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Tigers spring training roster projections: All eyes are on the starting rotation in 2020

The Tigers’ rotation was solid in 2019, and should be better this season.

Detroit Tigers Spring Workout Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

There are a couple of different ways to look at how the Detroit Tigers rotation performed in 2019. On one hand, they produced a 5.51 ERA, the fourth-highest in all of baseball. They gave up too many runs, and as a result, finished with more losses than any other rotation in the game.

The underlying metrics tell a different story, however. Tigers starters managed a 4.66 FIP last year, nearly a full run lower than their ERA. This FIP was right in the middle of the pack among MLB clubs. The same goes for their 10.6 fWAR, which ranked 16th among all teams. They were 15th in strikeout rate, and produced the seventh-lowest walk rate in the major leagues, for a 14.7 percent K-BB% that was not far off from the division-winning Minnesota Twins.

And those figures include 31 starts from Tyson Ross, Edwin Jackson, Gregory Soto, and Ryan Carpenter.

Assuming the Tigers’ depth pieces will be better in 2020, it’s not a stretch to assume that they could have an above-average starting rotation. Their regular starters, save for Jordan Zimmermann, all finished with ERAs of 4.61 or lower (the AL average for starting pitchers was 4.76). Pitchers like Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris will be a year more experienced, though more is being asked of Norris this year. Ivan Nova should be an improvement on 2019 rentals like Ross, and Mathew Boyd will continue his fight against the home run ball. Michael Fulmer should be back at some point in June or July as well, giving the Tigers another solid option.

And instead of adding the Jacksons and Carpenters of the world into the mix when things go awry, the Tigers will finally be able to dip into their wealth of pitching prospects for help. Wait for next year? Sure, if you’re looking big picture, but the rotation is pretty interesting already.

Rotation: Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, Jordan Zimmermann, Spencer Turnbull, Ivan Nova

While the rest of the world waits to see if Matthew Boyd will be traded, I’m still left wondering if the 29-year-old will ever conquer the home run ball. He almost certainly won’t deaden the ball like rotation mate Spencer Turnbull at any point in his career, but Boyd was hurt pretty badly by the juiced baseball in 2019; he gave up a league-leading 39 home runs, more than half of which came after the All-Star break. Luckily, Steamer projects him to regress to pre-2019 levels, which could result in his best season to date (a projected 3.4 fWAR).

Speaking of Turnbull, there might not be a Tigers starter with more to prove this year. The prospects are coming, and Turnbull wasn’t good enough last year to cement his spot in the rotation for years to come. He hit the wall pretty hard come mid-June, producing a 6.62 ERA in his final 16 starts; the Tigers went 1-15 in those games. Amazingly, he didn’t collect a single win at Comerica Park last year.

Daniel Norris is also fighting for his future job, but all signs point to him having one of his best years yet. He finished strong in 2019, and was worth 1.9 fWAR in 144 13 innings. This included a run from mid-July onward that saw him produce a 3.19 ERA in 13 starts, most of them piggybacked with the since departed Drew VerHagen. The question: can Norris replicate (or improve on) last year’s numbers when asked to go more than a few innings at a time?

The veterans probably don’t deserve a ton of ink here — they will get their due when we start publishing player previews. Zimmermann is in the final season of his ill-fated five-year contract, but is still saying all the right things even after posting a 6.91 ERA in 2019. Nova is a bit more interesting, as he has been a lock for roughly 2.0 fWAR and 160 innings over the past four years. We shouldn’t have high hopes for any sort of trade deadline flip, but he should be a capable innings eater, albeit one who gives up a lot of contact.

In the mix: Tyler Alexander

It’s a bit surprising that a team that lost 114 games last season is heading into spring training with a no-doubt starting five, but here we are. The rotation above, in some order, will be what we see from the Tigers to open the season, so long as everyone makes it through the next month without getting hurt — not always a given with pitchers, as we know.

The one exception might be Alexander, who will probably open the season in the Tigers’ bullpen. He is one of just eight left-handed pitchers in Lakeland, and we can safely eliminate half of them — Boyd, Norris, Tarik Skubal, and Joey Wentz — from consideration. Alexander looked great at times in 2019, and produced a stellar 6.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 53 23 big league innings. He is a longshot to make the rotation, but seems among the most likely to make an early season spot start if needed.

The prospects: Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser, Franklin Perez, Alex Faedo, Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Joey Wentz

For as deep and exciting as this group is, there isn’t much to say here that we have not already said on the site this year. Burrows and Funkhouser are probably on their last legs as starters, but should be given every chance (Burrows, in particular) to stick before the next wave of prospects (pretty much everyone else listed) is ready to come up in late 2020 or 2021.

While it would be fun to see Mize, Manning, or someone else crack the Opening Day roster, all we can really hope for is that everyone stays healthy this spring. Joey Wentz is already dealing with some forearm soreness, but others — including the oft-injured Franklin Perez — seem fine so far. Perez, naturally, will be the name to watch here; it would sure be nice if we looked very dumb for writing this later on this season.

Also in camp: Zack Godley, Hector Santiago, Tim Adleman, Shao-Ching Chiang, Michael Fulmer

The first four names on this list are almost surely going to be minor league depth, in the mix for a bullpen spot, or looking for employment within the next month. Santiago struck out 40 batters in 33 23 innings last year, but also had an ERA above 6. Godley is entering his age-30 season, but his 4.2 rWAR campaign in 2017 is looking like a one-hit wonder. He seems like the most likely of this group (Fulmer excluded) to break out, though that isn’t saying much.

Then there’s Fulmer. We don’t know what to expect from him yet, but with the Tigers having already placed him on the 60-day injured list, predicting what he will do in 2020 seems like little more than a wild guess. Both ZiPS and Steamer have him pegged for ERAs in the mid-4s, though they are far apart on the number of innings he will pitch. If he meets the more optimistic projection (1.6 fWAR by ZiPS), I think that’s a big victory for the Tigers in 2020.