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‘I love the competition’: Daniel Norris faces tough battle to make Tigers’ rotation

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Daniel Norris

Jupiter, Fla. — Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire isn’t going to get too involved in roster discussions right now. There’s no point in it. There are still too many variables and too many things that can’t be predicted between now and Opening Day.

“Let it play itself out,” he said. “You never know what can happen. You never know with injuries. You never know, Al (Avila, general manager) might be trading somebody (laughing). Who the hell knows?

“I don’t come in with anything set. I just let it play out. Usually, all these things tend to work themselves out.”

One thing seems clear, though: If Daniel Norris is going to break camp in the Tigers’ rotation, he’s going to have to pitch his tail off this spring. Because barring injury, the quintet of Jordan Zimmermann, Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd and veteran free-agent signees Tyson Ross and Matt Moore seems in place.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 3, Cardinals 3

BOX SCORE: Phillies 12, Tigers 7

He knows that. He also knows the only thing he can have any impact on is his own performance.

“I love the competition, I love that battle and I want to win that,” said Norris, who pitched two scoreless, hitless innings in the Tigers’ 3-3 split-squad tie against the Cardinals Monday. “But at the same time, I have to get ready for the season, you know?

“If I have to start here in the bullpen, so be it. It’s still pitching. But in my head, I’m just pitching and getting ready for the year.”

Here are the cold numbers from Norris’ two innings: 32 pitches, 20 strikes, no runs, no hits, two strikeouts, two walks, two hard-hit balls. He threw mostly four-seam fastballs with a velocity range of 89-91 mph. He threw one change-up at 87, which was a beauty. He also mixed in a few sliders at 80-81 and curve balls at 76-78.

Yes, the velocity is a concern, but only because Norris used to ring up mid-90s on the radar gun. That was three years ago, before having to deal with a rash of injuries, the most recent resulting in groin surgery that cost him most of last season.

He may never get back to 95, but he doesn’t think he will sit at 89-91 all year, either.

“It’ll start creeping up,” he said. “I’ve said it all spring, nothing hurts. That’s all I can say. The velo will come. You want it to be there, but if I get people out, I get people out. And it’s not the same 91 as it was last year, when I was trying to force it and it was cutting.

“I thought it was better in the second inning. The curve ball was good. I threw a change-up at 87, that was big. I will keep getting stretched out and I’ll keep building up on it.”

Pitching coach Rick Anderson and Gardenhire took note of the swings the hitters were taking off that 91-mph fastball, and they weren't great. But they would like to see him gain more trust in it at that speed.

"You watch him going through it and he's doing fine," Gardenhire said. "Then he throws a 3-2 curve ball to walk a guy instead of attacking him. Then we get a lead (in the second inning) and he walks the leadoff hitter.

"Sometimes he backs away. I know it's the first outing of spring training, but those are situations where you have to be better."

Daniel Norris

Here’s the encouraging part, though. Norris threw three pitches at 91 mph in the first inning. He made an adjustment with his hips between innings and then threw seven 91-mph fastballs in the second inning.

“That’s what Rick and I talked about,” Norris said. “I made that adjustment from the first inning to the second and last year I couldn’t do that because of the restrictions in my body (from the surgery).

“In the first inning, the fastball was cutting and I was getting under the slider and curve ball. In the second inning I said, ‘OK, I have to use my hips more.’ Last year my hips were non-existent. It went from 89-90 to 91, not much, but it’s still an increase.”

He was throwing his slider at 80-81 mph, which is slower than he’d like.

“I don’t want to say that’s a concern, but I think as the heater (velocity) comes up, the slider will, too,” he said. “It used to be 87-90. I’ll just keep tweaking.”

He’ll have to, because there is no guarantee he’ll be shifted to the bullpen if he doesn’t win a rotation spot. He has a minor-league option left, the Tigers organizationally see him as a starter, and there is a huge battle going on for the final bullpen spots without him.

If we can presume closer Shane Greene, Joe Jimenez, Drew VerHagen and Blaine Hardy are at least penciled in, then there are eight relievers fighting for four spots – including Daniel Stumpf, Buck Farmer, Victor Alcantara, Zac Reininger, Sandy Baez and Louis Coleman, who were up last season, and Rule 5 draftee Reed Garrett.

The Tigers are also high on lefty Jose Fernandez, whom they claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays.

Alcantara, who posted a 2.40 ERA and 1.0 WHIP in 27 games last season, picked up where he left off. He struck out two in one scoreless inning here Monday.

"He's just filthy," Gardenhire said. "You saw those guys (Cardinals hitters) panic. They were panicking."

Twitter: @cmccosky