Detroit Tigers right-hander Spencer Turnbull entered a hotel room in St. Louis on May 6 following his seventh start in return from Tommy John surgery. He had allowed five runs and failed to complete five innings against the Cardinals.
President of baseball operations Scott Harris, manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter greeted him in the hotel room and delivered bad news: The Tigers were optioning Turnbull, their second-longest tenured pitcher, to Triple-A Toledo because of his poor performance.
He posted a 7.26 ERA in seven starts.
“We talked about some of the things that he was doing well,” Harris said before Friday’s game at Comerica Park. “We also talked about some of the adjustments that we’d like him to make on the mound. We also talked about how the big leagues might not be the right environment for those adjustments. … In his case, we felt like he could benefit from some time away from the major-league team.”
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Six days later, the Tigers went in a different direction. On Friday, Turnbull was placed on the 15-day injured list, retroactive to May 7, with neck discomfort. The previous option to the minor leagues has been rescinded, and since he is on the big-league injured list, he will continue to accrue MLB service time.
For now, Turnbull — who changed agents this week and is now represented by Scott Boras — has seemingly preserved his status as a free agent after the 2024 season. Spending about one month in the minors as an optioned player would have delayed his free agency by one year, until after the 2025 season.
The demotion blindsided Turnbull.
“It was a long conversation,” Harris said. “At the end of the conversation, we mapped out exactly what the time on option would be spent doing.”
After the meeting, Turnbull called both Hinch and Harris.
Harris picked up the phone.
“He disclosed some neck discomfort,” Harris said. “As soon as we heard that, we set up an appointment with him with our doctor. We also had him see a specialist out of state. We had those doctors discuss what’s going on with his neck. They confirmed the injury, and we placed him on the injured list.”
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The neck injury, as Boras explained to the Free Press, occurred during the Tigers’ home opener April 6 against the Boston Red Sox. In the sixth inning, Turnbull dodged a comebacker from Kiké Hernández and felt pain in his neck. He received treatment and tried to pitch through the pain, but a few weeks later, he felt a pop in his neck during his April 25 start against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Still, Turnbull tried to pitch through the pain while receiving treatment daily.
He hoped to avoid a stint on the injured list — he had been on the injured list from June 2021-November 2022 because of the elbow surgery — and didn’t speak up about the severity of the neck injury until the Tigers decided to option him to Triple-A Toledo, thus clouding the timeline of his status as a free agent.
“Right now, our primary concern is resolving the issue with his neck,” Harris said, “getting him back on the mound as quickly as we can and starting the process of tackling those adjustments that we want to see him make.”
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In 2023, Turnbull has a 7.26 ERA with 15 walks (10.3% walk rate) and 24 strikeouts (16.6% strikeout rate) in 31 innings across seven starts, averaging 4.4 innings per start. In his MLB career, he owns a 12-29 record with a 4.55 ERA with a 9.1% walk rate and a 21.3% strikeout rate in 302⅓ innings across 61 games (60 starts).
Turnbull is expected to be shut down from pitching for at least a few weeks.
Hinch echoed Harris’ message.
“The biggest thing we can do is get him healthy, get him feeling good and get him back on a mound,” Hinch said. “His health will be the No. 1 priority right now in making sure we get him back to feeling 100%.”
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.