The Tigers reinstated right-hander Spencer Turnbull from the 60-day injured list Wednesday but optioned him to Triple-A Toledo rather than add him to the active roster. He’d been out since early May with a neck injury.
Turnbull, 31 next month, tossed a no-hitter for the Tigers back in 2021 and looked to be in the midst of a breakout season before a torn ulnar collateral ligament necessitated Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire 2022 season while recovering and made just seven starts earlier this season before incurring the neck issue that’s sidelined him for more than three months. He wasn’t effective when on the mound earlier this year, pitching to a 7.26 ERA with diminished sinker velocity — 93.9 mph on average, compared to 95.1 mph pre-surgery — in just 33 1/3 innings of work. Turnbull’s 16.6% strikeout rate, 10.3% walk rate and 48.5% grounder rate were all considerably worse than the marks he posted in nine starts prior to 2021’s elbow injury.
Things haven’t gone particularly well for the right-hander on his minor league rehab assignment in recent weeks. Since returning to a mound in late July, he’s logged a 6.75 ERA in 21 1/3 innings — albeit with more encouraging strikeout and walk rates of 24.1% and 7.3%, respectively. Still, Turnbull gave up at least two runs in five of his six minor league outings despite averaging less than 3 2/3 innings per appearance. He’ll try to get back on track in Toledo between now and season’s end.
The timing of the optional assignment is critical, as well. Turnbull is six days away from reaching five years of Major League service time — the point at which a player gains the right to refuse an optional assignment to the minor leagues. The Tigers could have conceivably given Turnbull one big league start to see how he fared before making a decision on whether to option him, but even making two starts in the Majors would’ve resulted in him gaining the ability to decline when the team tried to option him. That service time is also worth keeping an eye on for club control purposes; if Turnbull gains even six more days of MLB service this year, he’ll be eligible for free agency following the 2024 season. If he remains in Triple-A, he’d be controllable through the 2025 campaign.
Of course, that assumes Turnbull remains in the team’s plans. He’ll be owed a small raise on this year’s $1.8MM salary in arbitration over the winter, and given the manner in which the season has played out, it can’t be considered a lock that he’ll be tendered a contract. He’d be a low-cost risk for a team in need of pitching depth, so it’d be sensible enough to just commit the $2MM or so to see if he can return to form, but Turnbull was drafted and developed by the preceding front office regime. Time will tell how the new group feels it’s best to proceed.
From 2019-21, Turnbull made 50 starts for Detroit, pitching to a 4.13 ERA with a 21.9% strikeout rate, 9.1% walk rate, 50.3% ground-ball rate and 0.64 HR/9 in 255 frames. He looked to be taking his game to new heights in 2021, pitching 50 innings with a 2.88 ERA, 21.9% strikeout rate, 6% walk rate and 57.2% grounder rate prior to his injury. With Turnbull in Toledo for the time being, the Tigers will rely on Eduardo Rodriguez, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Reese Olson and Alex Faedo in the starting rotation.