Coming into the 2016 season, the Tigers’ rotation featured four veterans locked in to starting spots from the get-go. The final spot was left open to a group of four youngsters, all acquired via trade over the past two seasons.
Shane Greene was coming off an injury-plagued season, with questions remaining around his health and stamina. Matt Boyd was simply coming off a bad season — he failed to prove himself ready for a rotation spot in 2015. Michael Fulmer, while obviously talented, had not yet thrown a pitch in Triple-A and would need more reps in the minor leagues.
So the obvious choice for the final rotation spot was Daniel Norris, but a back injury suffered during a spring training workout would force the former top-20 prospect to the disabled list to start the season.
Greene took the rotation spot in Norris’ place, until a nasty blister-turned-laceration sent him to the DL during his third start. Norris had only made a handful of rehab appearances at that point, so the Tigers turned to Fulmer to fill the spot (isn’t depth nice?), and he has since claimed it as his own personal property.
So Norris continues to work on things in Triple-A until a spot opens up. Besides, he has to be able to get minor leaguers out before getting recalled to the majors. His 5.33 ERA isn’t exactly screaming, "You can’t win without me!"
Not so fast. ERA isn't telling the whole story, here. Norris was the victim of some bad luck and/or bad defense early on. In his first four starts in Toledo, Norris posted a 9.98 ERA, but despite struggling with walks, his peripherals looked much better. His 2.86 FIP during that stretch should generate some skepticism towards his ERA.
After a brief appearance out of the bullpen for the Tigers, Norris' six starts since the rough stretch have resulted in a 3.31 ERA and 2.53 FIP. He’s getting minor leaguers out without much trouble. In fact, Norris has been healthy and pitching well for over two months now, but we’ve yet to see him start a game for the Tigers.
Meanwhile, the Tigers are struggling with two of their rotation spots. Mike Pelfrey has held opponents to four runs or less in his last six starts, but more advanced metrics indicate that his true performance has been closer to his 4.68 ERA on the season. Matt Boyd, who had a big role in blowing a seven-run lead on Monday night, boasts a similar 4.91 ERA in his five games.
Could the Tigers have a primed upgrade in Norris, waiting in Toledo? It’s certainly possible. After returning from injury late in 2015, Norris ended the season with a 1.76 ERA in four starts. That, combined with his prospect pedigree and his underlying statistics in the minors this season, makes it tempting to believe he could undercut a high-fours ERA in the majors right now and be an improvement over either Boyd or Pelfrey.
If the Tigers were to recall Norris to take over Boyd’s rotation spot, Boyd could simply be optioned to the minor leagues without any repercussions. They could also consider using Boyd to bolster the bullpen, a la Shane Greene. If they chose to bump Pelfrey instead, he could not be optioned to the minors. He would have to be released, unless they kept him on in a relief role.
Or they could just leave everything alone for now, and see how the season plays out. What do you think?