Detroit – Manager AJ Hinch has set the Tigers Opening Day roster, but not necessarily in stone. There are probably more than a few players still walking on egg shells because one sticky question remains unanswered.
What happens when right-handed starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull gets cleared and returns from the non-baseball (COVID-19 protocol) injured list?
We can debate it, but the answer isn’t coming for a few weeks yet. Turnbull remains away from the spring training facility and the Tigers don’t yet know when, how or where his ramp-up back to game condition will be.
“That’s one of the unknowns,” manager AJ Hinch said before the game against the Blue Jays in Dunedin on Sunday. “Once we can get him fully cleared, we can develop a plan. But you won’t see him in the first few series for sure.”
A few series. That might mean he could be ready to join the team some time during or just after the three-city trip to Cleveland, Houston and Oakland, which ends April 18. That would be enough time, certainly, for a few things to shake out in terms of the roster that could help answer the question of who goes when Turnbull returns.
The off-day on April 19 is looking like it could D-Day for this dilemma.
That would give the Tigers 16 games to evaluate players who might be at the back end of the roster like Rule 5 rookie outfielder Akil Baddoo, veteran pitchers Michael Fulmer (now working in the bullpen), Derek Holland (who made the team as a non-roster invitee) and even Bryan Garcia (who struggled through the early part of camp).
Here are some plausible, albeit unofficial, scenarios:
► Go to a six-man rotation and expand the pitching staff to 14. That would mean a position player would be sent back. Among those vulnerable then would include Baddoo, or possibly one of the utility players Harold Castro or Niko Goodrum.
Hinch has been clear that while he doesn’t mind carrying five outfield-only players early in the season, he would be loathe to do so for six months. So, if Baddoo’s performance as a role player warrants sticking (and not being offered back to the Twins), then another outfielder could also become vulnerable, like Victor Reyes, who has minor-league options remaining.
► Go to a six-man rotation and keep 13 pitchers. This seems unlikely, but if this was the option then perhaps Fulmer would be vulnerable. By this time, though, he would have reached five years of major league service time and could reject an option to Triple-A Toledo. He probably wouldn’t reject if he was going to down to get stretched back out for a return to the rotation.
This would allow Hinch to keep Baddoo and two utility players. But pressing on with a seven-man bullpen would be problematic and risky.
► The Tigers stay with a five-man rotation and expand to 14 pitchers. In this scenario, one of the current starters would be sent to the bullpen and be used when a sixth spot in the rotation becomes necessary. This could be a way to govern the innings and workload of rookies Casey Mize and-or Tarik Skubal. It could also be a fallback for a veteran like Jose Urena or Julio Teheran if they falter early.
This scenario would bump a position player.
Former manager Ron Gardenhire would often say, when confronted with such dicey roster decisions, “These things have a way of working themselves out.” Certainly, injuries and performance could be critical factors in this decision, too.
Regardless, when Turnbull is cleared and ready to pitch, he’s going to slot into the rotation. If things break right, Hinch hopes Turnbull can stay in Lakeland for what would amount to an abridged second spring training.
There is expected to be a gap between the end of big-league camp and the start of minor-league camp. Mini-camp players like Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Cooper Johnson, Parker Meadows, Kody Clemens, Ryan Kreidler would still be in place to take live batting practice against Turnbull.
“There will be a natural couple-day break, but maybe that will coincide with when Turnbull needs to come back and do some baseball activity,” Hinch said. “There are some guys staying back and they may have to wait for the intake testing process for the new minor leaguers.
“They may not be completely inactive.”
Eventually, Turnbull will come north to the alternate site in Toledo and complete his ramp-up there, either in intrasquad games or in exhibition games against teams from other alternate sites.