Two Tigers starters at very different stages of their careers received news Wednesday that they’d been waiting to hear.
Julio Teheran bet on himself and took a Minor League contract with the Tigers last month rather than some Major League offers from other clubs. He's officially won that bet, making Detroit’s Opening Day roster.
“To me, he’s a starter until performance or health dictates otherwise,” manager A.J. Hinch said of Teheran.
Teheran’s decision was due as part of his contract, which included an opt-out that required him to be added to Detroit’s 40-man roster on Wednesday or allowed to become a free agent. By officially added him, the Tigers filled a spot that opened when fellow Tigers starter Spencer Turnbull was placed on the injured list. Turnbull is currently in COVID protocol as a result of contact tracing.
Teheran arrived shortly after the start of camp as a non-roster invite, taking a non-guaranteed contract over guaranteed deals elsewhere. Detroit’s offer included a $3 million base salary if the 10-year Major League veteran made the team, plus up to $1 million in incentives. The 30-year-old right-hander’s arrival was supposed to give the Tigers insurance in case their other rotation candidates struggled, but he quickly established himself as one of the strongest starters on the staff with a form that looked more like his younger years with Atlanta than his struggles with the Angels last season.
Teheran’s fastball, which averaged just 89.2 mph last year according to Statcast, has consistently registered around 92 mph this spring. If he can maintain it, it’ll be his highest average fastball velocity in at least four years. His slider, which drew just a 15.5 percent whiff rate in 10 outings last year, has looked more like the wipeout pitch that had a 35-45 percent whiff rate in previous seasons.
Those pitches translated into a strong spring. Teheran has held opponents to three runs on six hits over 11 innings this spring, striking out 15 batters against one walk.
“He said it very early in camp to me that he’s going to bet on himself and he wanted me to watch him pitch and give him an opportunity,” Hinch said. “He did that and he came out and really took one of the rotation spots pretty quickly in the process.”
Teheran’s demeanor and energy on the mound have also had an impact on a relatively young pitching staff.
“He bounces around with some energy and creates a ball-in-play mentality that’s good for our defense, good for him,” Hinch said. “He’s probably been one of the more efficient starters that we’ve had in camp of just being able to throw consistent strikes and not lose it for a batter or two or three and create some unnecessary stress.
“I think it’s a good lesson, too. This guy, he’s accomplished more than people probably appreciate unless you’re a Braves fan or dialed into exactly what guys have done in their careers. He’s logged a lot of innings. He expects 30-plus starts, and as I told him in our meeting this morning, we’d like nothing more than for him to go wire-to-wire in our rotation and help us win.”
While Teheran re-established himself in camp as a strong, veteran starting candidate, Skubal used Spring Training to prove to Hinch and his staff that his future is now. The 24-year-old lefty showed he had addressed many of the concerns that grew out of his up-and-down stint in Detroit’s rotation last summer by establishing fastball command, getting ahead in counts and throwing more effective secondary pitches, including a split changeup he worked on at Driveline during the offseason.
Skubal tossed eight scoreless innings this spring until he gave up a leadoff home run in his most recent outing Tuesday. He has allowed two runs on eight hits in 12 innings for the spring, striking out 15. His eight walks over his last two outings create some concern over pitch efficiency, but he clearly established himself as one of the Tigers’ five best starting options in camp.
“I was going to plan on telling him on the mound [Tuesday] during the game,” Hinch said, “but he walked the hitter when I was going to go out there and tell him that he made the team. I can’t say that on the mound afterwards. So my master plan of trying to make him smile on the field and reward him for a job well done got ruined by one of too many walks.”
Teheran and Skubal join Opening Day starter Matthew Boyd in the Tigers rotation. José Ureña is expected to join them, though he could potentially shift to the bullpen if needed. With Turnbull out for the start of the season, that would leave one rotation spot to be decided between top pitching prospect Casey Mize and former All-Star Michael Fulmer. Both are scheduled to pitch Thursday -- Mize starting, Fulmer in relief.