The Detroit Tigers pitching staff has arrived to Lakeland, Fla. with some key questions left unanswered, particularly in the starting rotation. The good news is that they have plenty of intriguing options. The bad news? They may well have too many options. without the necessary roster flexibility to ride their best arms unless some hard decisions are made. The pitchers themselves will have six weeks to make those decisions easier.
Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann and Michael Fulmer will likely require little decision-making, with health being their only potential obstacle from making the Opening Day roster. Verlander and Fulmer you can put down in ink, while Zimmermann is probably safest in pencil for the time being. That leaves two available spots in the rotation, and a host of players vying for them.
Justin Verlander: The Tigers’ ace has already been named the Opening Day starter. He’ll begin his 12th full season in the major leagues looking to pick up right where he left off in 2016. For the past season and a half, no one in the American League has pitched better. The Tigers will need another big season from Verlander to contend.
Michael Fulmer: The reigning American League Rookie of the Year was a revelation in 2016. Called on much sooner than the Tigers expected, Fulmer remembered that old changeup he had lying around, and proceeded to dominate the American League for three solid months. Fulmer’s stuff was outstanding, but it was the way he used it that really made an impression. From his first pitch to his last, the rookie was a study in poise and aggression on the mound. The Tigers will look for him to solidify his claim as one of best young starting pitchers in the game in 2017.
Jordan Zimmermann: According to Zimmermann, the neck issue that plagued him last year has responded well to treatment. Thus far, he has been throwing without issue. Even so, the Tigers will presumably take a conservative approach to his workload in the early going. The condition of Zimmermann’s neck seems a thing to be managed rather than cured. Things will ramp up eventually, and only then we will have a better idea of what to expect.
Daniel Norris: With two spots remaining in the rotation, we have four candidates. One of those spots, presumably, is Norris’ to lose. He changed his delivery late in the 2016 season and hit a whole new level in September. Norris owns a 3.64 ERA and 4.35 FIP across 136 major league innings. As long as none of his teammates challenge him to treacherous feats of strength during spring training, Norris should start the year in Detroit. However, as he is one of the two candidates with minor league options remaining, we can’t be sure of his role to open the season.
Anibal Sanchez: This is where the Tigers’ roster crunch hits. On his side, Sanchez has a lot of past success. He also maintains a solid strikeout-to-walk foundation, despite his struggles the past two seasons. Unfortunately, he simply can’t keep the baseball in the park. Projection systems expect he will have better fortune in that department this season, but fans will believe it when they see it. It’s not hard to imagine him having a good spring, and he is making $16 million this season. You can probably expect Sanchez to get one more crack at the rotation before the Tigers consider a more permanent move to the bullpen.
Mike Pelfrey: The veteran sinkerballer had a quiet offseason. Of all the Tigers starters, his position is the least secure heading into spring training. Pelfrey continued to get huge numbers of ground balls in 2016, but sharp increases in his walks and home runs allowed imploded his already fragile profile. Set to make $8 million in 2016, the Tigers will grimace at having to cut that money loose, but it could quickly come to that if needed. It’s difficult to see any role for Pelfrey that doesn’t weaken the roster. He will provide some insurance this spring as the Tigers get a read on Jordan Zimmermann’s health, but the Tigers need to think long and hard about cutting ties.
Matt Boyd: Boyd’s position is probably the worst in terms of winning a starting job. That’s more testament to the unfortunate roster situation rather than to Boyd’s ability. The lefthander made a big impact in July and August, saving the Tigers’ bacon with a head-turning stretch in which he allowed just 16 earned runs over 11 starts. He dialed in a mean fastball-changeup combination during that period, which baffled right-handed hitters and helped him moderate his home run issues. However, Boyd faded in September. He will have to look his absolute best this spring to avoid starting the year in Triple-A Toledo.
Buck Farmer: Tigers fans are pretty familiar with Mr. Farmer at this point. The righthander enters his age-26 season with 79 major league innings under his belt. His career FIP sits at 6.02. While Farmer is a solid starter at the Triple-A level, he was never really expected to make it as a regular in the majors, and nothing has changed on that score. At this point in his career, Farmer is in a tricky spot. No longer a prospect, he’s in that no man’s land where the Tigers will plug him in wherever needed without concern for his development. Farmer will probably be the eighth man up if the Tigers need a starter. He will spend most of the year in Toledo unless something goes badly wrong in the Tigers’ rotation. Even as a reliever, he needs to take a big step to ever get a real shot.
Drew VerHagen: VerHagen converted to a relief role full-time in 2017, and impressed with a power two-seamer with plenty of life. Unfortunately, his slow curve failed to get the whiffs VerHagen needs to ever become a consistent big-league contributor. His season ended early, as he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and underwent surgery to correct the issue. By all reports, VerHagen is throwing bullpens and feeling good, but the Tigers will no doubt bring him along slowly. As a result, an ETA on a return to the major leagues probably isn’t in the cards until the summer months. The Tigers will let him work as a starter as he rebuilds his arm strength, but it’s still hard to see him in the majors in anything other than a relief role. VerHagen needs to come back with a strong campaign to make a push for a regular role in the ‘pen.
Myles Jaye: Jaye came to the Tigers from the Texas Rangers in exchange for catcher Bryan Holaday last season. In retrospect, general manager Al Avila did alright for himself here. Jaye has a complete arsenal of fringe-average offerings based around a solid sinker. When his command is sharp, the depth of his repertoire makes him a solid candidate for spot starts throughout the season. Still, Jaye would need one of his pitches to really blossom to become a major league fixture. As things stand, he’s a decent bit of depth as long as the expectations are kept in check.
Sandy Baez: Baez was the only true prospect the Tigers protected for the Rule 5 draft this offseason. Signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2011, Baez has been carefully managed along the way. He didn’t graduate from rookie ball until 2015. Since then, he has impressed many evaluators with a nasty sinker that can sit in the mid-90s. The breaking ball and changeup have been slower to come along, but finally showed real signs of life in 2016. He is nowhere near the majors yet, and still projects to make it as a reliever, if at all. His invite to major league camp is another vote of confidence, though. He will have another shot in 2016 to hold the Tigers’ interest.