The Detroit Tigers announced on Saturday that starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann has been shut down for forearm tightness, and will be placed on the 45-day injured list. Zimmermann will attempt to work through the problem via rehabilitation rather than surgery, and it’s not impossible that he could rejoin the team late in the season to provide some long relief. However, his tenure as a starter for the Detroit Tigers is over.
One player’s misfortune is, of course, another’s opportunity. Casey Mize has arguably looked like the best starter in Summer Camp action, and was already penciled in to make his debut in the second half of the pre-COVID 2020 schedule. Opinions may vary over whether it’s Matt Manning or Mize who holds the highest upside, but there’s no doubt that right now, Mize is closer to major league ready. The loss of Zimmermann makes it more likely than the first overall pick in the 2018 amateur draft will be starting games for the Tigers by mid-August at the latest.
Preseason, FanGraphs’ ZIPS projection system forecast Mize getting just a late season look, with ERA and FIP projections in the high 4.00’s. However, with an improved cutter this spring, and more time to work on his slider, he seems a good bet to beat those numbers. Even if he doesn’t he’s still better than what Zimmermann, or Nova for that matter, would be expected to produce.
Despite requiring a leap right over the Triple-A level, it’s difficult to argue that Mize isn’t one of the Tigers five best starters already. He may need time to settle in, but even that requirement plays right into the situation the Tigers are in as Opening Day nears.
Right now, the certainties, such as they are in year of chaos, in the Tigers’ rotation are Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, and Ivan Nova. Michael Fulmer will start as well, but it’s unclear what kind of leash he’s going to have with his pitch counts. In the early going it’s unlikely they’re going to want to push him much beyond 75 pitches, especially with the horde of relievers on hand as a result of the expanded early season rosters. Daniel Norris is near to reporting to camp, but will probably need a few weeks of work before he’s ready to rejoin the rotation.
For the first two weeks of the season, the Tigers may be working with as many as 10-11 relievers due to the 30-man roster. After two weeks, that number drops to 28, and finally to 26 after the fourth week. So in the early going, the Tigers don’t really need a full-time fifth starter. They can cover a few starts with their collection of long relievers, and still provide backup to Fulmer and the rest of the rotation as they stretch out.
This is probably for the best where Mize is concerned. No doubt the cerebral and hard-working right-hander feels ready to go, but the preference is to make sure a pitcher in his situation is full stretched out and has a good amount of work under his belt before promoting them. Mize isn’t going to have a 3-4 month run-up to his major league debut pitching in Toledo. So it would behoove the Tigers to make sure he’s full stretched out and has more work under his belt before he gets thrown into the fire for the first time.
The Tigers also don’t want to start his service clock immediately. This short season means that each day on the active roster is worth about 2.8 games of service time based on a normal season’s work. So giving him a few more weeks work in intrasquad action in Toledo does more than just ensure that Mize is as ready as possible when the call comes. It also ensures that an entire year of service time won’t be spent. A mid-August callup would still leave all of 2021 as his first full season.
The truth, is that Zimmermann would never have stood in Mize’s way much to begin with. No doubt his best usage from the team’s perspective would’ve been in long relief. His loss merely makes the decision-making here a little simpler. Mize and Norris should both be ready to join the major league roster at roughly the same time, between the 7th and 14th of August. In the case of Casey Mize, that may have been how the season played out anyway.
At that point, assuming good health, the Tigers can run out their optimized rotation of Boyd, Turnbull, Fulmer, Norris, and Mize. They’ll have plenty of long relief options to piggyback on the latter three as needed, and if Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal get it going in intrasquad action, pretty excellent depth for a spot start here or there as required, or a late season injection of flamethrowers into the bullpen.
Of course, the Tigers could also choose to let the players they’re basing their future on stagnate for an entire year. That would seem extremely unwise at this point. Mize, and to a lesser degree, Manning and Skubal, were already on course to make their debuts late this season. Keeping them on that course allows them to test themselves and gain valuable feedback on how major league hitters are capable of attacking them. It also provides a motivating “carrot” to keep them working hard in camp while they wait for their turn.
This isn’t the way anyone would have chosen to reach this point, but the Tigers’ rotation is finally on the cusp of a serious influx of young talent. It’s fitting that Mize looks to be ready to lead the way.