There was a lot of excitement in Lakeland, Fla. on Tuesday when the Detroit Tigers convened for their first official workout of the 2017 season. The workouts themselves didn’t seem to be noteworthy — considering the alternative, boring is a good thing this time of year — but manager Brad Ausmus made waves when he announced to reporters that right-handed pitchers Drew VerHagen and Buck Farmer would be working as starters during the spring.
At first, this news didn’t seem to move the needle. Pitchers frequently work as starters during spring training only to move to the bullpen once the season starts. It’s not hard for some pitchers to downshift after building up that stamina in March; if anything, throwing more pitches in March helps them be ready for April. Farmer has worked as both a starter and reliever for the Tigers in the past two seasons, and VerHagen was a starter throughout his minor league career before shifting to the bullpen last season.
However, this is a rather thoughtful move on the Tigers’ part. VerHagen himself asked to move back to the rotation during spring training, but there are a few reasons why this makes sense from the Tigers’ point of view.
It helps VerHagen stay healthy
VerHagen asked to move back to the starting rotation because of the routine it provides. Having worked as a starter prior to the 2016 season, VerHagen has the starter’s routine down pat. A more consistent throwing regimen, especially during the regular season, could help VerHagen avoid the fatigue that befalls relievers who get overworked when the rotation fails. While starters may throw more pitches in games, relievers make up that deficit by throwing more often and in more unpredictable circumstances (especially in middle relief).
It adds starting pitching depth
Quick, how many starting pitchers did the Tigers use last season? What about in 2015? Gone are the days where the Tigers can rely on their monstrous rotation to throw 30 starts apiece, with maybe a spot starter or two to back them up. The Tigers used nine starters in 2016 and a whopping 12 (!) the year prior. One imagines they will approach those numbers again as the injuries inevitably start to pile up over a 162-game season.
VerHagen might be the eighth or ninth best option among the Tigers starters in camp. However, if he works as a starter for most of the 2017 season, this gives the Tigers another semi-reliable option to call upon if someone else gets injured. The Tigers essentially called Buck Farmer up from Single-A West Michigan to make a spot start in 2014 because of a lack of depth. With Farmer and VerHagen (among others) working out of the rotation, they have the depth to avoid such pitfalls this season. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News lists those two among 10 starting pitchers on the Tigers’ radar in Lakeland, and that does not include potential breakout prospects like Tyler Alexander.
It helps them save arms
The Tigers want to limit the wear and tear on Michael Fulmer, among others this spring. Fulmer could potentially pitch in the World Baseball Classic, while Daniel Norris is also coming off a big jump in innings compared to the 2015 season. The more innings VerHagen and Farmer throw, the fewer the Tigers hand to their prized youngsters.
It gives them more development time
In terms of their development, both Farmer and VerHagen have hit speed bumps over the past few seasons. Farmer was pulled up to the majors from Single-A in 2014, then shuttled between the majors and minors for the rest of the season. He has worn out a path between Toledo and Detroit over the past couple seasons as well. This isn’t likely to change much in 2017 — though one could argue the Tigers have the bullpen depth to avoid this — but Farmer could use a few extra innings to hone his secondary pitches.
The same can be said for VerHagen, who largely shelved his changeup while pitching out of the bullpen in 2016. VerHagen made it to the upper minors as a starter, but back and shoulder injuries over the past few years have sapped some valuable development time. Giving him a few more innings to regain the feel for his pitches — the curveball and changeup, in particular — could be helpful come April.
They can always move back
VerHagen told reporters that he is open to pitching in whatever role the organization wants or needs. One would imagine Farmer feels the same way, especially if this means yet another call-up to the big leagues. Giving both pitchers a starter’s reps during spring training doesn’t preclude them from coming north with the major league club if they are one of the best options around. Farmer looked much improved in small spurts last season, and VerHagen was a surprise performer in the early part of 2016. Either one could step into a middle relief role in 2017, especially if their secondary offerings take a step forward after their reps during the spring.