Detroit — The starting rotation at Double-A Erie, also known as the hope of the future for the Detroit Tigers, has put the Seawolves in position to make the Eastern League postseason. Entering play Monday, they led the Western Division by 1.5 games.
But that rotation, which features five of the top 10 prospects in the organization according to MLB.com, is putting the Tigers in a bit of a quandary.
While general manager Al Avila and vice president of player development David Littlefield would love for those five pitchers to gain some early playoff experience, all of them are closing in on their innings limits.
“We are trying to do everything we can to win the division and win the Eastern League,” Littlefield said on Monday. “That’s certainly a goal we’d like to attain. However, we’d never put the health of any player at risk ahead of winning the Eastern League.
“We’d never do that.”
So who are we talking about? Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo, the Tigers’ No. 1 picks the last three years who rank one, two and nine, respectively, on the club’s prospect chart. Also, No. 4-ranked Tarik Skubal and No. 10 Joey Wentz, who was just acquired from the Braves for Shane Greene.
In other words, the cream of the crop.
“I wouldn’t say anyone is in danger of being shut down,” Littlefield said. “Barring any injuries, of course. But we are going to look close at managing innings. With 21 days left, it’s getting tight with the innings that are left.”
So what are we looking at? Littlefield said, based on a multitude of variables, each player has a customized innings limit. Generally speaking, the organization limits the yearly increase of innings between 20 and 30 percent.
Given that, Skubal and Wentz are closest to their ceiling. Here’s the breakdown, just for the sake of this exercise, using a 30-percent increase.
► Mize is at 103.1 innings. He threw 128.1 last season, counting his collegiate innings at Auburn. His approximate limit would be right around 166 innings. He should be in good shape to finish the season.
► Manning is at 119 innings. He pitched 117.2 last year. His limit would be around 153 innings.
► Faedo, who has been dealing with back soreness, is at 112.1 innings. He threw 121 last year. His approximate limit would be 157.
► Skubal is at 109.1 innings. Counting his last year at University of Seattle, he threw 102.1 innings. His approximate limit is 133.
► Wentz is at 113 innings and he was limited to 67 innings last year. He is already over a 30-percent increase.
“It’s a customized plan for all of our players based on a variety of factors,” Littlefield said. “Age, health, physical stature, past history of innings — we try to keep an eye on things in all of those areas.”
Littlefield said they also closely monitor mechanics, velocity and pitch shape — all factors that can change with fatigue. And, it’s a collaborative effort with Avila, assistant general manager David Chadd, pitching coordinator A.J. Sager, Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson, Erie pitching coach Mark Johnson, and the medical and analytics staffs.
“You try to get ahead of this so you don’t end up with your backs against the wall with innings down the stretch,” Littlefield said. “Really, right around the first of June is when we start tracking it closer. One thing you learn, though, the game itself will sometimes help in that regard.
“Guys will have a short start, or there will be bad weather, a rainout.”
No official determination has been made with these pitchers in terms of missing starts or shutting them down. But there are pitch plans presently being formulated.
“They may miss a start or we may back them up, depending on the schedule,” Littlefield said. “But with 21 straight games, there’s not a lot of play there. The team is playing really well and winning at an incredible rate and we want to try and keep that going.
“But keeping those guys healthy and keeping track of their innings and growing them at the rate we think they should is our primary goal.”
On deck: Mariners
Series: Three-game series at Comerica Park, Detroit
First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday – 7:10 p.m.; Thursday – 1:10 p.m.
TV/radio: All games on FSD/97.1
Probables: Tuesday – LHP Yusei Kikuchi (4-8, 5.34) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (6-8, 4.16); Wednesday – LHP Marco Gonzales (12-9, 4.25) vs. RHP Edwin Jackson (2-5. 9.35); Thursday – TBA vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-10, 3.68)
►Kikuchi, Mariners: He has allowed a MLB-most 29 home runs this season. Brandon Dixon and John Hicks took him deep in Seattle last month, but those were solo homers and the only runs the Tigers got off him in 6.2 innings.
►Boyd, Tigers: He went back to the lab after giving up three home runs in less than three innings against the Royals in his last start. After an intense bullpen session Friday, under the scrutiny of all the high-tech gadgetry, he felt confident he had corrected the flaws in his delivery.