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Mailbag: Will Anibal Sanchez or Mike Pelfrey be in the starting rotation?

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Odds are one of Sanchez or Pelfrey will open the year as the team’s No. 5 starter.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Good news: in one week, the Detroit Tigers will report to spring training! This winter has seemed longer than most for Tigers fans. For one, the team missed the playoffs for the second season in a row after four consecutive trips to the playoffs from 2011 to 2014. Adding a month to the offseason is never fun. This is especially true when the team doesn’t do much to augment their roster.

The Tigers were painfully quiet at times this winter, but that doesn’t mean we have nothing to discuss leading up to spring training and the upcoming season. On the contrary, the Tigers’ tepid approach to a weak free agent class leaves plenty of questions about the 2017 roster. Who will play center field? Will Steven Moya make the major league roster? How will the bullpen shake out? We will eventually answer these questions and more as the season draws closer.

Before that, let’s dive into a few other questions readers had over the past week. Feel free to drop other mailbag questions in the comments as well!

I said this on our latest version of the Voice of the Turtle podcast, but I think one of Anibal Sanchez or Mike Pelfrey are almost guaranteed to be in the starting rotation to open the year. Assuming Jordan Zimmermann is healthy, he will take up one of the “top three” spots with Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer. Daniel Norris’ strong finish to the 2016 season gives him a major leg up on anyone else for a fourth spot, leaving one more role in the rotation left for Sanchez, Pelfrey, and lefthander Matt Boyd. The Tigers need a fifth starter as early as April 9, so there is no hiding anyone in the minors or bullpen for long.

However, hiding someone in the minors is what they will likely do, and Boyd is the only pitcher of these three with options remaining. He was much better than Sanchez and Pelfrey in 2016 (especially if you ignore his last start of the year), but will probably draw the short end of the stick come April unless he has an absolute monster spring.

The weird part? I’m fine with this. If the last three years have taught us nothing else, we have at least learned that starting pitching depth is very important throughout a 162-game season. Sanchez and Pelfrey were awful in 2016, but they provide solid depth that isn’t yet available in the minor league system. Someone will inevitably get injured at some point; jettisoning one of Sanchez or Pelfrey off the roster prior to then seems like iffy roster management.

While everyone has griped about the team’s slow winter, we have seen the Tigers perform exactly the latter this offseason. Nearly the entire 2016 roster was set to come back in 2017, and many pointed at this winter as a potentially slow offseason months in advance. However, general manager Al Avila changed everyone’s perception when he trade Cameron Maybin on day one and pronounced doom and gloom soon after. Had he not hinted at major changes on the horizon, I think a lot of people would have been more accepting of the team’s lack of activity this offseason.

But if the alternative is tearing this roster apart and starting a rebuild? I’m on board with the tinkering. A lot of people are enamored with the idea of razing the roster and adding a bunch of talented prospects, in part because the Chicago Cubs just won the World Series doing exactly that. Rebuilds aren’t always so efficient, though. A year or two ago, the Minnesota Twins were praised for having one of the best farm systems in baseball. Now, they’re projected to win 78 games as Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and Jose Berrios still try to find their way at the major league level. Other teams like the Houston Astros haven’t won anything yet either. The Washington Nationals banked their future on two can’t miss stars and have a whopping five playoff wins in five seasons to show for it. While they’re mostly happy now — except the Twins fans, probably — ask those fanbases how much fun they had during the lean years.

Meanwhile, the Tigers have a chance to win this year. There are clear projected favorites in every American League division, but the rest of the playoff race is wide open. PECOTA only projects five AL teams to finish above .500. FanGraphs has seven AL teams projected between 82 and 84 wins. With a bit of good fortune, the Tigers could easily find themselves in this playoff conversation.

Don’t overthink this: if the Tigers lose Justin Verlander or Miguel Cabrera for an extended period, they will have a tough time treading water in what looks to be a crowded AL playoff picture. One might add Ian Kinsler to this group as well, but I could see Dixon Machado BABIPing his way to passable production for a short period of time. There are no fixes for losing Cabrera or Verlander, two stars who combined for 11.5 rWAR last season.

If we are to choose between the two, I’d say Cabrera is the least expendable. The Tigers have a solid core of starting pitchers behind Verlander, and as we saw last spring, both Jordan Zimmermann and Michael Fulmer are capable of shouldering an ace’s load for short spurts. Outside of a Brennan Boesch-esque surprise, there is no one in the system of sustaining Cabrera’s offensive production for a reasonable length of time. The Tigers might be able to keep pace if everyone else in the lineup steps up during that time, but it takes a lot to replace a Triple Crown winner.

I don’t know if one can “bounce back” after a 31-homer season, but I expect Justin Upton to have a big year in 2017. Upton was maligned by Tigers fans for his performance throughout most of 2016, but ended up falling just short of his career norms thanks to a red-hot finish to the season. If we take a larger approach, though, we see that Upton hit .258/.331/.519 with 29 of his 31 home runs from May 15 onward. This means he started the season in horrible fashion, hitting just .208/.243/.306 with two home runs through his first 36 games.

There are a lot of reasons why Upton struggled so much to open the 2016 season. From transitioning to a new team and city to adjusting to the American League to batting second for the first time since 2013 — and 2010 before that — there was a lot on Upton’s plate at the time. One would imagine Upton is settled in this year, and ready to build on his torrid finish to 2016. Will he opt out of his contract at the end of the season? That’s a conversation for another time, but one I think we will have before 2017 is finished.