DETROIT (AP) - Justin Verlander is set to start another opening day for the Detroit Tigers.
The rest of the rotation is a little less clear, but manager Brad Ausmus is hoping he’ll have plenty of options.
Ausmus saw no reason to hold back on announcing that Verlander would start the opener. The Detroit ace is in line to start opening day for the ninth time in 10 years, and for Ausmus, slotting Verlander at No. 1 is the easy part. The fourth-year manager revealed that when asked how many spots in the rotation might still be up for grabs.
“I’m not going to put a number on it. Verlander’s going to pitch opening day. I’ll give you that right now,” Ausmus said Saturday at the team’s annual TigerFest at Comerica Park.
Beyond Verlander, the Tigers are hoping for a successful season from right-hander Jordan Zimmermann after his 2016 was derailed by injury problems, and American League Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer is back as well. Young left-handers Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd are also options for rotation spots, with veterans Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey potentially in the mix.
The Tigers open the season on the road April 3 against the Chicago White Sox.
Verlander went 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last year, finishing second to former teammate Rick Porcello for the Cy Young Award. Fulmer was 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA.
The rest of the starters had their struggles. Zimmermann got off to a great start but ended up going 9-7 with a 4.87 ERA, his season ruined by neck issues. Sanchez was 7-13 with a 5.87 ERA, his second consecutive poor season. He ended up pitching out of the bullpen a decent amount.
Sanchez is due $16 million this season, with a $16 million team option for 2018 or a $5 million buyout. It’s not clear what his chances of making the rotation are, but Ausmus is certainly open to the possibility that Sanchez and Pelfrey could rebound. Pelfrey was 4-10 with a 5.07 ERA in 2016 and is entering the second season of a two-year, $16 million deal.
While Sanchez and Pelfrey faltered, Norris and Boyd gave the Tigers reasons for optimism last year. The 23-year-old Norris was able to make only 13 starts for the Tigers - he dealt with back and oblique problems - but he was solid when he was able to pitch, going 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA.
“I’ve just got to be relaxed,” Norris said. “I think I got in a good rhythm last year toward the end of the year. … I finally felt free and easy.”
The 25-year-old Boyd went 6-5 with a 4.53 ERA and made 18 starts last season.
“The fact that we got to be in a playoff hunt last year … I learned so much last year,” Boyd said. “It’s trial by fire, right? We just got put right into it. We wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. We just kept learning and growing every single day.”
The Tigers went 86-76 last year, missing a wild card by 2 1/2 games. At the beginning of the offseason, general manager Al Avila left open the possibility of trading some of the team’s pricier stars, but now Detroit seems ready to start the 2017 season with a roster that’s largely unchanged.
That leaves quite a few possibilities to fill those rotation spots if everyone is healthy.
“Generally in the game of baseball, people know who Michael Fulmer is now. We’ll see how he reacts, because they’re going to adjust to him,” Ausmus said. “Then you’ve got Daniel Norris, Boyd. I think Sanchez is a guy who is primed to have a bounce-back season. He’s going to be a free agent going into next year, which often is incentive for players to perform even better. We have Pelfrey as well. We actually have some depth in the starting pitching department.”
NOTES: Mikie Mahtook, acquired earlier in the week in a trade with Tampa Bay, has a chance to compete for playing time in CF. Another option at that position is JaCoby Jones, a former teammate of Mahtook’s at LSU. “He was a freshman when I was a junior,” Mahtook said. “He was a second baseman at the time, so he was a middle infielder when we played together. JaCoby’s an unbelievable athlete, and he’s one of my good friends.”
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister
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