There is nothing good about a starting pitcher needing Tommy John surgery. It puts them out of commission for 12-18 months, it leaves a pit of uncertainty for the team and their fans, and for the pitcher it’s an emotionally exhausting, heartbreaking punch in the gut. That’s before the grueling work of rehabbing the injury even begins.
When the Tigers learned they would be losing former Rookie of the Year pitcher Michael Fulmer for the 2019 season — after three separate opinions just to make sure it truly was the only option — a flurry of questions began to emerge. Would the Tigers need to pick up another pitcher? Would this expedite the use of various young arms from the minor leagues? How would the team rebound from this unfortunate scenario?
With the team projected to finish at the bottom of the AL Central this year — something not everyone agrees with — there is less pressure for them to field a traditional five-man pitching rotation. In the wake of Fulmer’s surgery, now is the ideal time for the Tigers to break out of their traditionalist ways.
Now is the time to experiment.
When the Tampa Bay Rays lost hot prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose de Leon to Tommy John surgery prior to the 2018 season, then lost Nathan Eovaldi to surgery for “loose bodies” that same month, everyone assumed they would dive into the free agent market and collect whichever starters were still available.
They didn’t sign anyone.
Instead, the Rays leaned into the concept of “bullpen days” and eventually evolved that focus on the bullpen into the “Opener.” Now, regardless of your feelings on the Opener strategy, you cannot refute that it was an incredible example of ingenuity in the face of adversity. The Rays lost more than half of their starting rotation, leaving them with just two starters: Chris Archer and Blake Snell. By the time the trade deadline hit, they only had Snell, making for a truly remarkable looking depth chart.
The Tigers are not the Rays. They have different philosophies, different personnel, and different managerial styles. What works for Kevin Cash in St. Petersburg is not likely to work the same for Ron Gardenhire in Detroit. But the Tigers don’t need to copy the Rays completely in order to buck the expected and do something interesting and unique. And with the “build” portion of the rebuild still on the distant horizon, they have nothing to lose.
At present, they have no shortage of candidates for the starting rotation, with sure-bets like Matthew Boyd and Jordan Zimmermann ready to fulfill the typical starter role. Behind them are the new acquisitions, Matt Moore and Tyson Ross, both of whom were competing for a starting position, hoping to have the kind of bounce-back season enjoyed by Mike Fiers last year. But there’s still more depth beyond that, with Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull in fine health and capable of pulling starts. And even beyond the usual suspects, the Tigers still have Blaine Hardy, who started in 13 games for the Tigers last season and managed a really quality 3.56 ERA for the season.
That’s seven starters.
There are a number of ways the Tigers could spin this in an interesting way:
Four-man regular rotation
The Tigers could run with the four-man roster of Zimmermann, Boyd, Ross, and Moore, and on the fifth day use one of either Norris, Turnbull, or Hardy for rotating spot starts. A side benefit of this method is it allows the Tigers to keep Norris in Toledo to start the season if they were hoping to give him an extra month or two to build up his skills, while also gaming his service time a little (not a bad idea in the case of a guy who has had two injury-shortened seasons). Turnbull and Hardy could split the fifth starter spot until Norris is needed.
Maintaining Norris, Turnbull, and Hardy as go-betweens in the rotation and bullpen means the Tigers have also bolstered the pen with three guys who can do long relief in a situation where a starter might falter early in a game. With three options rotating through the fifth “starter” position, they would never risk burning their planned starter for game five.
Similar to the above, the Tigers could opt to use Zimmermann, Boyd, and either Moore or Ross as their third starter — based on whoever has proven most deserving of the position out of spring camp — and run them out on a regular schedule while doing mixed bullpen days for the other two games of the rotation, moving either Moore or Ross into a similar role as Norris, Turnbull, and Hardy. There is added flexibility that way, though the mix is a little trickier to plan out so that you have enough arms fresh when needed.
True bullpenning — “The Rays Way”
With only two truly established starters in Zimmermann and Boyd, the Tigers could decide to do something really interesting and switch the remaining three games of the rotation cycle over to the bullpen. Shane Greene, the established closer, might be an interesting choice to test out as an opener, considering he has experience as a traditional starter, and his move to the closer niche is relatively recent.
Let’s compare him to the Rays first opener, Sergio Romo, who was also a traditional closer with the San Francisco Giants.
Shane Greene vs Sergio Romo
Romo, a former All-Star, is arguably going to be better than Greene by most metrics regardless of what position you put him in, but he still managed to net 25 saves last season while starting five games for the Rays. A slew of other Rays bullpen arms also came in to spot start games before turning them over to the bullpen.
We’ve already mentioned that the Tigers have myriad options for long-relief who could take the Ryne Stanek role for the team. Stanek, who pitched in 59 games for the Rays yet made 29 starts, managed a 2.98 ERA, 3.55 FIP, and 1.09 WHIP last season. He was the embodiment of the “Opener.” For the Tigers, Blaine Hardy had the most applicable workload, appearing in 30 games overall while starting 13, and posted a 3.56 ERA, 3.97 FIP, and 1.17 WHIP. The only reason he didn’t play in more games was that he started the season in Toledo. Buck Farmer had a single start last season but pitched in 66 games, with a 4.15 ERA, 4.46 FIP, and 1.56 WHIP. He also had the most innings of work for any reliever other than Shane Greene.
The point being, the Tigers have more than enough serviceable depth between their starters and bullpen that they could try something cool and unique, while also giving their bullpen some experience outside of the usual “you go in the seventh, you go in the eighth” designated roles.
The Tigers are unlikely to win the AL Central division this year, but the Rays were not expected to do anything interesting in 2018. They won 90 games, good enough for a Wild Card berth in most years. If ever there was a time for the Tigers to do something innovative, it’s now.