Way back in early March, the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation looked like one of the team’s relative strong points before the 2020 season was postponed. Despite not a single frontline starter to boast of, there was still some depth at hand, as well as three of the game’s top pitching prospects waiting in the wings. Then came COVID-19.
By the time the Tigers took the field in late July, Jordan Zimmermann was banged up again and Ivan Nova quickly followed him to the injured list. Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer struggled through a pair of ugly campaigns. Even the speedy promotion of Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal just a few weeks into the season couldn’t stem the tide. The rotation posted the worst numbers in baseball this season, and it wasn’t very close. Only a surprisingly robust bullpen enabled them to hang around as long as they did.
There are some reasons to hope for better results in 2021, but the Tigers are going to need some quality help this offseason. It’s been more fun to speculate about adding a catcher and a few bats, but the effects of the shortened 2020 season and lack of minor league ball are going to carry over next season. Pitching is still a need, and hopefully an opportunity this winter.
As the Tigers confront their planning for the 2021 season, finding enough innings from their rotation is job one. Whatever your hopes for the club in terms of adding offense, securing enough starting pitching, preferably quality pitching, is non-negotiable. Typically, a team needs roughly 850 innings from the starters in a normal 162 game schedule. The club isn’t going to manage that without dipping into the free agent market or making a trade for a starter.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the short season is a negative influence on pitchers’ ability to handle a full year’s workload in 2021. Even veteran starters with plenty of experience handling a starter’s workload may face added jeopardy if teams lean too hard on them next year. Injuries were already up this season, and the difficult schedule and limited amount of work this year are going to take their toll on pitchers next season as well.
Based on past performance, we’ll start by penciling Spencer Turnbull and Matthew Boyd in to combine for around 300 innings total. That assumes health for both, and some modicum of a return to effectiveness for Boyd, neither of which are at all guaranteed.
Michael Fulmer looked like a shadow of his former self during his return from 2019 knee and elbow surgeries. That’s not unusual for a pitcher’s first foray back into competitive action following a UCL repair, but for Fulmer the issue is complicated by knee issues that have forced some compensation in his throwing mechanics. A pitcher of his experience will probably be slated to throw roughly 125 innings in his full season return from the surgery, but he’ll have to look a lot better next season to get that far. The Tigers will give him every opportunity to figure things out next year but how he fares is anyone’s guess.
That brings us to Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal. Innings progressions for young starting pitchers are a crucial part of their development. Both showed flashes of their potential to become future frontline starters for the organization, and will be expected to improve on their results in 2021. However, after throwing 110 innings and 122 2⁄3 innings in 2019 respectively, the limited workload this season is a setback that doesn’t have a solution.
Teams track all pitches thrown, from bullpen sessions and simulated games, to warm-up pitches and all in-game action, so the calculation is a bit more complex that just their innings totals. Still, the Tigers have to be very careful with their prize pitching prospects or they could quickly set their rebuilding effort back a year or more. There’s also no guarantee that either begins the season in the major leagues rather than in Toledo. If either throws more than 125 innings for the Tigers in 2020 it would be a surprise.
At best, the Tigers can probably hope for 650 innings from their five top starters next year. That leaves a whole rotation’s slot worth of work remaining even in a highly optimistic scenario without any major injuries. Daniel Norris is going to be on the trading block as a reliever in his final year of team control. Messing with him again wouldn’t be wise unless there is total conviction that he’s ready to move back into the rotation. Such conviction would sensibly come with a contract extension, but that whole scenario seems quite unlikely. Tyler Alexander might chip in a few spot starts, and Matt Manning or Alex Faedo could be of some assistance as well, but there’s just no way it’s going to be enough.
The Tigers are going to need to add at least one starting pitcher again this offseason. The good news is that this should be more of an opportunity than a problem.
The market should favor the Tigers
Lost revenue from the COVID-19 shutdown and lack of attendance in 2020 can’t help but loom large over the impending offseason. Many teams are going to shed payroll or stand pat. Relations between free agents and teams will probably be downright frosty until the status of the 2021 season comes into tighter focus in February and early March. Meanwhile, the Tigers are now free of the burdensome Jordan Zimmermann deal, and should be in better financial shape than their peers.
A constant among good teams is the ability to acquire and improve pitchers. One of the key flaws in the Tigers rebuilding effort has been their inability to do just that. In free agency, they’ve largely stuck with veteran innings eaters without much potential for a breakout. Hopefully with input of A.J. Hinch, Chris Fetter, and Juan Nieves, the front office can find them a few pitchers they’re keen to work with this offseason.
There are a few paths Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila could follow here.
First, he could try to pounce the free agent market. It’s very likely that most free agent pitchers will be waiting around for the next three months while teams try to get a firm read on their finances and projections for 2021 revenue. With plenty of payroll flexibility, the Tigers might be able to jump in early, perhaps offering an extra year to land a bargain in November or December before the league at large begins seriously pursuing available free agents to sign.
The other option, and the one that may be the best use of their payroll flexibility, would be to correctly evaluate the other 29 teams financial situations and look to trade for an arbitration eligible young pitcher whose team doesn’t want to give them a raise. Good teams do not just hoard all their mid-tier prospects. They deal them while they still have some potential that a team might buy into. Turning some of the Tigers growing farm system depth into major league talent their new manager and coaching staff want to work with would be wise use of those assets.
With A.J. Hinch and his pitching coaches participating in the decision making, it’s also possible that the Tigers could really surprise us by getting creative. Maybe they decide to emphasize the bullpen instead, and simply cobble together the starts they need, particularly early in the year. They could then target help as needed during the season without such a desperate need for a solid, bona fide starter to add to the mix. Maybe they pick up a pair of swingman types instead, targeting struggling or injury prone starters they think would be better off pitching 2-3 innings at a time.
Still, one way or another, the Tigers do not currently have enough pitching to ensure getting through the season intact, and without having to lean on their rookies out of need. Adding at least one starter with some upside, maybe a swingman type—Drew Smyly anyone?—or some regular relief help to bolster a bullpen that showed signs of life this season, would substantially boost the club’s outlook in 2021. Targeting a few pitchers Fetter and Nieves believe they can help, and aggressively moving on them, either in trade or free agency, would also be a very welcome sign that this front office has enough confidence in their abilities to make a bold move.