We now have a collective bargaining agreement, the lockout is over, and the hot stove is going to be blazing hot through the weekend. With Grapefruit League games scheduled to begin on March 18th, players have only a few days to sign a deal, find places to live, get cleared to enter the country, and report to camp in time to get some workouts in with their teammates.
Currently, the Detroit Tigers’ rotation is Eduardo Rodriguez, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning. Tyler Alexander is currently fifth on the depth chart, but the Tigers aren’t going to put him in the rotation unless injuries make it a necessity at some point. So, the need is obvious. The Tigers need a quality major league starting pitcher, and they could use two more that they can stash on minor league deals.
The top starting pitcher remaining in free agency as the lockout ended was former Chicago White Sox lefty, Carlos Rodon. He didn’t last long. The San Francisco Giants dropped two-years/$44 million and landed him on Friday afternoon. Clayton Kershaw signed a one year deal with the Dodgers, which is as it should be, and so any hope of landing a big piece in free agency is over already. That’s the kind of pace we can expect.
So, rather than trying to write individual profiles that may be out of date within hours, let’s just take quick look at the Tigers’ best options for starting pitching depth. Ultimately, if the Tigers really want to seriously upgrade the rotation and give it a good whirl this season, the trade market is probably their best bet. Most of the following are fifth starter types, or guys to try and stash on a minor league deal. So be forewarned, you’re not likely to be thrilled with the possibilities here. Once we’re through the list, we’ll talk about how the Tigers should probably approach the subject.
RHP Michael Pineda
Now 33 years old, the big right-hander has been an American League fixture for over a decade, mainly with the New York Yankees. The Tigers have seen him quite a bit the past three years with the Minnesota Twins, and Pineda remains a good starting pitcher who just isn’t very durable. The last time he topped 150 innings was way back in 2016.
In 2021, Pineda’s strikeout rate and velocity dipped somewhat, but he remains a heavy strike thrower who doesn’t give up many walks and managed to post a home run rate just a little over league average at 1.40 per nine innings. He put up a 3.62 ERA with a 4.21 FIP last year despite allowing the highest average exit velocity and barrel percentage of his career. While he appears to have entered his decline phase, a move to Comerica Park could help squeeze another solid year out of him. Just don’t expect to get more than 20 starts out of him.
RHP Garrett Richards
For years, Richards was a popular breakout candidate due to his high spin stuff and heavy fastball. However, after a lengthy struggle to get his arm right with the Los Angeles Angels, finally resulting in UCL reconstruction, the potential just isn’t there anymore. However, in 2021 he landed with the Boston Red Sox and had his best season since 2015, putting up 136 2⁄3 innings of decent backend starter work with a 4.87 ERA and 4.72 FIP.
Richards still has those high spin rates, and gets outstanding depth on his curveball and slider. The fastball continues to be that oddest of ducks; the high spin sinking fourseamer. Richards gets a lot of gyro on it, and still tops 94 mph on average with some seam-shifted wake effect that makes the pitch hard to barrel in the air, though he doesn’t miss many bats with it either. Like Pineda, he still has to be regarded as a real injury risk who at best will give the Tigers 20 starts. I’d be curious to see what the Tigers’ coaching staff would do with him, but Richards is a lesser option than Pineda and not a lock to get a major league contract.
LHP Tyler Anderson
With the Chicago White Sox currently ruling the AL Central with a killer lineup stacked with right-handed hitters, a lefty isn’t really the ideal fit for the rotation. The 30-year-old Anderson came up with the Rockies before brief stints with the Giants, Pirates, and the Mariners, who dealt for him as depth at the 2021 trade deadline. Over the past two seasons he’s managed to post solid numbers for a backend starter, but certainly isn’t going to wow anyone.
Anderson features a riding fourseam/cutter combination, with the heater sitting 90-91 mph with some funky hesitation in his leg kick to throw off hitters’ timing. He also has a solid changeup. None of these offerings will wow anyone, but Anderson has the command and the understanding of how to pitch to set hitters up and induce a lot of weak contact. He boasts excellent chase and hard hit rates, and doesn’t walk many. The lack of strikeouts keep him from being a particularly desirable starter in the modern era, but the results are pretty solid. In 2021, he put up a 4.53 ERA and a 4.37 FIP, though his numbers got a little worse coming over to the American League mid-season.
While we’re not that keen on another lefty, Anderson is interesting and if the Tigers could tune his stuff a bit further, there is actually potential for solid mid-rotation production here, rather than just an arm who can eat some innings.
RHP Wily Peralta
When the Tigers added the veteran Wily Peralta on a minor league deal last spring, no one batted an eye. The club has picked up a decent fifth starter in Jose Ureña, and a promising reclamation project in Julio Teheran. Peralta was just insurance. As it happened, they needed that insurance and the veteran came through big for them in the second half of the season.
While Peralta doesn’t strike out many hitters, what he did managed to do was get a lot of ground balls without giving up too many homers. The Tigers had him throw a balanced mix of fourseamers and sinkers, and combined with a rejuvenated splitter, Peralta did a nice job navigating lineups without giving up the big inning. Frankly, the numbers say it was mostly a fluke. A 14.4 percent strikeout rate against a 9.5 percent walk rate is rather terrifying. However, the amount of ground balls, combined with good defensive positioning and a game plan to help him get the ball hit roughly where he wanted no doubt contributed to his relative success last year. AJ Hinch and Chris Fetter should be able to that for any number of sinkerballers with less volatile profiles.
Peralta may have hoped for a major league contract, but his case is pretty unconvincing. If he remains unsigned for a week, the Tigers would probably be wise to circle back and try to overpay him a bit to take a minor league deal. As anything more than insurance, it’s hard to see them bringing Peralta back this year.
RHP Zack Greinke
It’s always been difficult to predict what Greinke will do in any given situation. He’s a unique character. Therefore it’s impossible to even guess what his preferences might be at this point. Now 38 years old, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Greinke retired if he didn’t like his options. However, he’s still an effective pitcher even at lower velocity. He posted a 4.16 ERA with a 4.71 FIP for the Houston Astros last season.
After averaging over $30 million per season on his last deal, Greinke is going to have to settle for a cheap, short term contract this season, and that tells us he’s probably just going to go somewhere he’s comfortable. A new franchise in the Midwest seems a highly unlikely destination for him unless the Tigers really pursued him.
LHP Yusei Kikuchi
30-year-old left-hander Yusei Kikuchi is also probably a pretty unlikely option. Kikuchi declined a $13 million option with the Seattle Mariners after three seasons there and he isn’t going to do much better than that in free agency. One wonders if he might prefer to play in Japan. Either way it’s not likely he’s particularly interested in the Tigers.
Kikuchi has good velocity, averaging a bit over 95 mph the past two years, but he doesn’t have particularly good bat-missing movement or plane going with the heater, but the velo is there, and he has above average extension as well. He backs it with a solid cutter and slider combo, and a less often used splitter. If Chris Fetter can tune the fastball up, Kikuchi still has room to improve. He’s just a little too home run prone to think of him as more than a backend starter to date. He posted a 4.97 ERA and a 4.93 FIP last year. The Mariners aren’t particularly good at getting the most out of their pitchers, and the Tigers would have an edge in coaching. Still, the Tigers wouldn’t want to do more than one year and, at most, $8-9 million. We rate this as highly unlikely.
RHP Chris Archer
Here’s another right-hander who needs little introduction. Chris Archer burst on the scene with three excellent seasons from 2013-2015, but has largely been on the downswing ever since. Now 33, Archer dealt with both forearm tightness, and a hip injury that ended up costing him most of the 2021 season with only 19 1⁄3 innings. Archer still has an excellent slider and racks up plenty of strikeouts, but his velocity dipped down to a 92 mph average last year when he was on the mound. He’s decidedly a fly ball pitcher, but has rarely had major trouble with home runs. If he’s healthy, he could be an interesting pickup for the Tigers. Unfortunately, his status is tough to evaluate from the outside right now.
LHP Danny Duffy
Duffy had a bit of a rough 2021 season, yet his numbers were pretty good overall. The veteran lefty still punches out plenty of hitters, racking up a 25.8 strikeout rate with a below average but perfectly solid 8.7 percent walk rate. What Duffy did really well last year was keep the ball in the park more effectively than he typically has in his career. In the end he put out a fantastic 2.51 ERA against a 3.40 FIP. That would do beautifully if he could replicate it.
Unfortunately, after the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Duffy last summer, expecting to use him in a hybrid role, he had some forearm trouble and missed the rest of the season. Duffy had already missed more than a month with a flexor strain with the Royals. When the issue returned with the Dodgers they shut him down, and Duffy eventually had surgery on the flexor tendon. He isn’t expected to return until the summer months. As a result he falls into a similar bucket as Matthew Boyd. A potential stash that a team will sign to an incentive heavy deal, in hopes of having a solid starter available as injuries take their toll on others in the rotation or bullpen.
What should the Tigers do here?
Quite obviously, there aren’t any exciting options left on the free agent market. There are some starters with upside available, but it’s a risky group overall. If the Tigers want to really boost the rotation, they’re going to have to make a trade. Both the Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds have reportedly made some pretty good starters available. The other option is to pick up enough depth pieces to get to the deadline, and try to make a less expensive trade then.
Assuming the Tigers aren’t ready to start parting with young talent, which could range from combinations of Matt Manning, Jackson Jobe, Dillon Dingler, Ryan Kreidler, or teenagers with big potential like Cristian Santana or Roberto Campos, there is another path. We saw how valuable it could be to stockpile cheap reclamation project starters in 2021, simply going with cheap fifth starter-type depth to support the rotation throughout the season. Wily Peralta’s second half renaissance did wonders for a Tigers’ pitching staff that was riddled with injuries, and the versatility of Tyler Alexander did a lot to hold things together as well.
If the Tigers re-signed Matthew Boyd or Danny Duffy to return in late June or early July, and any two of the starters discussed, they could instead focus on building up the bullpen with another good reliever or two. Someone like Colin McHugh or Andrew Chafin, or better yet, both, would create a deep, talented bullpen that might need only four or five innings from a starter some nights. That might ultimately be the more effective route and would avoid the Tigers being forced to trade away young talent so early in their buildup. This would be a good time to spend money on a problem, but the free agent market for starting pitchers is just too thinned out to offer any exciting options.