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Tigers’ aces of the future playing pivotal roles now

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Michael Fulmer

Minneapolis – Funny thing about the future; you never know when it’s going to get here.

Tigers general manager Al Avila was hardly subtle about it before the trade deadline when he steadfastly refused to use the young pitchers the club acquired at the 2015 trade deadline – Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris – as trade chips.

He wasn’t trading those three young, immensely talented starting pitchers because, as he said, even though he was doing all he could to get the Tigers into the playoffs this season, he also had to be mindful of the future.

And in Fulmer, Boyd and Norris, that is the core of the Tigers’ future rotation. Except it is also presently three-fifths of the current rotation.

“These guys have been tabbed the future,” said catcher James McCann, himself one of foundation pieces of the Tigers’ future, “but they are also the now.”

Injuries (to Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey), plus some inconsistency (by Anibal Sanchez) have sped up their developmental time frame. But since the All-Star break, the trio has made 16 starts, the team has won 10 of them. They’ve combined on 12 quality starts.

Boyd, who starts against the Twins Wednesday, has allowed three runs or less in his last eight starts. Fulmer, a legitimate rookie of the year candidate, has allowed three runs or less in 13 of his last 15 starts. Norris, the last to join the party because of an oblique strain, has allowed five earned runs total in his last three starts.

“That’s what maybe the average person doesn’t look at,” McCann said. “Look at what those three are doing right now. They’ve been tabbed as the future of the rotation. Been tabbed as – ‘If these guys don’t get it done, we as an organization are in trouble.’ Without actually saying it, that’s what’s been said.

“Also, we’re in the middle of a playoff hunt, and you look at the way these guys are on the mound, you don’t think they are rookies anymore. They are producing like they have been here.”

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Veterans Zimmermann and Pelfrey are expected to begin their rehab assignments this week. Because Fulmer, Boyd and Norris have performed so well, the Tigers have not felt the urgency to rush their recovery from neck and back strains, respectively.

Zimmermann, certainly, will return to the rotation once he’s healthy. It is not a certainty that Pelfrey will. That’s not a knock on Pelfrey, but a reflection of how well the young trio has performed.

“You look at what those guys are doing, you’re not really missing a beat when you go from our No. 1 starter to No. Whatever,” McCann said. “That’s special to me. Watching these guys, they don’t act like rookies. They take a lot of pride in what they do, and it shows.”

Take nothing for granted

These guys have heard the “pitchers of the future” talk before. All three were traded away by the organization that drafted them – Boyd and Norris by Toronto (for David Price) and Fulmer by the Mets (for Yoenis Cespedes).

They were the pitchers of the future for those organizations – until they weren’t.

Daniel Norris

“Nothing is given,” Boyd said. “Nothing is set in stone that I am going to have a start beyond my next one. It’s an honor to stay in this organization. It’s an honor to wear the Old English D. And doing it with these two guys (Norris and Fulmer), that’s what we want to do.

“But at the same time, I don’t think any of us are looking at it like that. It’s cool that we are still here with all the trades that could’ve happened. That means a lot. But nothing is given.”

Fulmer has learned the hard away about taking things for granted in this game.

“I don’t put any added pressure on it,” he said of the expectations. “When I get there, I get there. If I get there, I get there. We will see what the future holds. With those couple of years I was hurt, I learned you can’t look too far ahead.

“I will take it one start at a time, see what I can do now and not worry about the future – which I can’t control.”

Norris was greatly relieved when the trade deadline passed on Aug. 1. Even though he would be sent back to Toledo that very evening – a temporary placement, as it turned out – he knew the organization had given him, Fulmer and Boyd a true vote of confidence.

“The fact they weren’t willing to part ways with us is a compliment and an honor,” Norris said. “It shows they believe in us. I think they believe we can have an impact as much as any of the guys they could’ve gotten in a trade.

“I think Boyd and Fulmer believe that, as well. We’re at the point where we’re going to take off and it seems kind of pointless to replace us with someone who might not be as good as us.”

Pushing each other

Complacency, a sense of entitlement – these aren’t things you’d ever associate with Fulmer, Boyd and Norris. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find three pitchers on the staff who outwork them.

“I’m not at a state where I’m looking over my shoulder by any means,” Boyd said. “But I am never going to get to the point where I take stuff for granted. That’s not the way I play the game. I’ve got today. I’ve got my next start.”

Matt Boyd

On many afternoons, you will find the three of them in left field doing their between-starts work. Although they may be doing different things, they are most often working together. It’s the same in the weight room – the three of them, pushing each other.

“We watch each other’s bullpens when we can,” Fulmer said. “We bounce ideas off each other and see what we can learn. D-No (Norris) and Matty – we’re always talking. We are asking what the other’s opinions are, what they are doing on the off-day (laughs). We’re just trying to learn from each other.”

Fulmer helped Boyd when he was working through a mechanical tweak, trying to lower his arm slot. Boyd has given Fulmer tips about how he grips his change-up and slider.

“I think that’s another reason to be excited about the future,” McCann said. “They care. They’re not just going out there like, ‘I’m good enough to get it done.’ They want to get better and they want to be the best

“I see that bond those three share. They work out together, they run together, they watch each other’s bullpens occasionally. They have that relationship that you see from those really special rotations through the history of the game.”

Besides their obvious talent and ambition, the three of them share one other defining trait – they live in the moment. They understand where they fit in the big picture of this organization, but their focus, remarkably, doesn’t stray from the daily task at hand.

“It’s cool that we’re at similar points in our careers and we have this awesome opportunity,” Boyd said. “We need to continue to get better together and continue to grow.”

Twitter @cmccosky