By: Will Burchfield
Sizing up the Tigers ahead of the 2017 season, one thing seems pretty clear.
If the starting rotation meets its potential, this team will win plenty of games. The offense looks poised to score – and score and score and score – while the bullpen will likely be the same below-average unit it was last year. Considering those constants, the one force that could really move the needle this year is the rotation.
But let’s rewind for a moment.
In 2016, Detroit’s starting pitchers posted average-to-above-average numbers across the board. They finished seventh in the American League in wins (56), fifth in ERA (4.25), tied for fifth in batting average against (.260) and tied for fourth in WHIP (1.30). That was in spite of the injury woes of Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris, the condensed season of Michael Fulmer, the white-knuckle routine of Mike Pelfrey and the recurring implosion of Anibal Sanchez.
All things considered, it’s a minor miracle the rotation fared as well as it did.
The outlook brightens in the present.
In 2017, the Tigers can count on a healthy Zimmermann and a healthy Norris, a full season from Fulmer and, in all likelihood, the dismissal of Pelfrey and Sanchez to the bullpen. Oh, and Justin Verlander. They can always count on Justin Verlander.
So let’s map out the Tigers’ rotation, one through five, and gauge the starters’ collective ceiling.
1. Justin Verlander
Not much to say here. After a dip in his performance a few years ago, Verlander has been at the top of his game since August of 2015. He was flat-out dominant last season, leading the lead in strikeouts (254) and WHIP (1.001), and came within a few votes of his second Cy Young award. His only deficiency was in the wins department – he finished with just 16 – something that should fix itself in 2017 if Verlander picks up where he left off.
Win projection: 18
2. Michael Fulmer
Fulmer didn’t make his big-league debut last season until late April and didn’t start making a real impact until late May. From there, of course, he took off into orbit, but it could be said the Tigers went two months without one of the best pitchers in baseball. Then, toward the end of the season, they had to scale back his usage to protect his arm. That won’t be the case this year, with Detroit set to unleash the Rookie of the Year in April and keep the reins off from start to finish.
Win projection: 16
3. Jordan Zimmermann
The Tigers’ $110 million acquisition got off to a scorching start last season, but it was all downhill from there. He tapered off in May and June, landed on the D.L. in July and never recovered his form when he returned. But an offseason spent rehabilitating the neck and groin injuries that plagued him in the second half of 2016 has Zimmermann on firm ground heading into the 2017 campaign. Expect the 30-year-old to pitch more like the guy who won 64 games and had a 3.14 ERA in the five seasons before he signed in Detroit.
Win projection: 14
4. Daniel Norris
As GM Al Avila said last month, the Tigers were counting on Norris to be in their rotation at the start of last season. A back injury in Spring Training derailed those plans, the first of many setbacks for the hard-throwing lefty. He finally got healthy in August and posted a 3.04 ERA over his final 10 starts, crediting a change in his perspective for his late-season surge. Norris’ talent is undeniable. If he can stay healthy and keep things simple, he stands to have a breakout year.
Win projection: 13
5. Matt Boyd
In a rotation dominated by hard throwers, Boyd is the changeup. He’s also a bit of a question mark given his erratic performance in 2016. But the 26-year-old has shown enough positives over two MLB seasons to suggest he can be a reliable back-of-the-rotation starter. Assuming he beats out Sanchez and Pelfrey in Spring Training for the fifth spot, Boyd can provide the Tigers exactly what they need.
Win projection: 10
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All told, that’s 71 wins from the Tigers’ rotation, a potential 15-win increase from last season. That might seem excessive, but remember: of the five pitchers listed above, only one pitched a full slate of games in 2016. After Verlander, who made 34 starts, Fulmer made 26, Zimmermann and Boyd made 18, and Norris made 13. Using 30 starts as the league average, that’s 43 starts that fell by the wayside — and mostly into the shaky hands of Pelfrey and Sanchez.
Plug in full seasons for Fulmer, Zimmermann, Norris and Boyd, and an average of about 10 additional starts for each pitcher, and suddenly that 15-win increase doesn’t seem so extreme. Yes, that’s predicated on perfect health and consistent performance – uncertain propositions for the latter three players – but we’re talking about a ceiling here.
The Tigers know what to expect out of their offense and their bullpen. Their rotation is the X-factor. Sizing it from top to bottom, it has all the potential to make a big difference.