On Friday, word filtered out that Jordan Zimmermann would be placed on the 10-day injured list with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. While the news was rough for the Tigers’ veteran starter personally, it also has serious implications for the whole roster. The pitching staff has suffered enough losses that general manager Al Avila may be forced into some decisions he didn’t want to make so early in the season.
That the Tigers weren’t going to be contending in 2019 was a given. But if the starting rotation wasn’t impressive, there was initially enough depth there to think that they could do a decent job of handling the usual slate of pitcher injuries. Later in the season, the Tigers could also expect a little help from advanced pitching prospects like Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser.
Then Michael Fulmer, already struggling to return from offseason knee surgery, tore his UCL and was lost for the season in mid-March. Matt Moore looked good for two outings before suffering a knee injury of his own. He won’t be pitching again this season either. Now with Zimmermann and Blaine Hardy both on the shelf — both with elbow issues, mind you — all the depth the Tigers had when Grapefruit League play began has been winnowed away. Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull are in the rotation to stay, the Tigers need another starter up from Toledo, the bullpen is taxed, and the calendar hasn’t even turned to May yet.
Through 25 games, the Tigers’ starters actually rank fifth in baseball in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement (fWAR). Overall, the group has done solid work. But at the same time, the rotation has already been decimated with injuries and is quickly becoming stressed beyond its limit.
Presumably, the Tigers will wait to see how Hardy’s forearm strain and Zimmermann’s elbow respond to treatment before pursuing help outside the organization. Right now, Ryan Carpenter appears set to be the Tigers’ starting pitcher on Saturday, though that isn’t official and may depend on whether the game is even played. Snow is forecast, and the Tigers may be fortunate to simply skip that turn in the rotation, giving them a few days to assess the situation further.
Carpenter is likely to get the first shot simply because he is on the 40-man roster and has pitched in the major leagues already, albeit briefly and unsuccessfully. However, Carpenter is 28 years old, isn’t a prospect, and is off to a very shaky start for Triple-A Toledo this year. Matt Hall, a lefty with a mediocre fastball but a nasty curve, is also on the 40-man, but he too has struggled so far to impress as a major league option. Kyle Funkhouser is experienced enough that the Tigers need to start getting some value out of him at the major league level, but he hasn’t made it out of the first inning in his last two starts.
The pitcher most would like to see called up is probably Beau Burrows. The Tigers’ first round selection in the 2015 draft, Burrows is a hard throwing righthander that has proved himself durable and effective while steadily working his way up the minor league ladder. He is still just 22 years old, and the organization would probably prefer to give him a few more months of Triple-A seasoning before a call-up, but they may not have a choice.
Burrows is off to a good start in his first year of International League play. He boasts a 2.84 ERA through four starts, has 20 strikeouts to seven walks in 19 innings of work, and has allowed just one home run. Any scouting report on Burrows will tell you his command still needs to take a step to be major league ready, but the same is even more true of the other options. Burrows is the one starter at Toledo who really packs quality major league stuff at his best. He’s not on the 40-man roster yet, but that won’t be a problem if the Tigers find they need him. Burrows has to be added to the 40-man later in the year anyway, and there are certainly numerous players the Tigers could release without much pain.
The other possibility is to go out and make a trade for a starting pitcher. There are veteran starters stashed as depth throughout the Triple-A level and the Tigers could make a low level deal along those lines. Or they could really surprise us and make a big trade or sign Dallas Keuchel, who remains a free agent. Don’t expect either of those last couple options, though.
Injuries to one player creates an opportunity for another. It may not be pretty, but the Tigers do have a few internal options they can turn to in the short-term. They just aren’t options anyone believes are ready for regular duty in the show. The Tigers are going to need someone who can be effective. If they can’t find some help soon, this season is going to feature an overworked bullpen and a rotation perilously close to complete disarray.