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State of the Tigers, Summer 2018: The starting rotation is in good shape

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The Tigers rotation could be very, very special in the near future.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

“Brace yourself: it’s year one of the rebuild.”

If you are a truly dedicated Detroit Tigers fan — those of you reading this article more than likely are — you have heard this phrase not once, not twice, but dozens upon dozens of times this year. However, this hasn’t quite felt as painful as it could have. Expectations were cut to a minuscule level when the Tigers dealt arguably their greatest player of all time, Justin Verlander, to the Astros. But this year, Detroit’s starting pitching has, for the most part, exceeded expectations. This bodes very well for the franchise moving forward.

Coming out of the All-Star break, the Tigers rotation currently features Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Fiers, Matthew Boyd, and Francisco Liriano, roughly in that order based on their performance and health throughout the year. Fulmer and Boyd are both under contract through the 2022 season, while Zimmermann is under contract through 2020. Fiers and Liriano are signed to short-term deals, and will likely be traded before the end of the month.

Here’s a closer look at how each pitcher can impact the team going forward.

The Team’s Most Valuable Asset: Michael Fulmer

Michael Fulmer has been decent this year up until his recent injury. His 3-9 record is very rough due to a lack of run support throughout the year and a few different blow-up starts. His 4.50 ERA and 4.26 FIP are what the team would have expected from Rick Porcello in years past (fifth starter production for fans spoiled by the dealings of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and prime Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez).

He has struggled with his command throughout the year — he is walking 3.05 batters per nine innings, up from his 2.19 mark last year — and the strikeouts have yet to increase, as his 7.47 strikeouts per nine are identical to last year. If he can utilize his sinker to baffle hitters again — per Fangraphs pitch values, it has only been worth 0.7 runs in 2018 when it had been worth 11.8 and 10 runs in 2017 and 2016, respectively — it will not be long before he returns to his form where he would be on pace for around 4.4 fWAR in 200 innings (which was his pace in 2016 and 2017), or perhaps better. Sure, the team could eventually trade him to further bolster their farm, but unless they are receiving multiple top positional talents, there is absolutely no point to sell on a pitcher with four years of arbitration coming.

The Resurgent Upper-End Starter: Jordan Zimmermann

Jordan Zimmermann has been surprisingly good in 2018. Despite dealing with some tough luck early in the season both in his starts and with injuries, he has only lost one game (nice job leaving him in for a fourth time against C.J. Cron). He also has his highest strikeout rate since his 2009 rookie season at 8.71 strikeouts per nine innings, is walking batters at his lowest rate (1.57 walks per nine innings) since his 5.3 fWAR 2014 season, and is limiting home runs closer to his usual career rate (1.14 home runs per nine innings), brushing aside his home run issues of 2017. Because of these impressive numbers, Zimmermann has a 3.71 ERA, a 3.38 FIP, and 1.6 fWAR in 63 innings (that’s on pace for 5.1 fWAR in a 200 inning season, which he unfortunately will not reach).

The numbers suggest that Zimmermann’s resurgence is mostly sustainable, as his current opponent BABIP and strand rate (.292 and 68.6%) are not too far out of whack with his career numbers (.298 and 72.8%, which were inflated by his first two years in Detroit). More importantly, Zimmermann is just in his 32-year-old season and very possibly could perform like this for a few more years to come. He never was one to rely on fastball velocity, so should he stay healthy, his repertoire should age well. I never thought I would say this, but Zimmermann may be a key player on a future Tigers contender after all.

Trade Chip: Mike Fiers (maybe Francisco Liriano?)

These guys do not have a long-term future in Detroit, so we won’t dwell on them for too long. Mike Fiers has been surprisingly good this year, posting a 3.49 ERA and 1.0 fWAR in his first 18 starts. He has a year of control left, and would come cheap for a contender needing a veteran to round out their rotation (both money-wise and prospect-wise). Liriano would come even cheaper, as he has been bad lately. Since the beginning of June, he has pitched only 26 innings and allowed 19 earned runs in that span. His 4.45 ERA in May was not very pretty either. All in all, Fiers should bring the Tigers back a modest return, but trading Liriano will be tough due to his recent performance.

Team-Friendly Middle-to-Back-End Starter: Matthew Boyd

I’m still not exactly sure what to think of Matthew Boyd moving forward. If the season ended today, he would have failed to post an ERA below 4.50 for his third straight season. That said, the signs of life are there: his 4.17 FIP isn’t that bad, and he has limited home runs better than ever this season (1.14 per nine innings). Boyd has been worth 1.4 fWAR in 103.1 innings this year, but the 4-9 record and 4.62 ERA are more of what we have seen in the past. He has good stretches and bad stretches. For example, Boyd posted a 2.74 ERA in March/April and a 3.18 ERA in May before beginning to struggle immensely. He did the same in 2017 with his 2.95 ERA in September/October, and in 2016 with his 2.21 ERA in July and 2.79 ERA in August. Maybe Boyd can put it together. That said, if the Mariners come a-knockin’ with Kyle Lewis and/or Evan White, maybe Al Avila should send Boyd back home.

Unproven Potential and Top Prospects: Daniel Norris, Casey Mize, Franklin Perez, Alex Faedo, Matt Manning, Beau Burrows, and Kyle Funkhouser

That’s right: there are six top pitching prospects down on the Tigers farm, plus one wildcard former top prospect in Daniel Norris who, fun fact, is just one year older than Kyle Funkhouser.

The Tigers have a wealth of pitching talent in their farm system, and the results are positive thus far in 2018. Matt Manning has posted a 3.24 ERA in his time with Lakeland and West Michigan and is only 20 years old. Alex Faedo has posted a 3.28 ERA in his time between West Michigan and Erie in his 22-year-old season (though his velocity dip and troubled mechanics have led to a slight drop in his stock). In Erie, 21-year-old Beau Burrows has posted a 3.63 ERA (and recently threw a seven-inning, nine-strikeout gem), though 24-year-old Kyle Funkhouser had posted a less encouraging 3.96 ERA before his season ended with a freak-accident foot injury. Franklin Perez was hurt for most of the season up until now, but has rehabbed in rookie ball and in Lakeland. Meanwhile, Casey Mize was the first overall pick in this year’s draft and will instantly slot in as the team’s top prospect and more than likely be on the fast track to Detroit. The biggest wildcard is Daniel Norris, who has shown flashes of brilliance but has failed to put anything truly impressive together since joining the organization in 2015.

The bad news? Not all of these guys will pan out. The good news? It’s very likely that some of them will, and all of them are projected to reach the majors by 2020.

Conclusion

The team has a lot of pitching potential for the future. With Fulmer and Zimmermann, the team has two proven starters to anchor the rotation. Boyd could be an intriguing back-end option or serve as a trade chip for some hitting prospects. General manager Al Avila will assuredly attempt to trade Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano for prospects. And, of course, the Tigers have seven young starters in the wings (and the ones that fail will hopefully make solid bullpen options). While the future rotation may not exactly be Mize-Fulmer-Manning-Perez-Faedo, it’s fun to imagine the possibility as these young guns continue to develop.

With a little bit of luck, the organization’s pitching depth could lead to some special teams in the near future, and if even just two or three of these young pitchers pan out, the team will have plenty of payroll space to sign bats with. Contention is not as far away as it seems.