At what point does Casey Mize enter into Tigers' rotation conversation?
Detroit – Ten games into a 60-game season and, injuries notwithstanding, the Tigers are what they are going to be, for the most part. There isn’t likely to be any surprise arrivals or additions behind the plate, around the infield or in the outfield. The core of the bullpen is mostly set, too.
The one area that remains unsettled is the starting rotation.
“We have to get that straightened out,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after the Tigers lost both ends of the seven-inning doubleheader Sunday to fall back to .500 (5-5). “Using two openers, and using the bullpen as much as we have, that’s not going to last, not even in a 60-game schedule.
“The health of our starting rotation has to get a little better here. It has to get more consistent. Once we iron that out and get four or five guys locked in we’ll be OK. We like our three, and now we’re trying to figure out number four and five.”
Well, they've got some time to sort it out. Major League Baseball on Monday postponed the Tigers' four-game, three-day series with the Cardinals scheduled for Tuesday-Thursday at Comerica Park.
Thirteen players and staff members of the Cardinals' traveling party have tested positive for COVID-19. The Cardinals, who were scheduled to workout at Comerica Monday, stayed at their hotel in Milwaukee.
The Tigers will work out at Comerica Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday ahead of their still-scheduled weekend series in Pittsburgh.
Maybe by then there will be some clarity with the rotation, which after two turns through produced one start of six full innings, that by Spencer Turnbull. The Tigers starters have eaten 41 innings, the relievers have eaten 44 innings.
Some of that was expected, with starters not being fully stretched out after the three-month shutdown and accelerated training camp. But the Tigers’ issues are compounded by the fact that they’ve used Michael Fulmer, Rony Garcia and Daniel Norris as openers – starters who by design will pitch a maximum of three innings.
Fulmer, Gardenhire said last week, will remain in the rotation as an opener as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery.
“He’s missed two years of baseball so we really have to be guarded here,” Gardenhire said. “All players say they feel good and they’re ready, and we all know what happens when you don’t do these things. We’re going to keep the program going here so he’ll be one of our pitchers the rest of the year and for a long time after that.”
Norris thrived within the confines of a three-inning limit last season. He, too, is easing his way back to form after he missed camp (COVID-19 protocol). His first start on Sunday was predictably sketchy. He needed 54 pitches to get five outs.
“He was wired,” Gardenhire said. “He wasn’t paying attention to runners. They were running on him before he even picked up his leg. Just a little overwhelmed being back. He was excited, overthrowing – all the things you think can happen pretty much did.
“We will see what happens next time and go from there.”
It’s certainly conceivable that Gardenhire could piggyback Fulmer and Norris and use that tandem as the fifth spot in the rotation. But he still wants to establish one more full-time starter and from the way he was talking Sunday, lefty Tyler Alexander might have earned a crack at it.
“I think Tyler might be pushing his way in, the way he’s throwing,” Gardenhire said.
Alexander, after his historical performance Sunday, has allowed one run in 7.2 innings with opponents hitting just .167 against him. In Game 1 Sunday against the Reds, he set a Major League record for relievers with nine straight strikeouts.
That also tied former Tiger Doug Fister’s American League record for all pitchers and was one short of Tom Seaver’s Major League record.
“He’s making a statement,” Gardenhire said. “He wants to pitch more and he wants to start. That’s how you get into the plans, by doing things like that. We know he can start, we had him do it last year (eight starts).
“We’re just trying to sort things out with Norris and guys like that. We’re going to figure this thing out here.”
It’s not likely the Tigers are going pull the plug on either Norris or Fulmer this early. Norris earned a spot in this rotation last year and deserves a chance to get his legs under him here after not pitching competitively for nearly four months.
And Fulmer, the former American League Rookie of the Year, has made it back without the benefit of any minor-league rehab starts. But who knows when he's going to make his second start. He had a start rained out Saturday, and he was supposed to start the second game of the doubleheader Wednesday.
Most likley, the Tigers will reset their rotation -- using Matthew Boyd, Turnbull and Ivan Nova in Pittsburgh. That would set Fulmer up for Monday at home against the White Sox, then Alexander and-or Norris on Tuesday.
“We’re going to talk about all of that and do what’s best for the baseball team,” Gardenhire said.
And biding his time in Toledo, meanwhile, is the Tigers’ No. 1 prospect Casey Mize. At what point does he enter into this equation? The Tigers have kept him on the taxi squad long enough to save a year of service time. If they are worried about him earning Super 2 rights (which would make him arbitration-eligible a year sooner), then they wouldn’t call him up until Sept. 9.
But it’s hard to believe that Super 2 considerations are a factor with Mize. The current arbitration system is likely to undergo significant changes after 2021 with a new collective bargaining agreement.
Of course, the question will be moot if the virus doesn't relent, and games keep getting canceled.
But, going forward, the guess here is the Tigers will give Norris at least two more starts to find his form, and keep Alexander paired with him in the meantime. Eventually, one of those two will remain in the rotation in tandem with Fulmer. The other would be the long left-hander in the bullpen.
Projected rotation – eventually, presuming the season continues: Boyd, Turnbull, Nova, Mize, Fulmer-Norris/Alexander.