Detroit — As the Tigers begin their 2021 season, here are some intriguing storylines we will be following.
The second wave
One of the persistent and, frankly, unanswerable questions every team in baseball faces this season is how to govern the workloads of pitchers, especially starting pitchers, coming off a pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
The Tigers have two rookies in the rotation — Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize — who were limited to 32 and 28 innings, respectively, last season. Even veterans like Matthew Boyd, Julio Teheran and Jose Urena, who have pitched 180 or more innings in a big-league season, had greatly reduced workloads.
“I don’t think anyone has any idea how a young pitcher or a veteran pitcher will adjust to having only played a maximum of 60 games as a team and less as a pitcher,” manager AJ Hinch said. “It was by far the least workload across the industry. Every team has to deal with it.
“It’s going to create some opportunity for creativity.”
It’s hard to imagine starters jumping their pitch-counts much over 100 to 120 pitches over last year. And Hinch has intimated that he’d rather not put restrictions on pitchers early. He wants his pitchers to worry about competing, not rationing innings.
Going to a six-man rotation sometime in April and then using it on and off throughout the season will be one way of monitoring innings.
Most likely, though, teams will need a second wave of starting pitchers once the current wave of starters starts hitting the wall, be it in July or August or later.
Among those who could comprise that second wave of starters for the Tigers are rookie Matt Manning, who should be full-go by the end of May, and also veterans on minor-league deals like Erasmo Ramirez, Robbie Ross, Andrew Moore and Drew Hutchison.
The Tigers could also opt to stretch out relievers Tyler Alexander, Michael Fulmer and-or Daniel Norris to start.
Another name to put in your back pocket. The Tigers signed veteran swing man Wily Peralta to a minor-league deal last winter and he still hasn’t been cleared to enter the country. He is expected to go through minor-league training camp next month and perhaps be an option — rotation or bullpen — by May or June.
Hinch has said he will eventually name a closer. But he is in no rush to do so. In fact, he’s in no hurry to declare any specific roles for any of the relievers because he wants the flexibility to use whichever pitcher he feels right for any given situation in a game.
He’s got the versatility, diversity and lefty-righty balance (four and four) to do it.
Eventually, the players will determine by their performance who gets the high-leverage situations. And it will be a serious disappointment if lefty Gregory Soto doesn’t secure the de facto closer title. With a 98-100 mph fastball and knee-locking slider, he has the most electric swing-and-miss stuff in the pen.
Bryan Garcia, Jose Cisnero and Buck Farmer will have a good chance to earn late-inning leverage work, too.
Keep this in mind, too: There is a reason Hinch had every reliever prepare to throw multiple innings. The days of starting pitchers consistently working into the sixth and seventh innings are over. That means leverage innings will come earlier in games.
That’s why former starters like Daniel Norris, Derek Holland, Michael Fulmer and Tyler Alexander have significant value.
The Turnbull effect
This storyline is for the month of April only, but its ripple effects could linger. But what the heck are the Tigers going to do when Turnbull, who before being shut down by the COVID protocols was pushing to be the Opening Day starter, returns to active duty?
Most likely his return, which could be around April 19, will coincide with the Tigers going to a six-man rotation. But that leads to another string of questions.
Do the Tigers send out a pitcher, which would leave the bullpen short, or a position player to make room for Turnbull? Do they send Fulmer down to the alternate site to build up his innings for a potential return to the rotation, as part of the second wave? Will they have seen enough of Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo by then to warrant keeping him? Does that mean another outfielder, Victor Reyes, goes down? Does that mean one of the utility players are vulnerable — Niko Goodrum or Harold Castro.
This roster might be in flux for a good while.
The two are obviously entwined. Miguel Cabrera can’t reach 500 home runs (he’s 13 short) or 3,000 hits (134 short) unless he’s able to stay healthy and on the field.
In that sense, Hinch is rolling the dice a little bit by committing to playing Cabrera at first base maybe as much as two or three times a week. It’s been a happy story in spring. Cabrera has returned to the field rejuvenated and with all his youthful verve. And he’s played the position well, which was never really the issue.
As good as Cabrera has felt this spring, as much as he’s bouncing around on the field, running guys down between third and home, sliding into bases — the fact remains, he’s going to be 38 on April 18 and he is still playing on a chronically-injured right knee. It’s bone on bone there. There is no long-term remedy other than getting replacement knee surgery.
So while Hinch wisely says he won’t be walking on egg shells with Cabrera, he and the Tigers’ medical staff will have to keep a wary eye on him nevertheless.
In his never-ending quest for lineup flexibility, every infielder on the roster not named Willi Castro will carry a first baseman’s mitt in his locker. Cabrera, Niko Goodrum, Harold Castro, Jonathan Schoop and Jeimer Candelario could all see action there.
Hinch would also like to keep the designated hitter spot flexible, as much as he can given that Cabrera will make the bulk of his starts there. But when Cabrera is at first, or given an off day, expect to see starting catcher Wilson Ramos in the DH spot, which would give Grayson Greiner a start behind the plate.
Hinch would also like to use the DH spot to facilitate playing time for his two extra outfielders. On days when Akil Baddoo and-or Victor Reyes start, he could use Nomar Mazara as the DH. Or on days when he wanted to get Robbie Grossman off his feet but keep his bat in the lineup.
Who’s coming up?
For the first month of the season, the only extra-player pool the Tigers can draw from is the alternate site at Toledo. The Triple-A season doesn’t start until May.
But if they need fresh arms early, it’s a good bet that veteran non-roster pitchers Ian Krol (lefty) and Erasmo Ramirez will be among the first called.
What about former closer and All-Star Joe Jimenez? Since he’s on the 40-man roster and Krol and Ramirez are not, the Tigers would probably like to bring him back first. And he can facilitate that by the way he responds to the demotion and starting at the alternate site. He didn’t pitch with much conviction or success this spring.
Rookie Matt Manning probably won’t be an option until later in the summer.
Rookie Alex Lange made a good initial impression in camp, though he battled control issues in his last couple outings. He will likely make his big-league debut at some point this season. Kyle Funkhouser, who made his debut last year, will also be waiting in the wings.
Keep an eye out for lefty starter Joey Wentz later in the summer, too. He is coming back from Tommy John surgery and could be cleared to begin his on-field rehab work in May.
On the position player side, infielder Isaac Paredes will likely be back up with the Tigers at some point. Outfielder Derek Hill, though the outfield situation in Detroit is already over-crowded, has won Hinch’s trust in the field and on the bases and will be an option this summer.
It would take some malfeasance, like injuries or a spike in COVID cases, but infielder Zack Short and outfielder Daz Cameron could find themselves in a Tigers’ uniform at some point this season, too.
It will be interesting to see which catcher Hinch selects to the taxi squad for road games. Most likely it will be veteran Dustin Garneau, but at some point, the Tigers are hoping Jake Rogers can find some consistency at the plate and be an option for them later in the year.