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Ron Gardenhire wants Daniel Norris back in the rotation

The enigma is close to a return.

MLB: Game Two-Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Last Sunday, Daniel Norris joined the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens for his rehab start out of the Detroit Tigers’ complex in Lakeland, Florida. It went well. Norris allowed just one hard hit ball, struck out four, and scattered three hits and a walk in allowing just one run. More importantly, his pitch count was set at 75 for the day. That last number indicated that a return to the Tigers was close at hand. The question was the role manager Ron Gardenhire would use him in.

On Monday, the expectation was that Norris would rejoin the Tigers’ bullpen, but on Tuesday, Gardenhire seemed to change his tune. He’d left open the possibility of Norris getting starts before the season ends, and now, based on his comments to reporters, it seems a return to the starting rotation will be the move, at least on a part-time basis.

Perhaps the Tigers were simply waiting to see how Norris responded to the increased workload in his Mud Hens outing. Either way, Gardenhire sounded like he was pretty set on getting Norris at least a few starts in September. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News had the story.

“I want to get him a start,” Gardenhire said. “I’d love to get him a start. I think we need to. I think he needs it. Our goal is to get him a start or two before the end of the season.”

Norris threw 72 pitches on Sunday and has been going multiple innings throughout his rehab, so a return to starting isn’t so surprising. His outing in Toledo showcased his slider in sharp form, which is perhaps the best on the Tigers’ roster when he’s right. He didn’t appear to use his changeup often, though there were at least two that were very good and badly whiffed at on Sunday. However, based on radar gun readings, it also seems highly unlikely we’re going to see him throwing in the mid-90’s. He sat around 90 mph according to observers.

Generally, he looked much like a healthy Daniel Norris. He wasn’t efficient, but he also only walked one batter. His arm is still quick, and even with less velocity he was still dusting Triple-A hitters at the top of the zone. There were plenty of pop fouls and whiffs, as is typical. His control was solid, and while his command wavered at times, he either hit his target or missed out of the strike zone and wasn’t squared up much as a result, a trait that, at their best, he shares with fellow Tigers lefty, Francisco Liriano. It’ll be interesting to see how major league hitters handle his fastball, particularly during a second time through the batting order.

It is certainly possible that Norris simply won’t ever regain the ability to touch 96 mph when he wants it. However, he hasn’t had any arm issues, which is a point in his favor, and was averaging 93.1 mph as recently as last summer before the groin injury. We saw how much velocity a compromised groin and core strength cost Justin Verlander back in 2014.

Whether he can get that gas back with a healthy offseason is an open question, but either way, the short time frame of his return from groin surgery performed in early May always made that unlikely this year. Simply getting him back on the mound and able to pitch healthy ball for a month is plenty. And as long as his command is solid, and he has that slider, he should be effective in a relief role at minimum.

The 25-year-old Norris has frustrated the Tigers for two seasons now. His strong finish to the 2016 campaign left many analysts hailing him as a breakout star heading in 2017. Yet two full seasons later he’s largely off the radar. All season long, the talk around the Detroit Tigers has centered as much around the rebuilding effort, and players’ and prospects’ value in regard to the teams long-term goals. Daniel Norris still has the ability to be a major asset that has gone uncounted this year. For now, having him back on the mound should make Tigers baseball in September a little more entertaining.