When the Detroit Tigers arrived in Lakeland just over a month ago, their rotation appeared to be set. Veterans Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez, and Mike Pelfrey would take the top four slots. There would be a competition for the fifth spot in the rotation, but lefthander Daniel Norris had that job to lose entering spring training.
Norris was the consensus top prospect in the Tigers' organization after coming over in the trade for David Price, before losing his rookie eligibility last season. After starting the 2015 season in the Blue Jays' rotation, he struggled with command and was sent to the minors before being traded to Detroit. He logged 60 innings in 13 starts between the two teams, with a 3.75 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and a bright future ahead of him.
After the season, Norris revealed that he had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer early in the season, but elected to finish the season before having surgery. He is now cancer-free, but he must step up and claim the job. Despite the decent ERA, Norris posted a 4.63 FIP last season. His strikeout rate was down to 6.75 strikeouts per nine innings, while his walk rate had improved to 2.75 walks per nine. The strikeouts will be there, but the walk rate is key to Norris' success in the major leagues.
Norris had his start on Saturday postponed until Tuesday due to lower back stiffness, though it was not believed to be serious. He was then shelled for three runs by the Blue Jays in the first inning, recording one out against five hitters before being pulled with lower back tightness. With just two weeks left before the season begins, time is running short for Norris to show that he is healthy and can be effective enough to claim the fifth rotation spot.
Fifth starter candidates
Shane Greene began the 2015 season in the Tigers' starting rotation and got off to a hot start, with two scoreless outings and allowing just one earned run in his first three starts. He was inconsistent after that, getting shelled more often than not. He was sent to the bullpen and then the minor leagues before being recalled in July. After more struggles, he went on the disabled list in August and eventually had surgery to correct a psuedoaneurysm in his right arm. He is now fully recovered and trying to earn a job in the Tigers' rotation.
Greene, now 27, is off to a good start in spring training. He has made four appearances, including two starts, holding opponents to 13 hits and three walks while striking out 14 batters in 13 2/3 innings. Greene could be next in line should Norris not claim the fifth spot in the rotation. The optimistic view would be that the medical issue was the cause of his erratic performance in 2015, and that is now in the past.
Matt Boyd has worked 13 2/3 innings and has also been steady this spring. He has allowed 12 hits and three walks, striking out 13 batters. He struck out seven hitters in five innings in his last start, but has given up two home runs in his four appearances, all starts. The home run ball was Boyd's Achilles heel in his 57 innings of work between Toronto and Detroit last year, when he allowed 2.67 home runs per nine innings and a 7.53 ERA. His minor league numbers show excellent control, with a 0.99 WHIP and 2.12 walks per nine innings over three seasons. At age 25, he could find a job in the rotation or the bullpen.
Michael Fulmer is the Tigers' top prospect, but has been optioned to the minor leagues in his first season on the 40-man roster. At 23, he will be starting on a regular basis and could make his major league debut at some point during the season.
Buck Farmer is no stranger to Detroit, having been called up each of the past two seasons. He worked 40 1/3 innings last season between the rotation and the bullpen. His 7.36 ERA and 1.76 WHIP leave him behind the newly acquired young starters.
If and when the Tigers need a sixth starting pitcher to fill in for an injured player, they will turn to this same list of pitchers for help. If it's a question of just needing one start for a pitcher who isn't going on the disabled list, the Tigers could get a spot start from Drew VerHagen, who figures to be in the bullpen to start the season. But a sixth starter generally holds more value to a major league team than a sixth relief pitcher, even if the starter begins the season in the minor leagues. The Tigers would be better to keep their young guns starting regularly in the minors, at least initially.
The decision on the fifth starter will not be based strictly on spring training numbers, but the competition looks to be wide open at this point, and Grapefruit League performance could go a long way to helping the club fill out their starting rotation by Opening Day.