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Tigers vs. Cardinals Preview: Michael Fulmer aims for clean sweep on Sunday

The Tigers could pick up a three-game sweep with their three best starters finally on the mound together.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

This is how it was supposed to work. The Tigers acquired six young players at the 2015 trade deadline, including three starters close to major league level. Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd slotted into Detroit’s rotation immediately, and showed flashes of promise over the final two months of the season. Then, Michael Fulmer came up in 2016 and looked the best of the bunch, winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Norris and Boyd also pitched well enough for the Tigers to reach the playoffs, but the organization had other ideas.

The last two years have gone sideways on the Tigers for a number of reasons, but this weekend has given us a glimpse into an alternate reality of sorts; with Norris and Boyd helping the Tigers pick up wins over the Cardinals over the past two days, it leaves me wondering what could have been. The Tigers had plenty of problems that led to their rebuild, of course, but more consistent performance from Norris and Boyd over the past couple years might have pried their window of contention open just a bit longer.

Instead, we’re left hoping the Tigers can pick up another win in an otherwise lost season, just because we’re still bitter about 2006.

Stupid Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals (78-64) at Detroit Tigers (59-83)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Viva El Birdos
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP John Gant (6-5, 3.19 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (3-10, 4.57 ERA)

Game 143 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Gant 96.0 19.8 11.4 3.90 1.2
Fulmer 126.0 19.9 8.1 4.38 1.5

The Cardinals’ knack for squeezing homegrown talent out of every corner of its farm system knows no bounds, and John Gant might be Exhibit A. Okay, so maybe he isn’t a true “homegrown” player — he has played for two other organizations and made his major league debut with the Atlanta Braves in 2016 — but Gant sure as hell feels like another Cardinals success story. He was originally drafted by the New York Mets in the 21st round of the 2011 draft, and was traded to Atlanta in Jul 2015. He pitched 50 innings for them in 2016 before he was flipped to St. Louis the following offseason. After a brief audition in 2017, he pitched his way into a full-time spot in the rotation this year.

Gant feels like a homegrown Cardinals pitcher because he fits that mold to a tee. He has a solid if unspectacular fastball that sits in the 93-94 mile per hour range. FanGraphs graded it as an above-average pitch, just like they did for Saturday starter Jack Flaherty (Friday starter Austin Gomber’s heater was actually graded below average). And like those two, Gant supplements that fastball largely with one excellent off-speed pitch: his changeup. It’s a plus offering he throws 27 percent of the time, and it generates whiffs at a near-20 percent clip.

That hasn’t translated to a lot of strikeouts, though. Gant’s 19.8 percent strikeout rate is below the National League average of 21.7 percent, and his 11.4 percent walk rate isn’t anything to write home about either. Of the 78 NL pitchers who have logged at least 80 innings this year, only seven have a lower K-BB%, and Gant’s 3.19 ERA is by far the lowest of that group. He has been good about limiting home runs so far, suppressing some advanced measures like FIP, but other metrics like xFIP (4.60) and SIERA (4.79) suggest that there is some regression in Gant’s future.

Key matchup: Recent production vs. season-long expectations

This one is simple. The Tigers have been one of the worst offenses in baseball this season. Their 86 wRC+ ranks last in the American League and sixth-worst among all MLB teams. Over the last month, however, the Tigers have been well above-average; their 106 wRC+ is eighth-highest in MLB, and they are hitting for more power.

Will this continue? It would be nice to see the team finish strong, especially with so many younger players in the lineup these days — and potentially more on the way from Toledo.

Prediction

The Tigers’ late-game magic runs out in a Sunday afternoon loss.

Gameday reading