Turnbull the odd-man out in Tigers' rotation? Not so fast, Gardenhire says

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Detroit Tigers Manager Ron Gardenhire, right, watches as pitcher Spencer Turnbull and the staff take fielding drills.

Lakeland, Fla. — This seems fitting.

It was right-hander Spencer Turnbull who gave manager Ron Gardenhire one last good memory to take from the 2018 season. And now it’s Gardenhire giving Turnbull a chance to make the first good impression of the exhibition season.

Turnbull, who made his big-league debut last September, will start against Southeastern University in the spring opener Friday.

“This kid is going to be a good one,” Gardenhire said after practice Wednesday. “He’s already a pretty good one. He’s got a few things to learn, but I really like his stuff. I think he’s got as good a chance as anyone to get into the rotation, depending on how healthy we are.”

Turnbull pitched a lights-out inning of relief in Cleveland then made three starts, including the season-ender in Milwaukee. His seven strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings against that hot-hitting, playoff-bound Brewers team stayed with Gardenhire into the offseason.

“My last memory of last year was watching him pitch in Milwaukee,” Gardenhire said. “When I walked to the mound, those SOBs on the other side (Brewers) were high-fiving. They were happy I was taking him out. I’m telling you, they were.

“A couple of their guys said it, ‘Get that guy out of here.’ He was tough. And I kind of left the season on that, watching that kid throw the ball. That was pretty good.”

The Brewers scored four times off Turnbull, then seven times off three Tigers relievers. So, best that his memory of 2018 ended with Turnbull's performance.

Until the club signed two veteran starters — Matt Moore and Tyson Ross — Turnbull was in line to be the Tigers' fifth starter this season. The odds of that happening are longer, now, but Gardenhire hasn't ruled it out. 

“He’s going to be in the mix for me,” Gardenhire said. “I probably like him better than a lot of other people (in the organization) as far as thinking he’s ready to pitch up here. I watched him throw yesterday and his ball does some unbelievable things. He can really make it sink.”

Turnbull admitted the signings caught his attention. But they didn’t change his attitude about coming into camp and fighting for a spot in the rotation.

“I definitely took note of it, but it doesn’t change anything with my process or what I am doing to get ready,” said the University of Alabama product. “All that stuff is out of my control. As long as I am healthy and throwing well, good things are coming.”

A little clarity, please

On Tuesday, after watching Kaleb Cowart throw to hitters for the first time in nine years, Gardenhire said he wanted him to concentrate solely on pitching. He wanted him to hold off on trying to play infield, too.

But on Wednesday, Cowart took part in all the infield drills and took his turns in live batting practice.

“I asked them if I was doing position player stuff,” Cowart said. “They told me I was. Just don’t throw, very light throwing.”

Gardenhire might have acquiesced just a bit, but he said again on Wednesday that Cowart’s main focus needs to be on pitching.

“This is a learning experience for all of us,” he said. “We haven’t had this. I haven’t had it, where you have a guy who is a pitcher and an infielder. I told him, ‘You have to be careful with what you’re doing here. Right now we want the pitcher part. But you can figure out your way — talk to the coaches and we can get your hitting and all that stuff done, too.’

Cowart understands. His fielding and hitting are known qualities, his pitching is not. And, despite having to kick off nine years of rust, he was pleased with his first live BP.

“I was amped up to start with,” he said. “I hadn’t had that feeling in a long time. It felt really good. After my first three or four pitches that I yanked, I settled in and started throwing strikes. I felt like my stuff was crisp and it felt like it was coming out good.

“Obviously, the command wasn’t exactly what I wanted and I have a lot to work on. But the feedback I got from Kade (Scivicque, catcher) and the hitters was real positive.”

Cowart will throw another live batting practice Thursday.

Around the horn

Right-handed pitcher Chris Smith, a non-roster invitee, cut his live batting practice session short Wednesday, complaining of tingling in his shoulder. “He said he didn’t feel right, so we got him off of there and let the doctors check him out,” Gardenhire said.

… Pitching prospect Franklin Perez, who had missed Monday and Tuesday with a stomach ailment, returned to practice. “All the tests came back good,” Gardenhire said. “They are giving him some medicine and that should knock it out of him pretty quick.”

… Tyson Ross threw his first live batting practice of the spring and among the impressed was Miguel Cabrera. “He had a good time with Miggy in there,” Gardenhire said. “Ross is very professional. Just goes about his business. But he hides the ball well, it comes out of nowhere. He’s good. He’s going to be a big help for us.”

Twitter: @cmccosky