Tigers creating a 'great problem' with starting pitching depth

January 5th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris, much like former team president/CEO Dave Dombrowski, is incapable of saying his team has enough pitching. There’s no such thing, the two believe, in having enough pitching.  

Still, as Harris looked at the potential rotation that Detroit has assembled going into Spring Training following last month’s signing, he had a hard time hiding his enthusiasm. 

“I think when we show up in Lakeland [for Spring Training], we’re going to have a lot of starting pitching options,” Harris said last month. “That’s a really good start for us. Good teams have really competitive camps, and we are trying to be a good team. We are taking a step in that direction.” 

Harris isn’t the only one. As the folks at Codify Baseball pointed out, the projections at Fangraphs are looking favorably on the group, too. 

Fangraphs takes the top 10 starting pitching candidates on the depth charts for each team and compiles the projected WAR, based on a combination of Steamer and ZiPS projections. The Tigers’ projected 12.2 WAR from their top 10 starting pitchers ranked 11th highest among MLB teams, and second highest among AL Central clubs.

The Braves, Phillies and Dodgers were no surprise at the top. The defending division-champion Twins ranked ninth. The Brewers, with Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, ranked 10th. The revamped Cardinals rotation, with free-agent additions Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn, ranked 12th, followed by the Yankees and defending NL champion D-backs. 

This isn’t a major leap for the Tigers, who got 11.2 fWAR from their starters last year -- 12th-best among MLB teams, and second in the AL Central. But two of Detroit’s three best starters by WAR last year are not on the team. Eduardo Rodriguez (3.0 fWAR) is in Arizona, while Michael Lorenzen (1.7) is a free agent after being dealt to Philadelphia at last summer’s Trade Deadline. The projections see Detroit overcoming that.

Nearly a third of the Tigers’ projected starting WAR comes from , whose projected 4.0 WAR ranks eighth-highest among MLB pitchers and third in the AL behind Toronto’s Kevin Gausman and Minnesota’s Pablo Lopez. Steamer projects Skubal to go 11-9 with a 3.34 ERA, 3.36 FIP and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 29 starts and 171 innings.  

No Tigers pitcher has posted a 4.0 fWAR season since Justin Verlander in 2016. But Skubal registered 3.3 fWAR in just 15 starts last year, when he went 7-3 with a 2.80 ERA, 102 strikeouts and 14 walks over 80 1/3 innings.

While Skubal’s projected WAR doubles any other Tigers starter, Detroit has four other starters projected at 1.0 WAR or better, led by newcomer (2.0, which would be his best since 2020), (1.8) and Flaherty (1.5, down from his 1.8 fWAR last year). The additions of Maeda and Flaherty pushed the Tigers up the rankings. projects at 1.0 WAR in his return from Tommy John surgery.  

The next five includes Matt Manning (0.9), No. 19 prospect Sawyer Gipson-Long (0.5), No. 6 prospect Ty Madden (0.2), Joey Wentz (0.1) and No. 7 prospect Wilmer Flores (0.1). Madden and Flores spent last year at Double-A Erie, but are on a path to make their Major League debuts this coming season if they progress as hoped. No. 12 prospect Brant Hurter and No. 26 prospect Keider Montero were not included.

“I think that this organization from a starting-pitching standpoint is a lot deeper than it was even just as recently as a year ago,” Harris said. “That’s a result of adding two starters in free agency. That’s a result of some young pitchers taking a huge step forward in the big leagues last year. And that’s a result of some pressure that we’re getting from young starters in the upper levels of the Minor Leagues who are demonstrating that they’re starting to knock on the door and get a lot closer to being in the big leagues. It’s a great problem to have.” 

More projection models will add to the discussion as they’re released. For now, however, it’s an interesting way to look ahead to baseball season as winter sets in. Detroit could still add to the list with another depth signing, though probably no more big additions. Harris could always trade from that depth, but don’t count on it. 

“We did not add Jack intending to trade one of our starters,” Harris said. “We’re always going to listen to opportunities to make trades to make the organization better, but that was not the goal with adding Jack.”