Healthy Daniel Norris eager to stick in Tigers' rotation

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Daniel Norris is sporting a new look these days, with a man-bun and a beard that looks like it hasn’t been trimmed in years.

“I don’t know,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was saying at Comerica Park the other day, “if I would call anything he does ‘normal.’ ”

Fair point.

Norris, with the Scooby-Doo-like van and all the off-the-beaten-path travels, is nothing if not eccentric.

That said, Norris finally did have a “normal” offseason, which he hopes pays serious dividends in 2017, his third season with the Tigers — and one he really wants to be his first full season in the Tigers rotation.

Two offseasons ago, Norris had bone chips removed from his left (pitching) elbow. Then, last offseason, he underwent surgery for thyroid cancer.

Both surgeries were in October, and he wasn’t able to participate in full, offseason preparation and workouts until late November.

This offseason, workouts began immediately after the regular season ended.

“We ended the season Oct. 2, and I was working out Oct. 3,” said Norris, in town to participate in the Tigers’ Winter Caravan and Saturday’s TigerFest. “Not super weight-bearing, just getting in there and being functional and making sure I was taking every opportunity.

“Night and day, just being able to go in with a clear mind and not worry about being healthy or rehabbing or anything. The last two offseasons, I’ve had to rehab. It’s just not fun. This offseason, I was able to not take any time off.”

Niyo: Tigers' Michael Fulmer pitches in wherever needed

Norris, 23, could be an X-factor for a Tigers team that believes it has a rotation that could surprise some people.

Ausmus says the strength of the ballclub, at least on paper, is the offense, and that’s understandable. But the rotation does feature a back-to-his-old-self Justin Verlander, who finished one ballot from winning his second Cy Young; Michael Fulmer, the reigning American League rookie of the year; and Norris and fellow young lefty Matt Boyd, both whom opened eyes at various points last season.

Then there’s Jordan Zimmermann, who’s been an ace in the past, is paid like an ace, and who the Tigers believe can be an ace. But he wasn’t healthy most of last season.

“If that whole rotation stays healthy,” general manager Al Avila said, “we really have a complete team.”

How high’s the ceiling for the rotation?

“Pretty high, man,” Verlander said. “See what those (young) guys did last year? The sky’s the limit for them.”

All eyes will be on Fulmer, to see if he can repeat his rookie season. It’s no small feat, hence the oft-used term “sophomore slump.”

But Norris might be 1B among the youngsters being counted on in the rotation, given that when he has been healthy and able to pitch in the major leagues, he’s looked really good — with a 1.009 WHIP in eight starts in 2015 after his trade from the Toronto Blue Jays to the Tigers, and a 3.04 ERA in Norris’ final 10 starts for Detroit in 2016, after he was fully recovered from a back injury suffered in spring training.

ESPN prospect guru Keith Law has repeatedly told The News a rotation can be built around Fulmer and Norris.

“Last spring training, he was kind of the incumbent to be the No. 5 guy, then he got hurt,” Ausmus said. “I think he learned a valuable lesson from that, in that 2016 didn’t progress the way he’d thought. But when he came up and got an opportunity toward the end of the season, he really was a big part of how the team played.

“He’s got the stuff.”

Norris called that late-season performance big for him. Having dealt with all the injuries, and stresses of trying to make a big-league club out of spring training, he was more loose late for the Tigers.

“I was finally able to feel comfortable and relax and just be free and easy,” Norris said, “instead of living and dying by every pitch.”

Norris was a second-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2011, debuting in the majors in 2014.

He was dealt to Detroit in late July 2015, along with Boyd, as part of a package for ace left-hander David Price.

Boyd, a sixth-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2013, isn’t nearly as talked-about as Norris, but definitely impressed in 2016 — likely even beyond the Tigers’ wildest expectations. In 11 appearances (10 starts) from early July to early September, the lefty’s ERA was 2.56.

“Guys like Norris and Boyd, young guys are always an X-factor because they’re still learning. There’s going to be some of this,” said Ausmus, who then used his arm to demonstrate a roller-coaster.

“The rotation, especially if Zimmermann feels strong, could surprise people.”

Avila made the same “surprise” comment during the Tigers’ caravan stop at Wayne State on Friday.

Zimmermann had a brilliant first month with the Tigers, then was either a disaster or a non-factor the rest of the way because of neck issues. Anibal Sanchez, too, was mostly awful, though the Tigers are confident he might be in the mix — it is, as Avila pointed out, a contract year.

The theme of the Tigers’ team has been that the band seems back together, despite front-office threats of trades and a big shakeup. That theme carries over to the rotation, and that’s a good thing, said Norris, who spent much of the winter fretting major moves.

So, in fact, there was a rough aspect to his offseason, even though he was fully healthy.

“To be quite honest with you, I was super stressed out. This guy’s gonna get traded, that guy’s gonna get traded. I hated thinking about it,” said Norris, adding he has learned a lot from some of the guys most talked about — like Verlander, Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera. “When I hear they might be gone, you kind of start panicking.

“It wasn’t fun, that’s for sure.”

The actual season he expects will be a lot more fun — thanks to a rotation he believes in, and desperately wants to be a big part of.

“People will realize that pretty early in the season,” Norris said. “I think by the end of the year, we can be right up there with the top rotations in baseball, like Cleveland, the Giants have a good one, the Dodgers.” @tonypaul1984