While the offseason is not quite over for the Detroit Tigers, it seems more and more likely that the organization is content to attack 2017 with a familiar crew. The Tigers could still address a couple of holes in the roster before April comes around, but one area where they already appear strong is the starting rotation. With every big contributor set to return next season, there is no need to grab another starter.
So instead of buying pitchers, should the Tigers be selling? Few fans would complain about a rotation of Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and Matt Boyd, and these five pitchers have earned the right to keep their place. However, there are a least a couple more players who will vie for a spot in the rotation, and injuries, doubleheaders, and managerial decisions will expand the pool of starters who take the mound for the Tigers in 2017.
To answer if the Tigers should sell some of the excess in the rotation (see: Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey), there are many components to consider, such as performance and salary. But there is another important question that should be answered first: how many starters does a team need during a season?
In 2016, the Tigers used nine different starters over the course of the season. The seven players listed above were joined by Shane Greene and Buck Farmer, who combined for less than 20 innings as starters. This was the second-lowest number of arms used by Detroit in a single season in the past 10 years; only the 2013 juggernaut rotation featured fewer (six). Since 2007, the team has averaged 10.3 starters a season, although not all starters are created equally.
There is a fairly similar distribution between three different categories of starters: spot starters (those who make less than five starts during a season), contributors (between five and 20 starts), and workhorses (at least 20 starts). As seen in the chart above, the Tigers have had at least six starters make five or more starts in every season since 2007.
The numbers across the baseball in 2016 were fairly similar. Teams used an average of 11.1 different pitchers during the season, with between 3.5 and 4.0 pitchers in each of the three categories. Only one team, the World Series champion Cubs, had fewer than six pitchers make at least five starts, while no rotation had less than seven pitchers overall.
The lesson here is that teams can go into a season with a limited number of arms, but the likelihood of needing additional help is very high. Something that the 2013 Tigers rotation benefited from was experience and good fortune with injuries. Almost all of the Detroit starter candidates for 2017 have an injury history, and three of the best arms are still very young.
Starting the season with Anibal Sanchez and/or Mike Pelfrey in the rotation would not be the right move for the Tigers, but shipping them away for free would also be a mistake. The baseball season is a long gauntlet, and teams frequently call upon their sixth and seventh best starters. Instead of finding a buyer for these toxic assets, the Tigers should instead find the best place for them on the roster.
Trusting manager Brad Ausmus to organize his rotation correctly is a little scary, but he has the pieces in place to be successful. He can utilize players like Farmer and Drew VerHagen to help out as well, but at least one of Sanchez or Pelfrey has a role to play in 2017. Ausmus must ensure that he helps them fit into this spot correctly.