clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Tigers’ path to building a contender still runs through their young pitchers

Injuries have delayed their progress, but the future of the Tigers’ young arms remains a key component.

Syndication: DetroitFreePress Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Detroit Tigers have enough starting pitchers on the injured list to make up a full rotation. What was once the core of a promising young group of pitching prospects has been decimated by injuries and surgeries to each and every one of them, leaving the club scrambling just to put a starting rotation on the mound in Detroit. There’s a good chance that a year from now there will be five completely different starting pitchers in the Tigers’ rotation than there are today.

The Tigers have managed to piece it together with surprising success. Eduardo Rodriguez and Michael Lorenzen have outperformed expectations. The bullpen has been strong enough to balance out a thin rotation, but for the club to really sustain their relative success this season, they’re going to have to get quality contributions for some of the guys currently on the injured list. And even more than this season, the Tigers’ path back to being a relevant contender still depends on that group of pitchers eventually giving them some quality production.

The Tigers’ 2023 rotation features three starting pitchers who could be free agents after the season, led by Eduardo Rodriguez who is having an all star caliber season. E-Rod can opt out of his contract, which would pay him $49 million over the next three seasons if he decides to stick around. Barring an injury or collapse before the end of the season, the opt out seems like the much more likely course of action.

Detroit signed two free agent pitchers over the off season. Old friend Matthew Boyd who signed a one year, $10 million deal with the San Francisco Giants while Scott Harris was there, and Michael Lorenzen who inked a one year contract for $8 million. Any of the three could be extended, but nothing is assured. The near future of the Tigers’ rotation, and their path back to success, still depends in part on a core group of pitchers who are on the injured list.

Among the injured are five starting pitchers who were drafted and developed by Detroit. Casey Mize is the most highly touted of the group, having been selected first overall in the 2018 draft. He’s recovering from Tommy John surgery which he had in June, 2022, with a back procedure as an added bonus while he was on the shelf. He could miss the entire 2023 season, but should be back by opening day in 2024.

Tarik Skubal was the Tigers’ best pitcher when he was sidelined last August with “left arm fatigue” which morphed into flexor tendon surgery. He is now throwing live batting practice aiming for a late June, early July return should things continue to go as planned.

Matt Manning began the season with the Tigers, but hit the injured list before he could log a dozen innings, suffering a fractured toe. He is expected to go out on a rehab assignment as early as late next week. The Tigers have chosen to keep Mize, Skubal, and Manning in Detroit, around the team to work with team staff rather than sending them off to Lakeland where injured players have previously gone for rehab.

The final straw for the Tigers came when Spencer Turnbull, who looked good in spring training after returning from his own Tommy John procedure, was optioned to the minors and then placed on the injured list with neck pain, causing the club to rescind his option. Being older than the other Tigers on the IL at age 30, Detroit’s second pick in the 2014 draft struggled with a 7.26 ERA before being optioned, and is now shut down after having a setback in his recovery. The expectation was that he’d be back sooner than later, but those plans are on hold, temporarily.

Beau Brieske was set to take his place in the Detroit bullpen as the season approached, but wound up on the injured list with “right upper arm discomfort”. He began throwing earlier this month, but was also transferred from the 15 day to the 60 day injured list. Had he been healthy, he might have been considered for a rotation spot, given the number of injuries to starting pitchers.

Joey Wentz was acquired from the Atlanta Braves at the trade deadline in 2017 for Shane Greene. The former supplemental first round draft pick was called up to Detroit in May of 2022, making seven starts with a 3.03 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. He has followed that with ten starts and 42.2 innings, second on the team behind only E Rod, but the results have not been good. Wentz has allowed a 7.80 ERA, 1.66 WHIP and 1.9 home runs per nine innings. He would have been sent to Toledo if the club had a suitable replacement for him. And therein lies the problem.

Between the three would-be free agents, four or five starters on the injured list, one recovering and one struggling pitcher, the Tigers will cobble together a rotation for the 2024 season. Actually, the walking wounded could start showing up in Detroit by mid season, creating a bit of competition, as Manning, Skubal, and Turnbull should be back in fairly short order. Mize appears to be the farthest away.

Long gone are the days of 2013 when the Tigers got through the season using only five starters, with Jose Alvarez filling in for six spot starts. That team actually set a major league record for strikeouts in a season by one team. A major league team typically will use many more starters during the course of a season. One might have expected the club to sign a few free agents for the lineup, but the expenditures went into the pitching rotation to bring back Boyd and add Lorenzen. It’s a good thing they did, because they’re barely scraping by with what’s left when the hospital bills are paid.

On the bright side, Alex Faedo, the Tigers’ first round pick in the 2017 draft had his Tommy John surgery in December, 2020, and now has made his way up to Detroit and is performing rather well. Apart from giving up six home runs across four starts- a total of 21.2 innings, he has allowed just 15 total hits and only one walk so far this season. Still just 27 years old with a full bag of service time remaining before free agency, he could fill a rotation spot going forward, IF he can stay healthy.

Faedo’s recent success may also prove instructive as far as the whole rotation is concerned. One of the key issues with spending so much draft capital on pitching prospects, is the fact that pitching prospects tend to have some injuries on their development path. It’s not uncommon for good pitching prospects to struggle early on in their career as they learn to manage the workload and adjust their conditioning, nutrition, and rest to handle the grind of a long major league season.

Faedo was drafted in the first round six years ago as one of the top college pitchers in the country. He had some struggles in his first few seasons of pro ball, then didn’t get to pitch in 2020, instead blowing his arm and missing all of the 2021 season. Only in that past year has he had the opportunity to build himself up again and get on with his development. Whether he’s really figured it out remains to be seen, but it wasn’t long ago that he looked bound for a career in the bullpen at most.

It’s not reasonable to expect that all these pitchers will ultimately turn out to be good. But it’s a necessity that the Tigers get more from them than they have so far.

What happens with the core group during the remainder of the 2023 season could go a long way toward revealing just how close the Tigers are to contending, although pitchers don’t typically just walk out of the hospital following surgery, rehab, and take the mound with great immediate success. Injuries are a part of the game, especially when it comes to pitching. For the Tigers, surgery seems almost like a rite of passage that prospects must go through before their careers gain traction. Further patience is still going to be required.

Whatever they do with the lineup, which is currently patched together with skillful application of band aids and duct tape, the Tigers built their hopes mostly around a core group of pitchers who have made their way to the injured list. All of them. One by one. The best hope, and the quickest path back to relevance for the organization is in that same core group getting healthy and giving the Tigers some quality production in the years ahead. One or two of them really getting back on track would free them up to focus on the offense and then developing a strong contender becomes a lot more realistic.