Tigers rotation battle heats up with the debuts of Julio Teheran, Jose Urena

Detroit News

Chris McCosky | The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Let’s say the Tigers carry six starting pitchers to begin the season. That’s not set in stone, by any means, but it’s been the working theory early in camp. Let’s also say that Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull are two of them. Lock them in for the sake of this argument.

That leaves six starters four for spots: Michael Fulmer, Jose Urena, Julio Teheran, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Tyler Alexander. And the sixth spot could very well be, because of off days and weather issues, a hybrid spot-start/long relief role for the first few weeks.

You can throw Daniel Norris in that mix, too, if you want to take the competition up another notch. But the reality is, Norris might be a more effective weapon as a bulk-innings reliever than as a fifth or sixth starter.

So, six pitchers for four spots. Theoretically.

►Fulmer is in his first full season after Tommy John surgery and may eventually run into innings restrictions.

►Urena and Teheran (a non-roster invitee) are discarded veterans coming off down seasons.

►Mize and Skubal, still rookies, threw just 28 and 32 innings last season, respectively.

►Alexander, like Norris, has had more success out of the bullpen than as a starter.

It’d be reckless to expect 30 starts out of any of them.

You see where this is headed, right?  Regardless of which four win the battle in spring training, the Tigers are likely going to need all of them to start games throughout the 2021 season. But the issue gets cloudy with the Triple-A season being delayed for a month.

Players not on the 26-man active roster will be sent, like last year, to the alternate site in Toledo for the month of April where they would likely be limited to bullpen sessions, live batting practice and intrasquad games.

Suboptimal, but not the point, says Tigers manager AJ Hinch.

“I don’t care when the Triple-A season starts,” he said after the Tigers’ 5-1 exhibition win over the Blue Jays Sunday. “We want guys to break camp who can help us win and help us get off to a good start in April. We’re talking about competitiveness in that clubhouse. I’m asking them to bring their best.

“It doesn’t mean they have to be perfect during spring training, but they have to earn their right to be on this team for more reasons than just the Triple-A season being delayed for a month. Looking at our clubhouse, that would be a disservice to them.”

Hinch got a look at three of the rotation combatants on Sunday. And by far, Teheran won the day. In his first outing of the spring, he pitched a clean fifth and sixth innings, just 23 pitches, with two strikeouts.

“He was the highlight of the day,” Hinch said. “He was really sharp and his stuff was good.”

Teheran’s two-seam fastball ranged in velocity from 89-93 mph with excellent movement, as evidenced by six called strikes. He got two swings and misses with his slider.

Urena, also making his Tigers’ spring debut, had good movement on his pitches and good velocity on his two- and four-seam fastballs (93-95) — but his command was rusty.

“I tried to attack the hitters, but I was a little wild,” Urena said. “Just trying to find myself. The two-seam was running too much…For my first time, I felt pretty good. I still have a couple of issues. I know I make a lot of pitches.”

He ended up throwing 39 pitches, only 19 strikes, with three walks. Non-roster right-hander Ben Taylor came on to get the final out in the second inning.

“I thought he had decent stuff, but just not the feel for it,” Hinch said.

Mize, in his second outing, threw the middle two innings. And like in his first outing, he walked three hitters.

“I just have to do a better job of being in the zone more,” Mize said. “I’m doing a good job of getting two strikes, but I need to end the at-bat quicker…But it’s not like I’m losing my command against some hitters. I’m all around the zone, just missing.

“Just maybe a mental adjustment of, ‘I know I can beat him in the zone, so let’s just pound that thing in there.’”

With a strong wind at his back and some extra adrenaline coming in out of the bullpen, Mize’s fastball was clocking in at 97 mph. Which, as he said, isn’t how it’s going to be in a typical start.

“The walks aren’t going to be a part of who he is or what he does, it’s what he did today and in his last start,” Hinch said. “For him, he’s trying a little too hard, to be honest. I think he can smooth things out a little.

“Stuff will not be a problem for him. He was the first pick in the country for a reason. There is no cause for alarm, just some things to work on. It’s probably good for him — to get a feel for when he’s off and get a feel for when he’s good.”

These pitchers should all have at least five more starts to sort this competition out. Then comes the question of trying to keep the pitchers sharp who don’t make it without being able to throw competitive innings for the month of April.

“The tail isn’t going to wag the dog here just because there’s no (Triple-A) games in April,” Hinch said. “It’s unfortunate. I wish there was games. But we have to look our players in the face and tell the guys who make the team that they made it because they earned it.”

The game itself was an aesthetic nightmare. The pitching staffs combined for 16 walks (nine by the Blue Jays) and four hit batsmen. Tigers catcher Grayson Greiner was hit in the face by a 94-mph fastball from reliever Elvis Luciano. He left the game and was being treated by the doctors well after the game ended.

It was supposed to be a nine-inning game, but Hinch and Jays manager Charlie Montoya agreed to a mercy-killing after Toronto batted in the eighth.

“There was a little confusion,” Hinch said. “The umpires thought we were playing seven. Charlie and I thought we were playing nine. But as we all watched that game unfold we decided that eight was enough.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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