From prospects to vets, Tigers' Daniel Norris, Michael Fulmer now taking ball in relief

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News
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Detroit — On consecutive nights Friday and Saturday, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris threw scoreless innings to help turn a sterling start from a young Tigers starter into a win for the club.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the hope was Fulmer and Norris would be the ones starting those games and handing winnable games to the bullpen.

Baseball’s unpredictable grind has turned the pair, acquired one day apart in 2015, into pen pieces.

Their professionalism and adaptability has turned them into useful ones, Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Sunday.

“When you have your players transition from prospect to big leaguer, from big leaguer to veteran, the makeup of the player matters almost as much as the actual physical ability,” Hinch said. “Those are two good examples of guys that are selfless and are trying to help the team win.”

Tigers reliever Daniel Norris owns a 5.00 ERA through 18 games this season.

The pair was acquired, along with Matthew Boyd, over a two-day stretch at the 2015 trade deadline.

While the lesser-acclaimed Boyd has assumed role as steady staff stalwart, Norris and Fulmer have dealt with countless injuries, some season-ending and serious and others lingering on.

Taking a cue from his locker-room neighbor in Norris, Fulmer is getting used to the rhythm of the bullpen.

“That to me has been one of the highlights of this season is to see how good he’s been feeling,” Norris said of Fulmer. “He and I have bonded a lot over the years throughout injuries and surgeries, so it’s good to see him fight back and thrive. It’s inspiring and it’s just cool.

“On a deeper level, it’s cool seeing a friend get out of what we went through.”

Hinch said he had offseason conversations with both, as Fulmer and Norris both indicated their willingness to do whatever it took to take steps forward as a team.

“That kind of selflessness is invaluable to me as a manager,” Hinch said. 

It’s been six years since the Tigers fetched Norris, Boyd and Jairo Labourt from Toronto for David Price, then spun Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets for Fulmer and now-Yankees reliever Luis Cessa a day later at the trade deadline.

It was a minor tuneup by a club trying to retool on the fly, adding major league-ready arms to a free agent crop that winter that included Justin Upton and Jordan ZImmermann.

Fulmer held up his end of the bargain early, winning Rookie of the Year in 2016. 

But the team failed to deliver on the big-money investments intended to keep the contention window open.

As the real rebuild began, so did injuries for Norris and Fulmer. Norris never reached and Fulmer wasn’t able to return to their top-of-the-rotation ceilings.

A starter for 47 of his first 55 Detroit appearances, the Tigers converted Norris into an opener in late 2019. He was solid in the short starting stints, posting a 3.33 ERA in his final nine appearances of the season, all exactly three innings long.

Norris was moved to the bullpen last season and his 3.25 ERA was the best of his first seven seasons.

The idea was to have Norris available as a versatile weapon this year.

But the start was slow, as the left-hander surrendered runs in three of his first four outings.

Even more concerning, velocity was down for the 28-year-old.

After hitting 94 mph throughout much of the spring, Norris got back to that mark again Saturday, 

“I’ve been dumbfounded for six or seven weeks about it,” Norris said of the velocity dip. “But it was nice to see that.”

Norris mixed in the changeup and slider, striking out two Yankees swinging with a runner aboard in a scoreless seventh, helping Spencer Turnbull to his fourth win.

Saturday’s 18-pitch inning was the best he’s felt all season, Norris said.

“Sometimes with that stuff, with whatever you’re working on, you wake up and it kind of clicks that day,” he said.

Norris said his perfectionist approach, which has served him well in his pursuit to the majors, often can make for frustrating fallout during slumps or injury recovery.

He said he’s stayed in the weight room, and is beginning to get back to the feeling where his body is connected together.

Continued success could turn Fulmer and Norris into trade pieces themselves. There, they could supplement the next wave of Tigers prospects and complete the cycle as useable veterans elsewhere.

Or, they could stay in Detroit and help wherever is necessary as the ship continues its slow turn around.

“They’re trying to either establish a reason for us to keep them or establish a reason for other teams to be interested in them,” Hinch said. “They’re consistent approach to their work and their workouts and their craft gets all the respect in the world from me because I can trust them.”

Tigers headed to NL park Monday

Monday’s opener of a two-game set in Milwaukee is Detroit’s first game in a National League park of the season.

That means pitchers batting for the first time in nearly two years after the universal designated hitter was given a one-year trial last year during the height of the pandemic.

However, Hinch said Sunday that Monday would be a bullpen day for the Tigers with Rony Garcia, Tyler Alexander, Derek Holland and Norris among the candidates to start.

It was announced late Sunday that the 26-year-old left-hander Alexander would get the start.

Tigers pitchers had four hits in 23 at-bats in 2019, a .174 batting average. Reliever Gregory Soto went 2 for 2 at the plate.

Hinch said Miguel Cabrera will play first base without the DH, pushing Jonathan Schoop to second base. Hinch said Jake Rogers could start at catcher, leaving Eric Haase as a flexible piece off the bench.

“The versatility of our bench will make me feel very comfortable,” Hinch said. “I can make any decision whatsoever. I can virtually do anything we want to try and win the game.”

‘Discomfort’ slows down Greiner rehab

The Triple-A Toledo rehab for catcher Grayson Greiner has been delayed, as Hinch said Greiner “had a little discomfort” this week while running the bases Thursday.

Greiner has been on the injury list since May 12 after tweaking his left hamstring.

“He’s been given a couple days off to have any of that soreness subside,” Hinch said. “It doesn’t look like he’s going to get in there for a couple of days. I wouldn’t officially call it a setback yet, but it was a delay where we’re trying to make sure that we don’t push him too fast, too hard.”

Short at short

Rookie Zack Short started Sunday at shortstop, his natural position as a prospect with the Chicago Cubs.

According to Jason Beck of MLB.com, five players named Short have played in MLB, though Zack was the first to start at shortstop.

... The Tigers sent reliever Bryan Garcia down to Triple-A Toledo after Sunday's game.

Detroit will recall RHP Rony Garcia for Monday's game at Milwaukee, the team announced. Hinch said earlier Rony Garcia could start Monday, but that it would be a bullpen game no matter who opens.

On deck: Brewers

 Series: Two games at American Family Field, Milwaukee

► First pitch: Monday — 2:10 p.m.; Tuesday — 7:40 p.m.

 TV/radio: Both games on BSD/97.1 FM

 Probables: Monday — TBA vs. RHP Corbin Burnes (2-4, 2.33 ERA); Tuesday — LHP Matthew Boyd (2-6, 3.43) vs. RHP Adrian Houser (3-5, 4.07)

Scouting report

► TBA, Tigers: Manager AJ Hinch said Sunday that any of RHP Rony Garcia or lefties Tyler Alexander, Derek Holland or Daniel Norris could start. Either way, it’ll be a bullpen day for the Tigers, Hinch said, adding it should be left-handed heavy after a heavy dose of Yankees right-handed hitting over the weekend.

 Burnes, Brewers: Burnes is one of baseball’s best, striking out 58 batters before issuing his first walk this season, an all-time record. Milwaukee has lost four of his starts in a row, though, and he walked three last time out.

Matt Schoch writes for PlayMichigan.com and also freelances for The Detroit News.

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