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Mensching: No deals? Tigers’ rotation still in good shape for ’17

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News
Michael Fulmer

Should Tigers general manager Al Avila find no deals that pique his interest this week at the Winter Meetings, his club can still expect to have one of the best rotations in the American League.

That’s not a bad starting point for any team.

Detroit’s starters posted the fifth-best ERA (4.25) in the AL for the full year in 2016, and third-best (3.82) in the second half of the year.

That’s notable because it took until the second half of the year for the Tigers’ rotation to come together. When it did, Detroit played at a 90-win pace for the rest of the year.

That’s with projected No. 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann continuing to miss time with assorted ailments dating back to a groin strain in May, a neck strain in July, and a sore lat in August.

That’s with rookie Michael Fulmer losing steam as he pitched in more professional innings than ever in his career, and most of those at the major league level.

That’s with Daniel Norris missing most of the season before August and then allowing more than two earned runs in just three of his final 10 starts.

And yes, that’s with Justin Verlander putting up an otherworldly sub-2 ERA in the second half and looking like vintage JV the fans and opposition had come to expect.

Meanwhile even Matt Boyd took a sub-4 ERA into September before struggling in two of his final three starts as he, too, appeared to wear down.

This certainly isn’t like the Tigers of a few years ago, when Verlander was routinely joined by future Cy Young Award winners Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, when Anibal Sanchez was good enough to post the AL’s best ERA, or when Detroit arguably had four aces to take into the 2014 playoffs after trading for David Price.

Henning: Tigers want to deal, not solely lop payroll

So we don’t want to make too much of 2017’s group after those years.

But still, the emergence of three young pitchers, coupled with the continued excellence of Verlander, and Zimmermann putting together the kind of workhorse season he was expected to when signing with Detroit, would give the Tigers a great starting point for getting back into the playoffs after missing them for two straight seasons.

Notice two names that haven’t come up much yet: Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey. In 48 starts, across 272 innings, the duo put up a 5.52 ERA. The Tigers lost 30 of those games.

Jordan Zimmermann

All Brad Ausmus has to do to make his team better from day one next year is simply to avoid writing their names on the starting pitcher line as often as he did this year.

That shouldn’t be too tall a task.

But just in case, it’s worth noting even Sanchez showed a little improvement in his second half, putting up a 4.84 ERA and 4.54 FIP, making him one of the more valuable starters.

OK, so why does any of this really matter? Because within days we’ll have a pretty good idea what to expect of the Tigers next year.

We’ve heard what Avila has to say publicly for months. We’ve read what anonymous insiders have told various media members about the Tigers’ plans. We’ve read the tea leaves and looked for the clues in every corner.

Yet no one knows how the chaos in suburban Washington, D.C., will really play out when all the agents and team executives are in one place.

A favorable deal could change the face of the franchise in an instant, setting the Tigers up for years to come. That’s probably not going to happen, though.

If it turns out Avila doesn’t hear anything he likes, the Tigers are still going to enter 2017 with a chance to contend and options at the trade deadline if they don’t.

There are certainly worse positions to be in.

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