Henning: Tigers banking on recent arms deposits

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

So, they're here. Daniel Norris. Matt Boyd. With another possible starter, Michael Fulmer, destroying Double A hitters as he moves closer to Detroit, which, unless injuries interfere, will happen at some point next season.

The question is how many of those starting pitchers, all acquired during Dave Dombrowski's final hours as Tigers general manager, can be counted on to fill a rotation on Opening Day 2016.

Al Avila's answer: Not many. Not with any certainty. For all their talents and probable importance to the Tigers next season, Avila knows his guys must be locked and loaded when they leave spring camp in 30 weeks.

It is why the Tigers still plan on adding two mainstream starters during their autumn-winter shopping, although how those additions will be acquired is dependent upon market conditions that can't begin to be forecast in August.

"Unless you're a rebuilding team, you can't just throw all those young guys out there, that's not really where we are right now," said Avila, who is in his first month running the Tigers front office. "As we stand here today, we like all those guys and feel they'll be pitching for us soon.

"But we're still looking at going into the offseason and filling our pitching needs, starting pitching more than anything. Again, if you're a rebuilding team, it's a whole different story. But we're looking at 2016 as trying to get back into the playoffs and shoot for a World Series. And it's really hard to say you're going to count on all these other young guys to be ready."

Detroit's known quantities for 2016 are: Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, assuming Sanchez's current rotator-cuff distress subsides, as expected. That leaves three spots. Two, as Avila explained, figure to be gleaned through free-agent signings or, perhaps, a trade.

A fifth shift probably should be claimed by Shane Greene. He's a percentage bet to heal from his current hand issue, a pseudoaneurysm that has put him on the shelf, and straighten out following a polarized 2015 season that saw him pitch, at various times, impeccably and atrociously.

But there is no guarantee on Greene. Avila realizes, for that matter, there are no guarantees on Sanchez, or even Verlander, who strained a triceps muscle during spring camp and missed two months. Injuries are never part of plans but are often part of realities.

That's where the new crew becomes important. They protect against disabled-list dockings and the potential for bad outings (Greene later in 2015) to push replacements into Detroit's picture.

Injuries pile up

The problem is even Avila's subs have been getting hurt.

Norris was looking good until he strained an oblique muscle last week, which could cost him the remainder of 2015.

Boyd, like Norris a left-hander, has been good more than off-key but is still only two years into pro baseball. He would be a prime bet to begin next season at Triple A, as would Fulmer, the principal prize Detroit snagged in its July deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets.

Fulmer has been pitching so well at Double A Erie (1.59 ERA, 0.88 WHIP in four starts) the Tigers considered adding him to their 40-man roster ahead of a September call-up.

But that's unlikely to happen. And all because Fulmer, 22, still has work to do on his change-up and on becoming the big league ready pitcher Dombrowski insisted the Mets hand him in return for Cespedes.

The Tigers will let spring camp determine who might be ready, at whatever point in 2016, and by no means is the list limited to Norris, Boyd, and Fulmer.

Buck Farmer pitched five strong innings Monday against the Reds before he ran into peril the bullpen turned into a nightmare in a 10-run sixth that buried Detroit and its early 5-0 lead.

The team is still weighing whether life as a starter or in the bullpen is Farmer's best niche. But because of his size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and three-pitch repertoire, Avila and Co. will allow the right-hander two years out of Georgia Tech to get every shot at feathering Detroit's rotation.

Fresh arms

What the Tigers know is a team that was running thin on arms got a mass infusion of talent and hope between Dombrowski's July dealing and a June draft that has pumped at least 10 more potential big league pitchers into a farm system begging for a break.

Michael Fulmer

First-round pick Beau Burrows has a 1.80 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in nine Gulf Coast League games. Tyler Alexander (second round, TCU), is working at Single A Connecticut where he has an 0.87 ERA, 0.52 WHIP, and .115 opposing batting average in 10 games.

Drew Smith (third round, Dallas Baptist) has pitched in 11 games at Connecticut. His numbers: 0.33 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, and .156 enemy batting average. Matt Hall (sixth round, Missouri State) has a 2.90 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 10 games.

Already promoted to Single A West Michigan has been Trey Teakell (ninth round, TCU), as evidenced by his 12-game stats: 0.89 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and .195 rival batting average.

Eighth-round pick Dominic Moreno (Texas Tech) also is apprenticing at West Michigan: 1.77 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and an opponent batting average of .189.

"We felt, as a group, these guys had that type of stuff, but I think you'd have to say, yeah, from a performance standpoint, what they've done is absolutely surprising," said David Chadd, the Tigers assistant general manager who, until Avila was promoted, was the amateur draft director for the past decade.

"But we had seen Alexander throw for two years at TCU, we had seen Teakell for three years, and Dominic Moreno we had watched closely at Texas Tech. We had been targeting Burrows from late January or early February. And we knew what capabilities they had. It's early. But we're thrilled at how they're all doing."

Beau Burrows

Chadd and his bird dogs have been just as happy with how their early-round hitters have been crunching the ball, beginning with left-handed outfielder Christin Stewart (compensation pick between first and second rounds), as well as catcher Kade Scivicque (fourth round), both of whom have been flourishing at West Michigan.

The Tigers also believe they got a bonus in their 14th-round choice, A.J. Simcox, a shortstop from Tennessee, who is hitting .299 in 36 games.

"He's been kind of a key to the draft, but everyone who saw him liked him," Chadd said of a 6-3, 185-pound right-handed hitter. "Alan Trammell (special assistant to Avila) worked him out along with me, and we think he's a true shortstop. And, hitting the way he's been hitting, he's got a chance to be an impact shortstop."

But those position stories, developing as they are in the early weeks of their pro ball careers, were bonuses to a draft the Tigers understood had to be pitching-heavy.

As it turns out, July's trades also were pitching-rich. Which is where a team that has gotten disastrously low on starters and relievers in 2015 needed to focus.

Avila, Chadd agree some of the above will influence Detroit's 2016 season. In fact, there is little choice. Free-agent dollars and trades are limited in scope. Talent emerging from below is always part of any battered team's remedy for getting better.