Ausmus: Plan for Fulmer, Tigers' rotation TBD

Ausmus: Plan for Fulmer, Tigers' rotation TBD

DETROIT -- The Tigers opted this week not to push back Michael Fulmer, and they reaped the rewards with seven innings of two-run ball Friday night to open their key series against the Orioles. Now team officials have to figure out what's next for the rookie hurler.

While Detroit now has six pitchers working as starters with the return of Jordan Zimmermann, manager Brad Ausmus insists they do not have a six-man rotation.

"We're going to manipulate it," Ausmus said Friday. "A lot of it depends on what happens here this time through. Nothing's been etched in stone."

Ausmus etched the first three starters for next week's series against the Twins. Daniel Norris starts Monday's series opener on seven days' rest, followed by Matt Boyd and Anibal Sanchez, both on six days' rest.

As for Fulmer, whose turn on normal rest would have been Wednesday, Ausmus said Saturday, "He's going to get pushed."

The question is how far. Ausmus did not announce a starter for Thursday's series finale, but unless somebody jumps into the rotation for a spot start, it would appear to be a choice between Fulmer and Zimmermann.

Looming in the distance is Cleveland, against which the Tigers have a three-game series next weekend. Any lingering hope the Tigers carry of contending for an American League Central title in part hinges on those games, plus four more in Detroit over the final week of the regular season.

Whoever doesn't pitch Thursday could be in line to start in Cleveland, along with Justin Verlander and either Norris or Boyd.

The way Fulmer pitched Friday, rebounding from two subpar starts to cover seven innings over 103 pitches, he's making his case that he's not tiring without having to say much of anything. But it's obviously more complicated than that. While Fulmer again has enough innings to qualify for the ERA leaderboard (2.76), and has a comfortable lead over Toronto's Aaron Sanchez, he's also now at 159 innings for the season between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo.

If the Tigers were going strictly on innings and sticking to the traditional limit of a 25-30 percent jump year over year, Fulmer would probably have one more start left before approaching that ceiling of 165 or so innings. But the Tigers have made it clear in recent weeks they're looking at other factors and not going on a set innings count.

Most likely, Fulmer has a few starts to go this regular season. But with Zimmermann's return giving them an extra starter, it would be a surprise if the Tigers didn't use the opportunity at some point to push back or skip Fulmer for a turn.

"If we have to spot start for him, we may," Ausmus said Friday, "but that has not been determined. I know you guys want to write in absolutes, but this is life, and life is not absolute."

Another innings factor to consider are those of Anibal Sanchez, who hasn't completed the sixth inning in any of his last three starts. Ausmus has shown a relatively quick hook with him in that stretch, wary of the potentially big middle inning that plagued him early in the season.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.