MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Tigers like the view beyond Verlander

Tigers like the view beyond Verlander

CHICAGO -- Justin Verlander? Check.

Michael Fulmer? The American League Rookie of the Year Award winner is so reliable that the Tigers aren't even pitching him against the White Sox. They're saving him for Friday's home opener against the Red Sox instead.

But what about the rest of the Tigers' rotation?

The work of 30-year-old right-hander Jordan Zimmermann and left-handers Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd will go a long way toward determining if Detroit can make a postseason run behind Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and the two Martinezes (J.D. and Victor).

"I do think the health of Zimmermann and the improvement of our young pitchers, our young starters, could be a huge difference for us,'' manager Brad Ausmus said after a season-opening 6-3 victory over the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on Tuesday.

Weather willing, the Tigers will get their first regular-season reads on Zimmermann and Norris before returning to Detroit for a four-game series against the Red Sox. They are Detroit's scheduled starters on Wednesday and Thursday, and the duo will be looking to follow Verlander's lead.

The AL Cy Young Award runner-up a year ago, Verlander has been on track since arriving in Lakeland, Fla., in February. He opened his season by holding the White Sox to two runs over 6 1/3 innings on Tuesday. Verlander struck out 10 of the 26 batters he faced, becoming the first Tiger with double-digit strikeouts in an opener since Mickey Lolich in 1970.

Verlander is a guy you can ride a long way, but he's going to need more help than he got last season to pitch in October. Fulmer was so steady last season (11-7, 3.06 ERA in 26 starts) that he also seems a given, but lots of rookie pitchers have taken backward steps after initial success.

Verlander on Opening Day win

"There's always a little bit of the unknown even with a guy like Fulmer, because he's got one year in the big leagues,'' Ausmus said.

Verlander and Fulmer combined to go 31-20 last season, when the 23-year-old Fulmer was following Verlander around like a puppy dog. But Zimmermann dealt with poor performance and injuries (neck and a strained lat) in the first season of his five-year, $110 million contract, and Anibal Sanchez continued to regress in the fourth year of his five-year, $80 million deal.

The Tigers would be in great shape if those two guys were delivering what was expected, but Sanchez couldn't even earn a rotation spot in Spring Training. He's working out of the bullpen as a long reliever, waiting for a chance to move back into the rotation.

With Zimmermann and Sanchez combining to make 44 starts, the non-Verlander/Fulmer segment of Detroit's rotation was 25-35 with a 5.13 ERA in 2016. While the Orioles used their deep bullpen to overcome a lack of rotation depth last season, the Tigers joined the Yankees and Royals in missing the postseason largely because they put up a five-plus ERA when their Nos. 1-2 starters weren't on the mound.

Don't be surprised if Zimmermann bounces back in a big way. He lost some velocity the past two seasons, but it has come back with offseason rest and conditioning. His Spring Training numbers weren't great (20 hits, 15 earned runs in 14 1/3 innings), but Ausmus expects a lot more from him this season.

"It started in Spring Training with his neck [injury],'' Ausmus said of Zimmermann's slide last season. "He pitched through it, but he could never get extended with his arm. We've already seen velocities of 93 [mph], 94 [mph] on a consistent basis in Spring Training, and I don't know if he even touched 94 [mph] last year. I think he's able to get extended out front and now he's got a little bit of his zip back.''

Boyd generated a lot of buzz among scouts in Florida, compiling a 2.10 ERA in his 25 2/3 innings. He seems poised for a breakout season on the strength of a more consistent delivery -- he dropped from over-the-top to three-quarters during last season -- and a difference-making slider. Boyd makes his season debut Saturday against the Red Sox.

Fulmer's leap forward last season came after he learned a changeup almost overnight, and Ausmus believes Boyd's slider could have that same impact for him.

"I think the slider he added last year is going to be enormous for him,'' Ausmus said. "Now he's a four-pitch pitcher as opposed to a three-pitch pitcher, and the slider is a very good pitch. It's not like it's the fourth best.''

Boyd, who was acquired along with Norris from Toronto in the 2015 David Price trade, is pumped to put the lower arm slot and slider to use over a full season. Boyd said he lowered his arm angle six inches, but it seemed more drastic than that initially after pitching coach Rich Dubee suggested the change.

"It felt like I was throwing sidearm at first instead of way over the top,'' Boyd said. "I'm glad I was able to take to it as fast as I did. I'm glad the adjustment was made, because it's made me able to repeat my delivery a lot better.''

Boyd had been working on his slider since the end of the 2015 season, but he says it didn't really click until he lowered his arm slot.

"When I dropped my arm slot, it just became consistently a weapon for me,'' Boyd said. "The velo went up on it a little, too. The movement kind of stayed the same, but the velo went up and I learned to command it a little bit. It adds a whole new dimension to my game.''

Verlander is a tough act for anyone to follow. But as the Tigers take their first steps into the season, they feel they have a winning cast behind him.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.