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Tigers vs. Blue Jays Preview: The search for offense continues in season-opening series

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The Tigers’ future will be on display as Spencer Turnbull makes an earlier-than-expected season debut.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We are two games into the 2019 season, and the Tigers have yet to score a run in a regular nine-inning game. Christin Stewart’s game-winning jack on Thursday is all of the offense they have mustered so far. Nicholas Castellanos has half of the team’s six hits on the year. Luckily, this has been enough for the Tigers to come away with a split in the first two games of the year.

This won’t continue going forward, obviously. The Tigers will start to score more runs, especially as the middle of their lineup wakes up. After Castellanos, the Tigers’ No. 3-5 hitters are a combined 2-for-21 with two walks. Jeimer Candelario quietly finished Friday’s game with a golden sombrero, and has struck out five times in his eight plate appearances this season. Miguel Cabrera walked on Friday, but otherwise has not looked sharp after a strong spring.

So why are we so concerned about this after just two games? Selfish reasons, naturally. Spencer Turnbull will make his season debut on Saturday, marking another small step towards the next era of Tigers baseball. He looked solid at times in his brief September call-up last year, with 15 strikeouts in 16 13 innings, and he made his case for a rotation spot with an excellent spring.

There’s no telling whether Turnbull really would have made the rotation if Michael Fulmer stayed healthy. Manager Ron Gardenhire says he considered a six-man unit, but he likes jokes sometimes. Either way, Fulmer’s injury has created an opportunity for someone to step up, and Turnbull is the first candidate. Here’s hoping he shows us more of this in 2019.

Detroit Tigers (1-1) at Toronto Blue Jays (1-1)

Time/Place: 3:07 p.m., Rogers Centre
SB Nation site: Bluebird Banter
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Spencer Turnbull (0-2, 6.06 ERA) vs. RHP Aaron Sanchez (4-6, 4.89 ERA)

Game 3 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Turnbull 16.1 21.7 5.8 2.85 0.5
Sanchez 105.0 18.1 12.2 4.74 0.6

Michael Fulmer isn’t the only young starter who has seen his career derailed by injuries recently. Aaron Sanchez, who beat out Fulmer* for the ERA title in 2016, has only been healthy enough to throw 141 innings at the major league level over the past two seasons. Sanchez’s issues have been almost entirely due to finger injuries, including blisters that have plagued him for a few years now. He appears healthy now after 17 23 drama-free innings this spring, but it remains to be seen if he can handle a full starter’s workload again.

Assuming no issues pop up on Saturday, Sanchez could prove to be a real problem for the Tigers offense. His two-seam fastball sat in the 94-95 mile-per-hour range last season, and reports from Jays camp in Dunedin were consistent with that velocity. He also likes to mix in a slow curveball that spins like crazy, yet barely scrapes 80 mph on the radar gun. In between is a mid-80s changeup that Sanchez threw a lot more often last year, especially when he got ahead against right-handed hitters. He still has yet to figure out lefties — they hit .288/.407/.470 against him last year — but righties haven’t had much of a chance over the course of his career.

*Fulmer didn’t log enough innings to qualify, but Sanchez had a lower ERA nonetheless.

Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. strikeouts

Earlier this year, we downplayed the idea that the Tigers’ biggest problem offensively was their propensity for striking out a lot. While the claims in that article still ring true, strikeouts have been an issue so far in 2019. Tigers hitters have struck out 24 times in their first two games, the third-highest total for any team that has only played two games. In fact, they are just three strikeouts shy of the Oakland Athletics, who already have four regular season games under their belt.

We already mentioned Candelario’s whiff issues, but Mikie Mahtook, Grayson Greiner, and even Game 1 hero Christin Stewart are all sporting early strikeout rates north of 40 percent. Sanchez isn’t much of a strikeout artist, but he has the stuff to generate swings and misses, especially against right-handed hitters. How the Tigers adapt to their early contact issues — they have the second-lowest contact rate in baseball right now, and the other team had to face Jacob deGrom — could help determine where this game goes.

Prediction

The Tigers offense wakes up and Turnbull earns his first major league win.