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Tigers could benefit from Anibal Sanchez as their 5th starter

The team should keep the leash short, but give his new arm a try.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at New York Mets Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Every week Kurt Mensching offers up some Tigers opinions with The Detroit News. Every week I will tell him how wrong he is.

Hold on. Before you go right to the comments, just hear me out on this one.

There are a million reasons Anibal Sanchez should not be allowed anywhere near the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation. I actually wrote about some of them less than a month ago. It has been clear to anyone watching Sanchez over the last two seasons that he has been in trouble. He has floundered, and found himself in a bullpen role. He struggled to find the answer to his reduced fastball speed and lack of command. In short, he is not the pitcher he was in 2013, and no one could figure out why.

The Tigers went into spring training this year with an expensive dilemma on their hands. Sanchez, over the next two seasons, is owed a whopping $21.8 million. Unlike their recent decision to eat the remaining cost of Mark Lowe’s contract, it seemed unlikely the Tigers would simply swallow the bitter pill of Sanchez’s payday by releasing him.

Yet spring did not start well. It was more of the same, with Sanchez showing absolutely zero confidence in his pitches and opposing batters walking all over him because of it. His frustration was evident and so was that of the team. For many it seemed like it might be time for the Tigers to cut their losses with Sanchez if it meant cutting their losses on the field.

Then something happened.

Sanchez spent hours tirelessly working with pitching coach Rich Dubee. He drove hours away from Lakeland on his off days to throw bullpen sessions. He was willing to try anything and everything to make himself a serviceable pitcher again. As it turned out, all Sanchez needed to do was make the smallest of mechanical tweaks. Dubee noticed Sanchez was keeping his hand to close to his head as he delivered his pitches. With one adjustment suddenly there was life in his pitches again. They were finding the zone with better speed, edging into the low 90s.

Suddenly Sanchez was getting strikeouts again. He gave up a mere two hits through his last 14 innings of work, and took a no-hitter six innings deep against the Pirates on Saturday. This wasn’t a one game fluke, but rather his third consecutive outing of solid pitching. Was it 2013 Anibal Sanchez back via baseball time travel? No. But this was still a pitcher who could strike out the meat of an opponents lineup, including guys like Andrew McCutchen. This is a pitcher who could do good work as the fifth man in a rotation.

Which brings us to the problem of Matt Boyd.

The fifth starter job has all but had Boyd’s name on it this spring. He hasn’t issued a single walk — yes, you read that right, nary a one — through 21 23 innings pitched. Boyd is second only to Justin Verlander for innings of work completed. His 2.49 ERA is much healthier than Sanchez’s 5.03, but the small number of innings worked by both, along with the fickle nature of ERA in general, makes it hard to use this as a metric for how their seasons might play out. Boyd has been a clear cut winner this spring, dazzling everyone who has watched him and basically printing his own plane ticket for a trip to Chicago next week.

Except, the Tigers may choose to wait. Yes, it will hurt, especially given how good Boyd has been. But the game is the game and players know a lot of decisions have to be made off the field before a lineup card or rotation are ever put on paper. While Tigers general manager Al Avila has insisted they will only be taking the strongest 25 players north with them in April, there’s a reason to believe Anibal Sanchez might be one of them.

People say spring training games don’t matter, and in a sense they don’t. But if those games are what fans are using to suggest Boyd is the obvious fifth starter, then they should also count for Sanchez. It’s true that Boyd more than earned the position, but it’s also true that Sanchez fought and clawed for it all spring long, and finally found something that might work. With such a hefty contract on the line, it behooves the Tigers to see if he might have another good year in him.

A move that might chafe some fans, but could potentially be smartest for the Tigers would be to start Sanchez in the rotation and move a pitcher with minor league options down to Toledo. Boyd has an option left, but he has also been sensational. The Tigers would be wise to keep him available and not squander his option. It’s a difficult decision to make.

The Tigers should keep Sanchez on a very short leash with how much room he’s allowed to flounder, because the team can’t afford to start losing every fifth game at the beginning of the season. Should he continue to have success, excellent! If not, shuffling will need to be made to put Boyd into the fifth starter position.

It’s an experiment, and a test of trust and patience for the Tigers and their fans alike, but one that could pay off if Sanchez really is as good as his last three starts suggest he might be. Boyd, in spite of his excellent spring, understands how the game is played, and would not let this kind of decision shake his confidence. It’s the kind of gambit the Tigers might find just pays off if they’re willing to try it.