Whom Detroit Tigers will turn to with Michael Fulmer's season in doubt
TAMPA, Fla. — They entered the final week of spring training having dodged serious injury, but over the past two days, the Detroit Tigers had grown wary of the other shoe falling.
When Michael Fulmer headed for an MRI scan over the weekend and then for a second opinion of the results from renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, the team was more unsure than ever if they would escape the exhibition season without a big blow.
Now, the other shoe has fallen, the biggest blow on the horizon – the right-hander has received two recommendations to undergo elbow ligament reconstruction surgery – and the Tigers will likely be without their best starting pitcher and biggest trade asset until 2020 at the least.
His expected absence leaves a big hole in the team’s starting rotation, and now, all eyes are focused on righty Spencer Turnbull, who has showed himself to be more than ready to pitch at the major league level now.
Spencer Turnbull, 26, has allowed three earned runs on 10 hits in 10 innings this spring, with eight strikeouts and one walk. His cup of coffee with the Tigers last September was not remarkable, but in his final start of the regular season against the Brewers, he proved to be a pitcher to watch for the upcoming season.
Turnbull likely was the Tigers’ first choice to fill-in for Fulmer, even before the news of doctors recommending reconstruction of Fulmer’s right ulnar collateral ligament hit Tuesday afternoon: He is a favorite of manager Ron Gardenhire, who said vociferously less than two weeks ago that Turnbull was in the mix for a rotation spot, even though no spots seemed open.
“For me?” Gardenhire said. “One hundred percent, 100 percent. I said that at the beginning of camp. Turnbull has some of the best stuff on our staff.”
The translation: Yes, Turnbull should be in the starting rotation but given the state of our starting rotation and the team’s ongoing rebuilding process, the bosses might want to allow him some more time to marinate at Triple-A Toledo.
But after Fulmer’s diagnosis, there is now a wide-open spot and little reason to overlook Turnbull, who has stepped up and done all he’s been asked to win a spot. The next test will come on Wednesday afternoon in Clearwater against the Phillies.
Turnbull isn’t the only candidate, not with left-hander Daniel Norris’ mid-spring resurgence, though as concern grew over Fulmer’s status – the Tigers would not say so publicly, but they were mighty concerned over his declined fastball velocity – Norris seemed to fit best in their plans in the bullpen to start the regular season.
The key words: To start the regular season.
The Tigers have certainly not closed the book on Norris as a starter. He came into camp competing for such a role and would hold more value to the team in the future pitching more innings rather than fewer. But with eight consecutive games to start the regular season – including four in Toronto, which won’t be affected by possible inclement weather – the Tigers are expected to roster eight relief pitchers, and have come around on the idea of Norris giving them further long-relief protection.
With one minor league option remaining, the Tigers could then re-assess Norris’ situation – they are keeping his pitch count up – and decide if he will continue in relief or head to Toledo and start again.
Fulmer’s injury opens the possibility that, if Turnbull does not win the job or pitch well enough early in the season to keep the job, Norris could return. But one wonders if the Tigers would put Turnbull in such a situation as a young pitcher with a short leash.
Either way you look at it, the team once again has a competition for a fifth starter’s spot, and now it’s between Turnbull – the favorite – and Norris – the preferred choice.