We’ve had a rough 24 hours here in Tiger Town. Reports surfaced on Tuesday that Michael Fulmer had been recommended for Tommy John surgery by Dr. James Andrews. Fulmer wanted a third opinion, but confirmed on Wednesday that he will undergo the procedure. As a result, the Tigers won’t have Fulmer back on the field until sometime in 2020. It’s a preseason kick in the teeth to a fanbase that is already suffering through what looks to be a lengthy period of bad baseball.
We won’t mine too hard for silver linings here. But the fact remains that one player’s misfortune is always another’s opportunity. Prior to Fulmer going down, both Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull were on the outside looking in. Turnbull appeared in position to be the team’s sixth starter, working in Triple-A Toledo until the inevitable need arose. Meanwhile, as we wrote last week, Norris appeared to be odd man out, destined to shadow Blaine Hardy in some kind of long relief role in the bullpen.
One thing is certain already. With Fulmer down for the year, Norris isn’t going to be pitching relief. Either he or Turnbull will be needed as a permanent member of the starting rotation, and the other will be in the Mud Hens’ rotation, awaiting the next call. The Tigers will need them both stretched out to start. The question is which one gets the first shot at the major league gig.
Right now, things seem to favor Turnbull.
The sturdy 26-year-old righthander seems to have the eye of manager Ron Gardenhire, and has put together a very solid spring camp to date. As we noted in our scouting report back in January, Turnbull packs a unique array of hard stuff, with a distinctive four-seam fastball, sinker, and cutter in the mix. The sinker remains his primary offering, and he backs it with a quality slider and a roughly average curveball and changeup.
Turnbull has long been pegged as a future reliever, mainly due to a history of shoulder injuries and some difficulty sustaining his stuff deep into games. But he gets plenty of ground balls and doesn’t allow much hard contact. The 2018 season was a reprieve from ongoing shoulder trouble Turnbull has dealt with throughout his time as a pro, and he took advantage, refining his control and getting a little stingier with walks and waste pitches. If he can continue to refine his command and locate the best version of his slider regularly, he has a chance to be pretty good.
Norris, on the other hand, is a wild card at this point.
By the end of 2016, he looked like one of the better young starters in the game. However, after struggling through two abortive seasons dealing with a serious groin strain and complications resulting from it, Norris is in a very different place in the Tigers hierarchy. He’s also pitching for a new coaching staff that has never seen him at his best.
Norris struggled early in camp, but made some adjustments at the suggestion of fellow starter Jordan Zimmermann, and has looked better since. His stride length and extension have returned, and he’s been more explosive driving off the rubber and getting to a position to throw downhill to a degree we didn’t see in 2017-2018. Some of his velocity has returned, though not all the way back to the comfortable 93-95 he had a few years ago. His secondary pitches have rounded into shape, and what he really needs is regular repetitions using his full arsenal to build himself up again as a starter. If he can’t manage that this season, a final move to the bullpen may be in order.
There is another potential benefit to sending Norris to Toledo instead of Turnbull. Norris has accumulated three years and 73 days of major league service time thus far in his career, and has one option remaining. Should the Tigers keep him in the minors until mid-June, he wouldn’t progress a year in terms of team control. Instead of hitting free agency after the 2021 season, the Tigers would have him through 2022. Such a move is defensible for baseball reasons in ways that the shenanigans teams pull with top prospects are not.
Based on track record, the starting rotation decision would certainly favor Norris. He has 282 innings under his belt though his numbers slumped last year to mediocre career marks of 4.63 FIP and an ERA just over 5.00. However, Turnbull’s spring performance and the praise from the coaching staff says he’s the favorite. Whatever happens with Norris over the final week of spring camp, Turnbull’s is the number you can expect to see called when the season begins. After four long years in the Tigers’ farm system, it’s time to see what he’s got. We’ll have to see if the Tigers agree.
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