2020 Detroit Tigers Spring Training Preview: Starting Rotation

Tyler Alexander

Tyler Alexander (Photo Credit: Paul Wezner/TigsTown.com)

After a rather disastrous 2019 season in which injuries ravaged the Tigers starting rotation and they were forced to assemble a makeshift cast of arms to pitch every fifth day, the Tigers enter 2020 with better depth and plenty of help likely on the way as the season goes on.

2019 Performance

The Tigers gambled on a pair of starting pitchers going into the 2019 season with Matt Moore and Tyson Ross. While the early results were good for Moore and ugly for Ross the season ended early for both as they suffered season ending injuries. It would have been really interesting to see what Moore would have been able to do if he hadn’t suffered his knee injury (and what he could have been traded for). Overall, the Tigers pitching staff ranked 28th in ERA, 28th in WHIP, 22nd in strikeouts, and 15th in walks.

Individually, Matthew Boyd had a great first half (3.87 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, .242 avg), followed by an ugly second half (5.51 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, .254 avg). Only four pitchers threw over 100 innings, with Boyd the only one over 150 innings pitched at 185 1/3. In all, 13 pitchers started games for the Tigers, however no starter had a winning record (not surprising when the team only won 47 games).

Daniel Norris seemed to begin to figure out how to use his tremendous potential as the season progressed. While the overall numbers look rough (3-13, 4.49 ERA, 1.33 WHIP), in the second half Norris pitched 53 2/3 innings with an ERA of 3.69 and a WHIP of 1.17. Starting August 11, the Tigers intentionally limited Norris to three innings per start. In the last 8 starts (24 innings pitched), Norris held opponents to a .193 average against, with a 2.25 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning. The question is, can Norris carry this late season effectiveness for six innings a start, or is he better suited to a “opener” type role and platoon with someone like Tyler Alexander?

Spencer Turnbull was another young player who showed potential. For Turnbull it was a great start to the season that even had some talking about him as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate. However, the second half of the season was not as kind, as Turnbull’s ERA climbed by nearly three runs (3.31 to 6.60). It may have been a matter of wearing down over the course of the season, or the league beginning to get figure him out. Either way this year will be important for Turnbull to show he can be part of the rotation long-term. To do this, he needs to cut down on his walk rate and work to locate his pitches better.

Finally, the Tigers are waiting to find out what Michael Fulmer will look like once he is able to resume throwing after undergoing Tommy John last spring. The guess here is Fulmer will make some rehab starts in the minor leagues and potentially make his way to Detroit sometime in July. It can take a while for a pitcher to return to their former form after undergoing TJ. Rising prospect Tarik Skubal struggled to regain his command on pitches in the season immediately following his own TJ surgery, that led to him being available for the Tigers to draft in the 9th round. It will probably be late in the 2020 season, and quite possibly 2021 before we know what type of pitcher Fulmer will be post-surgery.

The good news for the Tigers and their fans is the rotation at Toledo and Erie should be a good preview for the future of the Tigers starting rotation. The prized prospects will get an opportunity to impress in Spring Training, then refine their skills and their free agent clock until August/September.


Ryan Carpenter – Signed with the Chinese Professional Baseball League.

Edwin Jackson – Signed as a free agent with the Diamondbacks (minor league deal)

Tyson Ross – Signed as a free agent with the Giants (minor league deal)

Drew VerHagen – Signed with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (Japan)

Matt Moore – Signed with the SoftBank Hawks NPB (Japan)


Ivan Nova – Free agent; one-year, $1.5 million (Previous Team: Chicago White Sox)

Zack Godley – Free agent; minor league agreement, converts to one year, $1.5 million if he’s added to active roster (Previous Team

Dario Agrazal – Acquired via trade from the Pirates for cash considerations

Shao-Ching Ciang – Free agent; minor league agreement

The Tigers had a relatively quiet off-season for the rotation, as they let their 2019 signings walk away, along with a couple of familiar names in Drew VerHagen and Ryan Carpenter.

On the additions side, the noteworthy signing was that of Nova, a depth addition that should provide the Tigers a reliable arm in the back of the rotation that should log innings while they wait for the emergence of their talent from the minors to be ready. Others provide depth, but just as much might create some over-crowding in the upper levels of the farm system as they work to find innings for priority prospects while keeping others ready to be called up if and when needed.

2020 Player Projections


TigsTown 2020 Outlook

The Tigers enter the Spring Training 2020 with a deeper pool of potential starters and with an enticing group projected to be just down the road at Toledo. They will look for Boyd to hopefully repeat his strong pre All-Star performance and hopefully maintain that for the full year. The Tigers are hoping Turnbull, Norris and Tyler Alexander take another step forward in their development. In Nova, the Tigers signed an arm with a history of pitching over 160 innings a season. Having another arm who (in addition to Boyd) can be counted on to give the bullpen a bit of a break every five days is vitally important. Nova is on a one-year $1.5 million contract which will be easy for the club to eat if one of the younger pitchers prove they are ready for MLB.

There are three wild cards to account for in the rotation this season.

One, how Zack Godley and Dario Agrazal, who have had strong seasons in the past (majors and minors) perform? Godley has the best chance of the two to fight for a spot with the Tigers, but both are looking to show that they deserve roster spots.

Two, what the Tigers decide to do with Zimmermann, who is entering the last year of his massive contract? The Tigers might decide it is worth cutting Zimmermann to open innings for others. There is going to be a little bit of a log jam in the rotations between Detroit and Toledo and if one of the young guys (think Alexander or Godley) show they are deserving of time it might be worth the financial hit.

Finally, there is Michael Fulmer, who missed all of 2019 with Tommy John surgery and is expected to work his way back into being an option sometime in the summer. Will he be read by then, and how much rust will he show as he works his way back?

Overall, the Tigers rotation should be better than it was in 2019, and we can look forward to most likely seeing some of the young guys make their cameo’s in August or September in preparation for 2021.

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