Detroit Tigers: Starting rotation full of “what ifs” for 2018


The Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation has quite a few question marks. While there is certainly a chance that a lot could go wrong, there is also a chance that the starting rotation could be quite good.

This coming season, most are expecting that the Detroit Tigers will lose quite a few games. One factor in exactly where Detroit finishes in the standings, however, could hinge on a starting rotation that is full of wild cards.

With Justin Verlander now in Houston, Michael Fulmer, who is returning from elbow surgery, is the undisputed ace of the staff. However, a combination of bounce-back and breakout candidates are likely to make up the other four spots in the rotation. There are also pitchers with little or no experience starting at the major league level who will be competing as well.

Bounce-back candidates

Going into Spring Training, the Tigers had two tremendous bounce-back candidates in their starting rotation in Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Fiers. On Friday, they added another one in Francisco Liriano.

Zimmermann is entering the third season of a five-year, $110 million deal. Fiers signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Tigers last December. Liriano’s deal is reportedly for one year and $4 million with another $1 million in incentives, per Robert Murray of FanRag Sports.

Before Zimmermann signed with the Tigers, he went 70-50 and posted a 3.32 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP over seven years with the Washington Nationals. In 2016, Zimmermann got off to an exceptional start with the Detroit Tigers, posting a 0.55 ERA over his first five starts. However, he later battled neck and groin injuries and the rest of the year was a struggle. Last season, he went 8-13 with a whopping 6.08 ERA over 29 starts.

Fiers has also had previous big league success, though not on the level of Zimmermann. Still, between 2014-15, he a went combined 13-15 with a very sharp 3.25 ERA with the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros. Over the past two years with the Astros, though, he posted a 4.84 ERA over 60 games (58 starts). He was left off of the Astros postseason roster.

Liriano previously pitched for Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire when they were both with the Minnesota Twins. He very recently had a nice stretch with the Pittsburgh Pirates, going 35-25 with a 3.26 ERA between 2013-15. Over the past two years, however, he posted a combined 5.05 ERA with the Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays, and Astros. Liriano, who pitched in relief for Houston last year, could potentially be used as a bullpen piece a well.

Breakout candidates

Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd are likely the two most prominent breakout candidates in the starting rotation mix this spring. Both pitchers were acquired from the Blue Jays in the David Price trade back in the summer of 2015.

Norris, who will soon turn 25, is still young and incredibly talented. He pitched well in limited time with the Tigers between 2015-16, posting a 3.55 ERA over 27 games (26 starts). Last year, however, he posted a 5.31 ERA over 22 games (18 starts). He has also battled injuries.

While Boyd has undoubtedly had a few bright spots during his time with the Tigers, he has been roughed up quite a bit as well. He has posted a 5.25 ERA over 57 games (53 starts) since coming over in the trade with the Blue Jays. Last September, however, he seemed to turn over a new leaf. After making some mechanical tweaks, he posted a 2.95 ERA over his final five starts. In one of those outings, he nearly no-hit the Chicago White Sox.

Other candidates

More from Call to the Pen

Two other pitchers entering the mix for a spot in the starting rotation this spring are Ryan Carpenter and Alex Wilson. Carpenter, who has yet to pitch in the major leagues, signed a major league deal with the Tigers over the offseason. Wilson has been with the Tigers since 2015, serving primarily as a reliever.

Carpenter, a left-hander, had a pretty nice season for the Colorado Rockies Triple-A affiliate last year. Through 27 games (25 starts), he went 10-9 with a 4.15 ERA. The fact that he was playing in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League is worth mentioning as well.

Wilson has been quite effective out of the Tigers’ bullpen over the past three years. He made one start for the Tigers back in 2015 and was also a starter in the Boston Red Sox minor league system. Still, it’s possible that the Tigers would be wise to keep Wilson in the bullpen, where he could help stabilize a relief corps that posted an MLB-worst 5.63 ERA last season.

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The verdict

Right now, there are a lot of “what ifs” in the Detroit Tigers’ rotation. It seems like anything could happen. Apparently, for everything to go right, with Zimmermann, Fiers or Liriano bouncing back, Norris and/or Boyd breaking out and Carpenter and/or Wilson serving as a pleasant surprise, the Detroit Tigers would have to be pretty lucky.

But even if some or most of that goes right, the rotation may end up being pretty okay in 2018.