Paul: Tigers must move kids into rotation, vets to bullpen

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Daniel Norris

In too many past years, the Tigers came out of the gate like gangbusters, only to fade too often down the stretch, when, let's be honest, it matters most.

This year's team could be a reversal.

The Tigers aren't a stable bunch, by any means, hence again finding themselves two games under .500.

The good news: There's a chance they could be stabilized soon.

And the reason is pitching.

That may sound stranger than, "Ladies and gentleman, President Donald Trump," given the rotation's struggles at the back end, and the bullpen's woes lately.

But hear me out.

I've made the case that this Tigers team will be at its peak when the following four gents are on the 25-man roster at the same time: Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris and Shane Greene. Two are already here, and two more aren't far away.

Greene is probably one rehab start away from putting that blister issue behind him, and Norris -- after an offseason cut short by cancer, and a spring cut short by a back injury -- has finally turned the corner at Triple-A Toledo, with three good starts in a row.

Depth is a beautiful thing, and the lack thereof was the ugly thing that sent the Tigers spiraling to a last-place finish in the American League Central in 2015.

Now you see why they made the easy call, despite some fan resistance, to sell at the trade deadline, turning David Price, Yoenis Cespdes and Joakim Soria into Fulmer, Norris and Boyd, not to mention a young, thumping center fielder named JaCoby Jones, who could be a steal.

The question, now, is how do you shake this thing out?

Worth a shot

Obviously, while all four of the young pitchers have been mostly starters, they can't all be in this rotation. Jordan Zimmermann, barring a groin-injury setback, is pitching like a bargain at $22 million a year -- especially when you look at Price and Zack Greinke, what they're making, and how they're pitching -- and Justin Verlander looks as much like an ace as he has in three years.

That leaves three spots in the rotation.

I'd fill it out with Fulmer, pitching with so much confidence right now, as well as Norris and Boyd.

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How good are Fulmer and Norris?

Consider what ESPN's Keith Law -- who supposedly hates the Tigers, if you ask any Tigers fan -- told me Monday: "Fulmer and Norris are above average or better starters. You can build a rotation around those guys."

He's not as sold on Boyd, but he'd be your No. 5, and has three pitches these days, and figures to give you a better shot every fifth day than, say, Mike Pelfrey. Some say Pelfrey has pitched better lately. Even the Tigers say that. OK. How could he have pitched worse than he did to start the season? It's like what George W. Bush used to say about his high debate marks: "A lot of folks didn't think I could string a sentence together." Low bar, easy benchmark.

The truth is, Pelfrey's last four starts -- the "good" starts -- he has a 1.522 WHIP, and opponents are hitting .315 with an .814 OPS against him.

Ummm, no thanks.

Then there's the delicate situation with Anibal Sanchez, who, despite a slower fastball these days, still has far superior "stuff" to Pelfrey. He just can't get past the fifth inning -- 0.00 ERA in the fifth, 18.56 in the sixth, 27.00 in the seventh -- or the third time through the order -- .720 OPS the first time, .747 second, 1.185 third.

You can't have two guys in your rotation who are a candidate to be yanked after, say, 60 pitches; you really shouldn't have one. A bullpen can't handle that; it'll be worn out by the end of July.

Some fans have suggested some outside-the-box thinking, saying because Sanchez and Pelfrey can't go much longer than five innings, perhaps they should "share" starts -- one starting and going four or five innings, then the other on to relieve for four or five innings.

It's an interesting idea, at least worth a thought, if not a chuckle, too. Let me put it to rest, though. The Tigers are not considering this, at all. The reason: They don't believe it's sustainable for a whole season.

Sending both to the bullpen is much more realistic, and absolutely on the table -- even though you'd have to cringe at shipping a combined $24.8 million to relief duty. But, hey, if that makes your team better, it must be an option for a team with a payroll near $200 million.

Zimmermann, Verlander, Fulmer, Norris -- with a 2.00 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP in his last three Toledo starts, with the strikeouts up and the walks down, after a rough beginning to the season -- and Boyd. It's on the young side, which makes it a risk. But given the offense's capability -- it's a juggernaut, folks, maybe the best 1-9 we've seen in two generations of Tigers baseball -- and the fact no team in the Central is going to run away and hide -- the White Sox are in freefall, the Royals are seriously wounded, and the Indians aren't anywhere close to a complete team -- makes it a risk certainly worth taking.

Now, what about the bullpen?

That's a tad trickier, but still doable.

Little confidence in Pelfrey

You start with four guys who'll stay put: closer Francisco Rodriguez (see, he's pretty good!), Justin Wilson, Alex Wilson and Mark Lowe. That leaves three spots. Greene is the easy addition. Law thinks this could work, as he doesn't think Greene, right now, has the stuff to get through a third time through the lineup. Greene also had a blister issue, and those things can pop up in a hurry. Limiting the workload could limit the chance of that happening again in 2016.

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So that leaves two spots.

Easy: Sanchez and Pelfrey, at least to see how it works.

My prediction: It works for Sanchez, who still has a plus arsenal.

I'm not nearly as confident about Pelfrey, even though general manager Al Avila acknowledged over the offseason he sees Pelfrey as a potential bullpen reinforcement for at least the second year of his two-year, $16-million deal.

Law, for what it's worth, tends to agree with me, saying of Pelfrey, "He's toast. Expensive toast."

At some point, the Tigers will have to make a tough decision on Pelfrey. For a guy with his service time, he might not be willing to do the old Toledo tuneup. So, at some point, the Tigers might have to simply cut bait and eat the money -- money that never made sense, when you consider this list of starters who got less cash this winter: Rich Hill, Hisashi Iwakuma, Bartolo Colon, Chris Young, Colby Lewis, Mat Latos and old friend Doug Fister.

Shane Greene

But, hey, that's just money. Mike Ilitch -- and his wife and kids -- will always make more. Cutting Pelfrey isn't going to halt construction at the new Red Wings arena.

And the Tigers have options to replace Pelfrey, if he proves no upgrade to the bullpen, either. This plan, after all, sends Buck Farmer and Warwick Saupold to the minors, where Blaine Hardy -- remember, he was big in 2015 -- and Drew VerHagen -- whose injury issues don't appear serious -- already are residing.

And, alas, there's that magic word again: Depth.

This could work, folks. It really could. There's also the chance it won't work. But not trying, well, that could prove disastrous.