Chris McCosky | The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — Tarik Skubal was stretching and getting ready for his first live batting practice session of the spring Tuesday, blissfully unaware that the Tigers just made the signing of veteran right-hander and two-time All-Star Julio Teheran official.
Another day, another layer of competition.
“I don’t focus on that stuff too much,” said Skubal, who faced JaCoby Jones, Robbie Grossman and Riley Greene. “AJ (Hinch, manager) and Chris Fetter (pitching coach) are big on focus, on no bad reps. I’ve been trying to really apply that, even like with everyday catch-play. Just make every throw count.”
Skubal’s control was a little sketchy, as you’d expect facing hitters for the first time, but, according to feedback he got from the hitters, his fastball had zip and his splitter, his new baby, had the fade and sink that he’s looking for.
“He’s so physical,” Hinch said earlier in the day. “He’s got all the great attributes of a legitimate big-league starter and I love that. He’s pretty serious in his work. He’s pretty locked in. I can see the intensity that guys have talked about. I love that part — when he’s working, he’s working. Love his stuff, ton of arm strength…”
But. The inevitable but. Will he be able to make the physical adjustments off his brief debut last season? Will his secondary pitches develop fast enough? Is his command consistent enough?
“He’s got a lot to learn at this level,” Hinch said. “But, wow — what a first impression by him.”
The other, perhaps bigger, question is this: Will the roster numbers fall in Skubal’s and/or Casey Mize’s favor by the end of March? The addition of Teheran muddies the water a little bit. Although he comes to camp on a make-good minor-league deal, the Tigers gave Teheran a base salary of $3 million if he makes the squad, and another $1 million if he makes 20 starts.
That’s pretty strong incentive and show of faith.
“I like his track record,” Hinch said of Teheran. “Prior to last year he was logging a lot of innings and was a reliable starter at the major-league level. He adds to our competition and depth.”
Teheran, 30, made 222 starts from 2013-2019 for the Braves and averaged 190 innings a season. But he never was fully healthy with the Angels last season. He velocity and spin rate were down on all of his pitches and he ended up allowing 35 runs in 31⅓ innings.
“He battled through a couple of things medically and the ball wasn’t coming out the way it normally does,” Hinch said. “We think he’s healthy and now we have to get him in here and see how effective he is. If we can get a return to form after an injury season, it’d be important for him and important for us.”
In a perfect world, you set the parameters of the competition and say let the best arms win. But as Hinch said on Monday, there is a short-term view and a long-term view. Is it possible Skubal and Mize can fit both in 2021, knowing that some innings restrictions are inevitable?
“Every time someone brings up limitations, I’m going to tell you it doesn’t limit them at the beginning of the season,” Hinch said. “It’s the long-season evaluation we have to look at. But the mindset for these guys is, give me what you got for as long as you got it.”
The only real certainty regarding the Tigers’ rotation is that, barring injury, Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull will be at the top of it. There are questions and concerns from that point on.
Michael Fulmer is likely to be in the rotation, too, but the jury is still out on the type of pitcher he can be and the type of workload he can carry post-Tommy John surgery.
The Tigers paid Jose Urena $3.25 million to be a veteran stabilizer in the rotation, but he still hasn’t shown up to camp, still getting his travel and intake testing issues squared away. And general manager Al Avila indicated earlier this month Urena could have value to the club out of the bullpen, as well.
For now, let’s say those four are locked in and the Tigers use a six-man rotation right out of the gate — which seems to be how they’re leaning. That leaves Skubal, Mize, Teheran, plus lefties Tyler Alexander and Daniel Norris hunting two spots.
Two qualifiers: Prospect Matt Manning isn’t in the mix for a spot in April. He didn’t pitch at all last season, so it’s a safe bet that he’s starting in Triple A.
Also, it seems counterintuitive to remove Norris from the bulk-innings role he thrived in last season. Norris hasn’t ever pitched a full season as a starter in the big leagues.
“He was really good last year when he found his niche, coming in and airing it out for three innings or however long he could,” Hinch said. “He can help you win games in a lot of different roles. He just wants to be heavily relied upon to win games and that’s good to hear.”
Norris would be an unknown, a possible X-factor, in the rotation. He could be a weapon out of the bullpen.
So, maybe it comes down to Skubal, Mize, Alexander and Teheran for two spots. Alexander would almost certainly land back in the bullpen if he doesn’t win a spot. Teheran likely would end up in another organization.
As for Skubal and Mize, the only thing that seems moderately certain is, as Hinch intimated Tuesday, neither would come north as a bullpen piece.
“It’s hard to imagine that right now,” he said. “We need to take a long look and see what’s in their best interest. I don’t want to say something now that I regret six weeks from now. They need to show they are ready to handle the opportunity in the big leagues.
“We’ll determine at the end of camp what’s best for our current team and what’s best for their futures. It’s doubtful you want to put a guy like that in the ‘pen, but you never say never on Feb. 23.”
For now all eyes will be on Teheran. If he can be the consistent, innings-eater he was for so long, the Tigers will happily fork over the $3 million, plug him in and let Skubal and Mize fight for the sixth spot. If Teheran doesn’t return to form, Alexander comes into play, with Skubal and Mize still fighting for one spot.
Eventually, all three, including Manning, will likely be in the rotation — though probably not at the same time.
“There’s great buzz about young players earlier and earlier in their careers,” Hinch said. “Specifically on a teams that are trying to reform an identity. But they have to play well.”
Hinch also made the point that Skubal, Mize and Manning, as much as they are linked, aren’t a package deal.
“The reality is they’re individuals and we need to cater to that,” Hinch said. “Both from an arrival standpoint and how they move through the minor leagues, but also from a development standpoint. They’re different.
“I’m proud of them. They are handling it well. They have great personalities. But my first time around these guys, they’re different. You’ve got to coach them different because of their personalities. The talent is real. Now we’ve got to cultivate it.”