Clearwater, Fla. — The back of the Tigers starting rotation has been an unsettled topic throughout this camp. And now, 11 days from Opening Day, there is uncertainty at the top.
Manager AJ Hinch said Sunday morning that right-hander Spencer Turnbull, who was in line to be the No. 1 or No. 2 starter, might have a delayed start to the regular season.
“He’s still away from the club and away from the complex,” Hinch said. “He’s not reporting or doing anything baseball-wise with us. Obviously, we’re getting toward the end of camp. It’s looking more and more unlikely that he’s going to be able to do much between now and then as of right now.”
Turnbull has been in quarantine all week in accordance with COVID-19 protocols, presumably because of contact tracing issues.
“It was through no wrong-doing on his part,” Hinch said. “He didn’t break protocol. He just can’t come to the complex.”
Hinch said the delay didn’t necessarily mean Turnbull would have to stay back in Lakeland and have an extended spring training when the team breaks. It’s conceivable that he could be pushed to the back of the rotation, but that remains to be seen.
“We will see as we get toward the end of camp if he’s available or not,” Hinch said.
So where does that leave the rotation? Especially given that Michael Fulmer worked Sunday out of the bullpen – which may or may not be a precursor to his role going into the season.
Matthew Boyd, Tarik Skubal, Jose Urena and Julio Teheran, a non-roster invitee, seem fairly set for now. With the uncertainty of Turnbull’s availability and Fulmer’s status, Casey Mize appears in position to be the No. 5 starter.
Prospect Matt Manning, who has already been optioned to Triple-A, got the start against the Phillies Sunday, but Hinch made it clear he is not an option to start the season.
“I don’t think he’s completely ready,” Hinch said. “He’s got a lot to work on. For us, we have to continue to push him in some of the things around the margins of pitching.”
Hinch, in his exit interview with Manning, told him he needed to work on controlling the running game, work on developing his slider and change-up to go along with his elite fastball and curveball.
“We’ve been very honest with him,” Hinch said. “The lack of a season last year and ending with a (forearm) injury, didn’t give us an opportunity to be comfortable pushing him at the beginning of the season.
“We will get him built up and be ready for the Triple-A season in May. Then ultimately he can start to push us as he gains more experience at Triple-A and becomes a more ready pitcher.”
Hinch, even before Turnbull’s departure, had already decided to start the season with a five-man rotation, then add a sixth starter once the schedule thickened.
“We don’t have six games in a row until the second or third week of the season,” Hinch said. “We have time to determine that. We just have to get through camp healthy and figure out who’s on the team and in what roles, and ultimately how many position players we can carry.”
If the Tigers carry five outfielders to accommodate Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo, then it’s probable they’d carry 13 pitchers, which means the sixth starter would begin the season at the alternate site in Toledo. But the six-man rotation will happen this season.
“I think everybody will do it at some point in the season,” Hinch said. “You will see some spot starters, maybe not six in a row every time through the rotation. But I think you will see teams sprinkle in extra days rest, maybe not right away, but as we get through May, June, July, August.”
Part of it, Hinch said, is the pandemic and the industry-wide lack of innings pitched last year.
“Part of it, too, is keeping the industry healthy, pitcher-wise,” he said. “I don’t know if it’ll stick long-term. It depends on personnel. But pitching has been spread out across the league and everyone is being a little afraid of the innings.”
And that’s across the board — for veterans like Boyd and for rookies like Skubal and Mize.
“I don’t think anyone has any idea how a young pitcher or a veteran pitcher is going to adjust to having only played a maximum of 60 games as a team and pitchers even less. It’s by far the least workload across the industry.
“Every team has to deal with it. It’s going to create some opportunity for creativity.”