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Tigers’ pitching rotation unsettled as Zimmerman, Pelfrey due to return

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Pelfrey is likely destined for bullpen as Tigers have surplus of starting pitchers

Houston Astros v Detroit Tigers Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers will recall Matt Boyd in time to start in Chicago against the White Sox on Tuesday, and are expected to activate Jordan Zimmermann from the disabled list to start next weekend against the Baltimore Orioles. Which pitchers will remain in the starting rotation and who will pitch out of the bullpen for the remainder of the 2016 season remains uncertain.

Mike Pelfrey made his final rehab start for Toledo on Saturday, throwing 60 pitches and giving up nine hits. With the end of the minor league season for all the Tigers’ affiliates except Low-A West Michigan, he will likely rejoin the team and pick up his conditioning program from there. Manager Brad Ausmus said that Pelfrey wouldn’t be ready to start immediately. Via the Detroit News:

We have to figure it out if we want to find another start for him or activate him," Ausmus said. "He probably wouldn’t be ready to start if we activated him now, just from an innings standpoint.

Tigers' September rotation options
Pitcher GS IP ERA FIP WHIP fWAR
Verlander 28 188.0 3.30 3.62 0.99 4.0
Fulmer 22 136.2 2.77 3.79 1.08 2.5
Zimmermann 16 97.1 4.44 3.93 1.30 1.8
Boyd 14 73.0 4.32 4.74 1.63 0.7
Sanchez 23 124.2 5.99 5.24 1.27 0.6
Norris 8 44.2 3.96 4.12 1.49 0.5
Pelfrey 21 111.0 4.95 5.29 1.76 0.3

It would appear that four of the rotation spots will go to Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Zimmermann, and rookie sensation Michael Fulmer, with the final spot going to either Boyd or Daniel Norris. Pelfrey seems destined for the bullpen with each of the current starting pitchers performing better than he had pitched before being placed on the disabled list on Aug. 2.

Boyd was sent to Toledo in a procedural move at the end of August and is eligible to return when the minor league season is over after Monday’s game. He will be pitching on normal rest on Tuesday. He has posted a 2.64 ERA in 44-1/3 innings of work in eight starts since the All-Star break. Unless the Tigers keep six pitchers in the starting rotation, Tuesday could be his last start as part of the regular rotation.

Norris has made six starts since coming off the disabled list on Aug. 9, with a 3.58 ERA and a 3.98 FIP. Some of his peripherals are a cause for concern, as he allowed opponents a .300 average, walked 3.71 batters per nine innings, and had a WHIP of 1.65 in August. He has pitched more than five innings just three times this season, but has managed to keep the ball in the yard, and thus keep runs off the board, and he is pitching very well at this time.

Anibal Sanchez lost his spot in the rotation in June, but was given a second chance with Norris, Pelfrey, and Zimmermann all going to the disabled list. After posting a 7.46 ERA through the All-Star break, he has pitched much better in the second half of the season with a 4.12 ERA / 4.05 FIP / 1.19 WHIP in nine starts, and has held opponents to three runs or less in six of those starts. If it was just a matter of keeping the pitchers who have performed best in the starting rotation, Boyd would clearly get the nod, but the Tigers are hoping that their former ERA champion can fully regain his form.

The X-factor in the equation is that the Tigers want to protect Michael Fulmer by limiting his innings. Fulmer has worked 136 innings in the major leagues, and 152 innings including his time in Toledo. He still leads the league in ERA by just 0.11 runs over the Blue Jays’ Aaron Sanchez, and could be the first rookie to lead the league in ERA since Mark Fidrych in 1976.

Fulmer needs just 26 innings to qualify for the ERA title, but the Tigers are more concerned about using him in the most important situations, such as when the team plays Baltimore or Cleveland, while watching his work load at the same time.

With an off day on Thursday, Boyd’s next turn after Tuesday would come on Saturday against Baltimore, but that is also the day that Zimmermann could pitch on normal rest after making a final rehab start on Monday.

Pelfrey or Boyd could be called on to make a start for Fulmer at some point down the stretch, or the club could lighten the load on all their starting pitchers, with the exception of Verlander, by keeping six pitchers in the starting rotation. Or, they could skip a turn for each of the starting pitchers, effectively keeping six in the rotation through the end of the season.

Giving a pitcher more than four days rest or skipping a start may or may not help to avoid injuries, and in fact it may disrupt their normal pitching routine, but the club is not going to take chances with their young star, and decisions will be governed to some extent by limiting Fulmer’s innings. Ausmus has several options to accomplish that.