Detroit — Seemingly one of the Tigers' more set position groups heading into spring training was the starting rotation.
Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Fiers, Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris seemed, at the very least, penciled in, barring injury or subsequent ineptitude.
Buck Farmer, Ryan Carpenter and Chad Bell were expected to battle with Norris for the final spot — only because Norris, injury-plagued and erratic the last couple of years, remains a question mark and still has a minor-league option left.
Essentially, that fifth spot was Norris’ to lose.
Now, though, there is a new contestant, and the battle has intensified.
Alex Wilson, who for the past three seasons has been a multi-role mainstay in the Tigers’ bullpen, will come to spring training next month as a starting pitcher.
“I went to them and asked if I could start,” Wilson said Thursday before heading out on the Tigers winter caravan. “The last few years, I’ve been in games in the third, fourth, fifth innings. I started all the way up (through the minor leagues). I just never got a chance at this level.
“I feel like if I got the chance, I could prove myself as a starter and win a job. I hope it works out.”
The Tigers have given Wilson the go-ahead to stretch out his arm in preparation of starting in the spring. He made an emergency three-inning start in Chicago in 2015, and pitched well. But he hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2011 when, in the Red Sox organization, he went 10-4 with a 3.11 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and an almost 3 to 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Double-A and Triple-A.
“It’s just a matter of arm preparation,” he said of the transition. “But I feel like I am in a good place to do it.”
Earlier in his career, he had a four-pitch arsenal — fastball, slider, curveball, change-up. But he found success at the big-league level with a sinker-cutter combination. He stopped throwing the curveball altogether and threw a slider less than 10 percent of the time.
He likely will have to add a third pitch — slider, curveball or change-up — if he wins a rotation spot.
“I am 100 percent ready to rock,” said Wilson, whose season ended abruptly last year when a line drive off the bat of Joe Mauer broke his leg. “Everything is good right now. I’ve already thrown off a mound once. I feel like I am in really good place.”
The decision to allow Wilson to start had to be difficult for pitching coach Chris Bosio, since Wilson is one of the few established bullpen pieces on the club.
Bosio, recovering from minor surgery and not expected in Detroit until Saturday, was unavailable for comment. But perhaps the move is viewed as a no-risk experiment. If Wilson doesn’t win a spot on the rotation, it would be a simple move to reassign him to the bullpen.
Or, Wilson has a minor-league option available. He could start the season in Toledo while he continues to make the transition.
Either way, Wilson is likely to play a big role, both on the mound and as one of the leaders of the young pitching staff.
“I feel really old,” he said with a laugh. “Obviously, I am one of the older guys now and in the past, I’ve never been in these shoes coming in. But I think it’ll be fun. We have a lot of young guys with a lot of talent and with a young crew, you just never know.
“We could mesh and take off, or we could take a few bumps along the way. It is what it is, we’re rebuilding. But we have the right amount of talent to start. We have a good starting point and I know everybody in here wants to win. It may be challenging at times, but it will also be a lot of fun to watch.”
Tigers catcher John Hicks plays a word guessing game at the Southfield fire department on the Winter Caravan. Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
Tigers starter Jordan Zimmermann might miss the first couple of weeks of spring training, but he hopes it will help ensure that he makes it through a full season without injury.
Zimmermann, who made 29 starts last season despite having to get two nerve-blocking injections in his neck, had his first injury-free off-season in three years.
“I feel really good,” he said. “I threw off the mound a few days ago and everything checked out. The ball was coming out free and easy and I am excited to get to spring training.”
But, just as a precaution, Zimmermann said he plans to have another injection early in February. That likely will keep him out for the first couple of weeks of spring training.
“Last year I had one in November and it lasted until the All-Star break,” he said. “So, my way of thinking, if I can get one in spring, I should be able to make it through a full year. We will see how it goes.
“It’s better to do it then than have it flare up in the season.”