Henning: Rebuilding Tigers staff for 2018 a tall task

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

In developments of no surprise to Tigers students, a quick peek at big-league baseball’s team statistics confirms Detroit’s pitching reputation.

Detroit is dead last among 30 teams. The Tigers’ team ERA in 2017 is a ghastly 5.40. This fundamentally explains why teams with sub-4.00 ERAs (Indians, Dodgers, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Yankees, Nationals) are headed next week to the playoffs as the Tigers fly home for four months of reflection and recuperation, much of it on the psychological side.

Michael Fulmer

What matters is not a 2017 season that ends Sunday at Minnesota. What’s relevant is the future, beginning next year.

Just how the Tigers are expected to chop at least a run off their ERA and be remotely competitive in 2018 is a grand mystery. And before one gets overly caught up with ERA, which isn’t the most revealing of stats, the Tigers’ team WHIP, a more precise measure of proficiency or lack thereof, is likewise 30th at a painful 1.50.

Just what, in the name of Justin Verlander, can a team still socked with payroll issues and two years from getting much rotation help from the farm, do ahead of Opening Day 2018, to turn a pitching staff into something other than a 162-game piñata for opposing bats?

Verlander is gone and getting primed for his playoff return next week with the Astros. Michael Fulmer is on the sidelines healing from nerve-transfer surgery. Jordan Zimmermann has spent the better part of two years in Detroit dealing with a sore neck. Matthew Boyd has been in and out. Daniel Norris has been out and out, although he was strong in Thursday night's start against the Royals. Anibal Sanchez is on his way to a $5 million parting check for 2018 and, probably, employment elsewhere.

Buck Farmer. Chad Bell. Artie Lewicki. These are not answers the Tigers prefer to ponder as rotation pieces next spring.

All of this was brought up during a conversation this week with Tigers general manager Al Avila, who is obliged to put on his welder’s helmet and fuse a 2018 roster and pitching staff that at least resembles a competent crew.

“Next year, we’re expecting that Fulmer will be healthy, and that Zimmermann will be healthy and eating innings and that we can get him on the right track with the right off-season treatment,” Avila said. “Of course, Boyd of late has been pitching very, very well. We’re hoping to get Norris back on track, as well.

“Those four guys should be in our rotation.”

Henning: Tigers’ rebuild won’t scare off qualified manager candidates

Search for No. 5

Math fans instantly will note something amiss here. A fifth starter. Even if the existing crew heals and realigns itself and produces a reasonably stable four-man core, a fifth Beatle is essential.

And even if you find that fifth wheel, big-league teams generally need between six and 10 starters in any six-month season. The Tigers have used 11 different pitchers in their 2017 rotation. That’s where 100-loss seasons originate. That’s where months as bleak as September 2017 has been for the Tigers are manufactured.

Don’t expect much starting-pitching help coming from the Tigers minors next season, as their most prized prospects, including right-hander Alex Faedo (pictured), need more seasoning.

“We know we have to add pitching to have better games,” Avila said. “We’ll add at least one starter.”

How that might be done is simply explained. The Tigers almost certainly will sign a low-cost free agent. They will not trade a prospect they consider essential to a roster makeover under way and headed the next few years for a steady infusion of fresh blood.

But neither will they spend heavy money on a starter. The Tigers are still staring at $150 million in 2018 salaries, which is $100 million or more than a team should be dispensing when it’s likely to lose 100 games.

“We’ll look at some off-season pitching,” Avila said. “But I know there will be a lot of teams out there looking for pitching.”

There are any number of possibilities here, virtually all of them guaranteed to distress Tigers followers, unless the Tigers succeed in signing a guy whom they still seem to believe deserves a statue along the Kaline-Cobb-Gehringer-Horton promenade on the back concourse.

Doug Fister was grabbed by his old boss, Dave Dombrowski, to do fill-in work for the Red Sox this season and has pitched reasonably well, given that he is 33 and was unemployed before the Angels signed him in May. A month later the Red Sox snatched him from the waiver wire and Fister has given them 17 games, 14 of them starts, covering 85 innings, with a 4.87 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.

These are not shiny numbers, although, compared with the Tigers’ digits in 2017, they are indeed an upgrade.

But that kind of pitcher is probably as good as it’s going to get unless the Tigers find one of those rare, historical gold nuggets (Red Sox signing Luis Tiant in 1971), which isn’t history that can be counted on for a repeat.

Another possibility carries low probability. The Tigers have some fine starting pitching gestating on the farm: Beau Burrows, Gregory Soto, Sandy Baez, Kyle Funkhouser, Franklin Perez, Matt Manning, and, by next season, their first-round draft pick from 2017, the talented Alex Faedo.

But those chaps will need considerable time in the bushes before they can begin helping at Comerica Park.

“What we don’t want to do is rush guys,” Avila said. “Those are the guys we’re counting on to be in the rotation a few seasons from now. But for those guys to have success, we’re going to need to increase their innings progressively, 25 or 30 percent each year.

“Those guys are going to be our future.”

Building a bullpen

This still leaves the matter of a bullpen. And that rarely is a happy topic in Detroit. What needs to be remembered is a team with this degree of total reconstruction ahead must be open to trading existing help for multiple blue chips, as the Tigers did this summer with Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, Justin Upton, and Alex Avila.

It at least invites possibilities that one of a Tigers bullpen’s more gallant soldiers, Shane Greene, could fetch an irresistible price when Greene has shown every sign he can wield that acetylene torch of an arm as a closer.

Tigers reliever Shane Greene has proven he can be a major-league closer, and possibly a valuable trade chip.

The Tigers will be open-minded. They need as many skilled kid bodies as possible during this re-design. And, practically speaking, a certified lockdown ninth-inning fireman won’t be the most vital presence on a team destined to offer, here and there and mostly there, an occasional save situation in 2018.

Young bullpen arms can help offset some of the carnage sure to follow if Greene is dealt. Joe Jimenez is gradually becoming the reliever he was during his lustrous days on Detroit’s farm. Another very good one, Bryan Garcia, is so close to Comerica Park he could win a job during spring camp. Zac Reininger arrived too soon, as the Tigers knew, but he has a legitimate big-league, fastball-slider combo and should benefit from a kinder, gentler timeline next season.

So, there are potential options next season, none of which will, in their aggregate, keep this team from last place and 100 lashes.

The upside: Avila probably has several more trades ahead, perhaps including Fulmer, next July, if Fulmer maintains his health and profile as one of big-league baseball’s best young rotation studs. He will fetch a wagonload of prospects if he holds serve and continues to rank as someone’s future ace.

The Tigers could easily end up with the first overall draft pick in 2018. And another pick-of-the-litter turn in 2019.

This is how you rebuild. You amass as many young stallions as you can through trades and then allow your top-of-the-heap draft picks to provide a franchise talent or two.

And then you need luck. The kind, for example, they got when Avila knew of this kid the Astros somehow cut in 2014, an outfielder named Julio Daniel Martinez who went by the initials “J.D.”

This is how it happens. This is why fans endure rebuilds. Not only because it’s necessary, but because, within a painful process, players emerge, a surprise or two shows up, and hope begins to take shape.