The Tigers came into spring camp with six starting pitchers, and only five spots in their rotation. A decision, made either by the team or by attrition, was always going to come due. We’re not quite there yet, with two weeks and several starts apiece remaining until Opening Day, but it certainly feels like Daniel Norris is the odd man out.
If Norris isn’t going to be in the starting rotation to open the season, what is the Tigers’ plan for him? According to manager Ron Gardenhire, the team may take Norris north in another capacity.
Reading between the lines, which is responsible, the Tigers seem to be looking at Norris in a long relief role to start the regular season. Said manager Ron Gardenhire: “We can use him a lot of different ways.” Said Norris: “I just want to help the team.”— Anthony Fenech (@anthonyfenech) March 13, 2019
There’s no definitive statement in Gardenhire’s brief comment on the matter. But unless Michael Fulmer isn’t ready to go, there likely isn’t a spot in the rotation, so we aren’t exactly reading tea leaves to predict some kind of mixed-relief role. The Tigers’ skipper and his pitching coach, Rick Anderson, are known devotees of crafty lefties who can spot start, throw long relief, or pick up a late game hold situation on occasion. A guy like that isn’t easy to find.
However, there are some pretty compelling reasons why this may not be the best use of Norris’ time.
Norris is still a valuable commodity
It’s worth remembering that the Tigers still have three years of team control remaining over Norris. A lefty who had a 95 mile-per-hour fastball and four above-average pitches to offer before injuries took their toll is still very valuable even if he has lost a bit of zip off the fastball. Even if Ross or Moore work out and the Tigers are able to flip them in July deals, the odds of them returning a more talented young player than Norris are slim to none. Giving up on him as a starter this early in his career seems pretty foolish from that perspective.
With no spot currently available in the rotation, the sensible move is then to option Norris to Triple-A to begin the year. That move would allow him to use all four pitches, pitch on a regular schedule, and try to reboot his career as a starting pitcher. For two seasons now, Norris has been in the wilderness dealing with ongoing groin issues, and enduring a lot of failure and frustration along the way. While he appears healthy, he needs plenty of reps to build himself back up. So, it’s likely that the best plan for Norris is simply to send him around for another approach to the major leagues.
Optioning Norris to Toledo would also have another long-term benefit. If he were to stay in Toledo until mid-May, he wouldn’t advance a full year of service time in 2019. As a result, the Tigers would retain team control through the 2022 season. Other teams are busily gaming the next generation of stars out of their service time. The Tigers would be a lot more justified in making that move with Norris. They got little to no value out of him over the past two seasons, and the move to let jim build himself back up as a starter makes sense from a pure baseball perspective as well. There will be opportunities for him to break back into the starting rotation if he can get on a roll in the minors.
We have a guy named Blaine Hardy
The arguments for putting Norris in the Tigers’ bullpen aren’t very compelling. Sure, with Shane Greene and Joe Jimenez holding down the late innings, and several other useful arms available, adding Norris into the bullpen in a hybrid role could really strengthen that group into a modest plus overall. But this isn’t a team built to win this year, and using Norris as a Swiss Army knife won’t change that fact. Besides, the Tigers already have Blaine Hardy, and this hybrid role is his wheelhouse.
Hardy has been the versatile lefty in the Tigers’ bullpen for much of the past five seasons. Last year he took things to a new level. Hardy made 13 starts, with a 4.26 ERA and a 4.30 FIP. Those outings made up 67 2⁄3 of his innings. In 18 1⁄3 innings of scattered relief work? Hardy posted a 0.98 ERA and a 2.78 FIP, with much higher strikeout rates than as a starter. He handled everything that was thrown at him and continued to thrive. That experience makes him the perfect guy to turn to in a hybrid role, and Hardy is having a fine spring so far. He should have no issues slotting into Gardenhire’s plans.
The Tigers likely won’t be emulating the Tampa Bay Rays with a planned mix of starters, openers, and bullpen days. So, having both lefties in the pen as long-ish relievers doesn’t make much sense. It could also be detrimental to getting Norris back to full strength as a starter. His manager’s desire to have him available for mop-up duty, on a team that isn’t built to win now anyway, is irrelevant. The front office needs to take this decision out of Gardenhire’s hands, and do what is best for both the organization and the player in the long-term.
Nothing is finalized
Obviously, a lot of the roster decisions a team makes are forced upon them by injuries or ineffectiveness. Presumably, Norris, Hardy, and prospects like Spencer Turnbull will be called on to start at some point if they are pitching well. Still, one has to wonder how likely Norris will be to get those starts if he isn’t stretched out for that role — something that will be difficult to maintain if he is in the bullpen. However they decide to deploy him, the ball will still be in his court to a degree. If Norris works his way back to the level we saw in his first two years in the major leagues, he will earn his opportunities.