| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Tigers’ AJ Hinch thinks team can win in 2021 with ‘mindset change’
Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch breaks down the team’s offseason entering the 2021 season Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.
Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
Creativity is crucial to the Detroit Tigers‘ success in the 2021 season, especially considering the expected inning limitations to the starting rotation.
Each started in 2020, but after unsuccessful stints, they were relegated to the bullpen as long-relievers. As Hinch attempts to decipher the uncertainties of the upcoming season, Norris and Alexander will compete for a little bit of everything in the spring.
“It’s such a difficult puzzle to put together to get all the innings in, especially coming off a season where every single pitcher has a minimal workload compared to previous years,” Hinch said Wednesday. “We’re going to look at all sorts of combinations. We’re going to have a big competition.
“We’re going to stretch out Alexander and Norris, in specific, to give us the chance to make a decision on whether they fit perfectly into a rotation or do they go back to that hybrid role where they’re extended relievers.”
There’s a pitching dilemma in Detroit, where more experienced starters — Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer — are intertwining with budding arms important to the rebuild: Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo.
Factor in the inning limits to manage workloads, especially for the younger pitchers, and the Tigers’ rotation will be in trouble without additions. General manager Al Avila foresees his team picking up one or two starters from the free-agent market.
“Our goal would be to have too much excess pitching,” Hinch said. “It’s hard to even say that out loud because it rarely gets accomplished. You need eight, 10, 12, sometimes 13, 14 starting pitchers over the course of a 162-game season. Every team is going to need that many starting pitchers.”
Last season, Mize and Skubal made their debuts and tossed 28⅓ and 32 innings, respectively, after participating in the team’s summer camp in July and at the alternate training site in Toledo throughout the first half of August.
Boyd pitched 60⅓ innings, followed by Turnbull at 56⅔ innings and Fulmer — under strict restrictions in his return from Tommy John surgery — at 27⅔ innings.
“Alexander and Norris are going to factor in,” Hinch said. “This pitching staff can be put together creatively in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t mean the young starters aren’t on our team to start the year, they’re going to have to earn that, but we’re trying to give ourselves as many options as we can, not only to get through the innings that can be expected after a short season but be good at it.”
Norris had his chance as a starter in 2020, after his arrival was delayed by COVID-19, in an Aug. 2 doubleheader. It was a tryout, of sorts. He gave up two runs on four hits and two walks in 1⅔ innings.
The 27-year-old then moved to the bullpen and flourished for the remainder of the year. As a reliever, Norris had a 2.77 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 28 strikeouts and five walks in 26 innings across 13 games.
“I love Norris,” Hinch said, “and I think he’s someone who can still get better. … I think the best way for him is to learn his strengths, use his strengths at the right time, make adjustments faster than he has in the past, whether it’s what pitches he’s using, where he’s using them against specific hitters. That’s the game-planning part.”
Alexander started two of his 14 games last season. He logged a 3.14 ERA, 1.186 WHIP, 28 strikeouts and six walks out of the bullpen. In his two-year career, the left-hander has started 10 of his 27 appearances.
His most memorable performance came in the Aug. 2 doubleheader. He entered in the third inning and struck out the first nine batters he faced, tying the American League record — and breaking the MLB reliever record — for consecutive strikeouts. He finished one strikeout shy of Tom Seaver’s MLB record set in 1970.
Also, Alexander’s 10 total strikeouts were the most by a reliever since Randy Johnson in 2001.
Former manager Ron Gardenhire, who retired in September, started Alexander eight days later, on Aug. 11, against the Chicago White Sox. He allowed five runs on four hits and three walks in 3⅔ innings — with only two strikeouts — and spent the rest of 2020 in the bullpen.
Hinch doesn’t know what he’s going to do with Alexander, and isn’t certain about Norris, either. Healthy competition in the spring will iron out their roles. In seven MLB seasons, Norris has started 83 of his 111 games.
“I don’t know what his best role is with us,” Hinch said. “It’s hard to get that kind of stuff; the stuff he has, the competitiveness that he has, the swing and miss stuff that he’s shown in the past. I know it was valuable in those three-inning increments last year.”
Even with teams interested in Norris at the trade deadline, the Tigers kept him. They’re counting on his continued success and his value rising, which will happen with continued dominance as a reliever.
Norris doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2022 season.
“I don’t worry about free agency,” Hinch said. “My goal is to get the most out of him this season. It starts with pitch usage, pitch characteristics, using them in the right situations and building off the success of what he learned last year.”