 2021: 2.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 99 strikeouts in 75.2 innings at High-A and Double-A
  • 2022: 3.23 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 98 strikeouts in 69.2 innings at Double-A and Triple-A

But once again, a highly successful Tigers prospect joined the MLB roster and suddenly couldn’t figure out how to miss bats. A guy who had struck out 10.9 batters per nine innings in his career saw that rate cut nearly in half, whiffing just 6 batters per nine with the Tigers.

It’s obviously much harder to strike out MLB hitters than it is to strike out minor-league hitters, but the trend of Manning, Wentz, Brieske, and Hill getting to the majors and immediately posting uncharacteristically awful strikeout rates is one the Tigers need to investigate and reverse -- quickly.

Anyways, back to Hill. He managed to overcome those strikeout woes to post a 4.03 ERA, but the underlying numbers suggest that was almost entirely thanks to good fortune. Hill didn’t suppress hard contact, generate ground balls, or even throw strikes at a reasonable rate.

Other than a deceptively average ERA, Hill’s rookie season was a struggle. He’ll probably find himself with the Tigers at some point this season, but it won’t be as a starter right out of the gate.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.