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Francisco Liriano will start the season in the Tigers’ rotation

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Liriano and Michael Fulmer are the only locks for the starting rotation, according to manager Ron Gardenhire.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Despite finishing last season in the Houston Astros’ bullpen, Francisco Liriano will be one of the Detroit Tigers’ five starting pitchers in 2018, manager Ron Gardenhire announced on Sunday. Liriano and Michael Fulmer are “locks” for the rotation right now, according to Gardenhire. “After that, it’s a cat fight,” he told reporters.

Liriano signed with the Tigers for $4 million in late February. While many expected him to get the nod as a starter, his subpar 2017 season — including 20 appearances out of the bullpen for the World Champion Astros — left some wondering how he would fit into a crowded Tigers rotation. Now 34, Liriano has a 5.05 ERA and 4.80 FIP in 260 total innings over the past two seasons.

Perhaps the most surprising part of this news is that veteran Jordan Zimmermann is not a lock for the rotation right now. Zimmermann has struggled (to put it lightly) over the past couple years while battling with a chronic neck injury. He has been healthy so far this spring, but his numbers over the past two years are worse than Liriano’s — a 5.60 ERA and 4.88 FIP in 265 13 frames. He has given up six runs (including three home runs) in eight innings this spring.

Meanwhile, many Tigers fans are worried about what this means for Daniel Norris. The Tigers have already used him out of the bullpen once this spring, and appear open to the idea if Norris responds well. He threw a starter’s complement of innings behind Liriano on Sunday, but has not been all that impressive so far this spring, albeit against excellent competition (his ERA is down to 3.60 after Sunday’s outing).

It’s also possible the Tigers send Norris to Triple-A Toledo to start the year. While this doesn’t seem like the best path for Norris’ development — he already has 200 Triple-A innings under his belt — maybe the Tigers have seen something they want him to work on in the minors for a while. There don’t appear to be any service time shenanigans at play either; Norris will need to spend about 90 days in the minors for the Tigers to gain an extra year of club control.

Personally, I want to see Norris in the Tigers’ rotation. He has already fared well enough against Triple-A competition, striking out over a batter per inning while suppressing home runs. The ERA isn’t great, but the peripherals and stuff are there. He needs innings against major league competition, especially now that he is healthy once again.

One man already out of the running is Alex Wilson. The 31-year-old righty was given a chance to start this spring, but the organization has already announced they will move him back to his familiar bullpen role.