For a season focused on rebuilding, the Detroit Tigers have been surprisingly competitive during the first few months of the year. There is a long way to go that will surely bring about challenges, but for now, the Tigers have a chance to stick in the division hunt.
To give the team a chance with a less-than-top-notch roster, manager Ron Gardenhire must be willing to squeeze out whatever value he can find. Sometimes this means employing atypical strategies, including mixing up the starting rotation.
Per Mlive’s Evan Woodberry, Gardenhire is considering just that. Due to the success of Blaine Hardy during his stint as a temporary starter, the Tigers are in no rush to boot him back to the bullpen in favor of a healthy Jordan Zimmermann or Francisco Liriano. While the decision to keep all six starters in the rotation would be a little uncommon, there are compelling arguments for moving in this direction.
Coming into 2018, Hardy had never started a game at the major league level. The lefty’s 2017 season was one of his worst, and there were legitimate questions to be asked about his usage going forward. However, Hardy has looked stellar in his new role and has arguably been the most effective starter in Detroit.
Keeping Hardy in the rotation means taking away starts from everyone else. Given his performance this season versus those of his peers, it is hard to argue that the Tigers would be better without him getting the ball every six days. Sure, it would mean less outings for Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer, but it would also limit the number of times Zimmermann takes the hill.
Avoiding the pen
Yet again, the Tigers bullpen ranks in the bottom half in both ERA and FIP. While Joe Jimenez and Shane Greene have been pretty reliable, the rest of the relievers are far from encouraging. Gardenhire has had to come up with an average of 3.5 innings a night from this questionable group of arms, which is a daunting task.
Adding a starter to the rotation will mean fewer starts for each pitcher, potentially allowing for slightly longer outings each time out. If the starters are able to go even slightly deeper into games, the Tigers will be able to rely less on their fringe bullpen arms and give a large percentage of the innings to the reliable relievers at the end of games.
Of course, the assumption that keeping a six-man rotation will cause more innings to be thrown per start is not a guarantee — many of Detroit’s starters have struggled the third time through the order — but the reality is that the Tigers’ bullpen is shaky at best. Fresher and better-rested starters will take a bit of the burden from the relief corps and should bring about more flexibility for Gardenhire.
As fun as it as for Detroit to stay in the playoff hunt, eventually the team will regress and find itself in a position to sell. Pitchers are always a hot commodity at the trade deadline, and players like Liriano and Boyd will surely see interest from contending teams.
If one (or more) of the current starters is traded, the Tigers could simply revert their six-man rotation back to the traditional five without skipping a beat. Though the minor league system is full of future promise, the front office would likely desire to keep most of the young pitchers away from Detroit until the team is ready to compete again.
Regardless of if the Tigers lose a starter at the deadline or not, it would be beneficial to see what Hardy can do over the course of a season. Being under club control at a very cheap rate could make him a valuable trade chip in future years if he continues to find success as a starter.
Now is the time
As mentioned before, teams like the current Detroit squad must be creative to compete. Whether that entails shifting more frequently, being more aggressive on the basepaths, or tweaking the starting rotation, talent alone is not enough to keep earning wins.
Remember, though, that wins are still secondary at this point. The Tigers are a very long shot to reach the playoffs, so why not try something different while there is little at stake? Gardenhire should feel comfortable taking a risk that can benefit the team in the short term and perhaps bolster the long-term value of someone like Hardy. If it all goes wrong, the big picture does not change at all.