Mensching: Tigers can’t afford to miss on 5th starter

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

A week from now when the Tigers open the season in Chicago, Matthew Boyd might find himself a couple of states away putting on a noticeably different cap than the Old English D.

That would be for no fault of his own. The pitcher who was one of the least exciting members of a class of players who joined the Tigers organization at the trade deadline in 2015 has proven to be a steady yet backburner acquisition.

All the talk then was about Michael Fulmer, who went on to become the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year. And Daniel Norris, who you might remember lives in a van and throws pitches worthy of an art gallery, if somewhat unpredictably where they’ll arrive in the catcher’s mitt.

Yet it was Boyd who made 10 starts for Detroit in the closing months of 2015, and Boyd again who made nine starts between losses in 2016 while allowing no more than three runs in any of them.

Boyd, if anything, seemed the opposite of Norris. He didn’t have the most remarkable “stuff,” nor the highest ceiling, and he almost certainly doesn’t shave with an ax, but though failing to excite he could put the ball where he wanted to enough to give his team a chance to win.

Bards were not going to write ballads in his honor, and his ERA of 4.75 didn’t draw fans to the park, but he ate innings at the back of the rotation and his team won more of his starts than it lost.

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This spring he may have taken the next step. Through six games and 21 2/3 innings, Boyd’s recorded 21 strikeouts without a single walk. Though the standard cautions stand — it’s only spring training, don’t get excited; it’s only 21 innings, that’s such a small sample size — you can’t really find fault.

Boyd has done what you ask a starting pitcher to do. He has struck out batters, has kept the bases relatively clean, and all the while not a single home run has been offered by his hand. In his last appearance, Boyd worked so efficiently he had to finish his day on the minor league fields to get his required work in.

All of this should make Boyd an easy lock for the fifth spot in the rotation. What are we even debating this for?

Yet it doesn’t. Because somehow, someway, Anibal Sanchez got his groove back. Left for the wolves, Sanchez fixed his mechanics in a bullpen session and has been (nearly literally) unhittable since.

In his past start, only the spring training workload limitation kept him from chasing a no-hitter deep into the game. In his last three appearances, he has allowed two hits and a walk. In 14 innings. While striking out 16.

If you want to be a Doubting Thomas about this, it’s fine. You should be. I am. A month ago there was no doubt he has no place on a major league roster, and today there is no doubt his spot is secure.

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So why should Boyd be at least a bit worried about where he’ll start the year? Sanchez gives the team added rotational depth in case of injury or ineffectiveness, and Boyd can still be freely sent to the minor leagues for one last year.

The obvious answer is to send someone to the bullpen, but it’s already overfilled with recently failed starters, including the possibility of Mike Pelfrey.

The Tigers already have decided to eat several million dollars by releasing Mark Lowe, how much more can they stomach?

These are tough questions, and they’re going to keep GM Al Avila and his front office, as well as manager Brad Ausmus and his staff, up late at night.

The Tigers have a razor-thin margin of error here, and the repercussions of any missteps could be felt in more than the standings.

Boyd has earned his way onto an opening day roster, but whether he’ll be there is yet still hard to say.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.