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Gardenhire set to deploy 'big bullpen'

Skipper relying on 16 pitchers to fill innings until rotation reaches full strength
@beckjason
July 24, 2020

The Tigers carried 16 pitchers on their 30-man Opening Day roster to brace for the grind of 20 games in 20 days to begin the season. “It’s a big bullpen out there, and right now, we probably need it,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. The way Detroit's rotation is lining up,

The Tigers carried 16 pitchers on their 30-man Opening Day roster to brace for the grind of 20 games in 20 days to begin the season.

“It’s a big bullpen out there, and right now, we probably need it,” manager Ron Gardenhire said.

The way Detroit's rotation is lining up, that depth is going to be tested early. Though the Tigers will open with a five-man rotation, they have established just three starters with Matthew Boyd, Ivan Nova and Spencer Turnbull. Michael Fulmer is slated to start, but he is also still in the process of stretching out his workload after returning from Tommy John surgery.

Dario Agrazal will fill the final spot in the rotation to begin the season, Gardenhire confirmed. Agrazal made 14 starts for the Pirates last year, posting a 4-5 record to go with a 4.91 ERA and a 5.90 FIP before the Tigers acquired him during the offseason. But he has not stretched out deep into games, and he pitched three innings in Wednesday’s 9-7 exhibition loss to the Reds, allowing two home runs.

Add in a bullpen that includes rookies Kyle Funkhouser and Beau Burrows, who were both candidates to join Detroit’s rotation last summer before being converted to relief this spring, and Gardenhire is looking for innings. Other than Boyd, who earned the club's Opening Day nod, Gardenhire said his starters will probably be limited to a maximum of five innings at the outset.

“We’ll have to be careful with our pitching staff," Gardenhire said. "That’s why we have 16 guys right now -- to make sure we take care of them."

Agrazal is likely to be a short-term fill-in while the Tigers get Daniel Norris ready. Norris, who spent most of Summer Camp in COVID-19 protocol, wasn’t cleared to join team workouts until Tuesday.

Norris suggested he could be close to ready, having thrown on his own while waiting to be cleared. For now, he’s working out at the alternate training site in Toledo, Ohio.

“He’s been out of baseball and now he just got back. You have to get your legs underneath you,” Gardenhire said. “He threw a bullpen session, I believe, and everything seemed to go really good. The ball was coming out of his hands good.

“We can’t really do intrasquad games. They’re going to do some live [batting practice] down there and he’ll get the up-and-downs that he’s going to need. Once they tell us that they think he’s ready to do this, then we’ll make an adjustment. I know he wants to go, go, go, but we’re trying to do it the right way so the kid doesn’t get hurt before he gets back up here.”

Off-day blues
Normally an off-day on the road is a chance for players to sightsee, explore a city, grab a nice dinner or find a good movie. For an off-day in the middle of a pandemic and social distancing, the plans are a little different.

Fortunately for the Tigers, video games are still a solid and safe option.

“There was like six of us, and we played 'Call of Duty' for like 12 hours and ordered a bunch of food,” center fielder JaCoby Jones said. “That’s what I did.”

This is not necessarily a drastic change for Detroit. Shortstop Niko Goodrum is a self-admitted "Call of Duty" fanatic.

“If he’s not at the field, he’s playing 'Call of Duty,'” Jones said. “Out of everyone in the group, Niko’s probably the best one. He just plays for hours. But we played a long time yesterday.”

That was fine with Jones, who says he’s fully healed from his left oblique soreness but didn’t have to worry about moving around on the off-day.

Taxi squad
Beyond the 30-man roster, the Tigers have three extra players traveling with them as part of a taxi squad, each of whom is available to be called up on short notice in case of injuries or illnesses. It’s not as big of a deal for the Tigers in Cincinnati, just a three-hour drive from Toledo, but it could come in handy in other cities.

By MLB rule, one member of the taxi squad has to be a catcher. Eric Haase fills that spot. Reliever Anthony Castro and outfielder Derek Hill round out the taxi squad. Castro and Hill would each be making their Major League debut if activated.

Up next
Nova makes his Tigers debut Saturday for the middle game of the series with a 5:10 p.m. ET contest against the Reds at Great American Ball Park. Nova, who signed a one-year deal as a free agent last winter, owns a 2-5 record and a 4.91 ERA in seven starts at Cincinnati, all but one of which came during his three seasons with the Pirates from 2016-18. Watch the action live on MLB.TV.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.