DETROIT — The Detroit Tigers declined to tender right-hander Spencer Turnbull a contract for the 2024 season Friday night. The move came as a minor surprise given what Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris said regarding Turnbull after the regular season ended.
“We expect him to prepare as a starter this offseason and show up ready to compete for a job in our rotation,” Harris said Oct. 1.
But after a year filled with awkward and uncomfortable conversations, the Tigers’ ultimate divorce with Turnbull may be the most peaceful resolution.
On Monday, the Major League Baseball Players Association released a statement on behalf of Turnbull. The verdict was this: Turnbull will receive a full year of service time for the 2023 season despite being optioned in August.
“At the time I was optioned in August 2023, I was dealing with a foot injury,” Turnbull said in the statement. “I raised this with the Club. After further review of my condition, the Club has now agreed to reverse the option and I am receiving full major league service for the 2023 season.”
MLBPA statement re: Spencer Turnbull pic.twitter.com/hdUyqjqNrh
— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) November 20, 2023
The Tigers, via a team spokesperson, declined to comment.
The August issue was actually the second time Turnbull had an option decision reversed in the past year. The first came in early May, when the Tigers called a struggling Turnbull into manager A.J. Hinch’s hotel room in St. Louis. There Harris informed Turnbull — who threw a no-hitter for the Tigers in 2021 and entered the year with a career 4.25 ERA — he was being optioned. Turnbull, who had a 7.26 ERA through his first seven starts of 2023, then reported a neck injury. He would later admit not notifying the team earlier was a mistake.
“I should have spoken up about it,” Turnbull said on May 26. “I shouldn’t have tried to play through it. That was on me for not saying something about it sooner, just trying to be tough.”
The Tigers went ahead with the option process, but Turnbull soon switched his representation to Scott Boras and sought further medical opinions. The Tigers ultimately reversed Turnbull’s option and instead placed him on the injured list with neck discomfort, meaning Turnbull would still accrue MLB service time.
“I got a call from him, and that’s when he disclosed some discomfort,” Harris said in May. “As soon as we heard that, we set up an appointment with our doctor and we had him see a specialist out of state. We had those doctors discuss what was going on with his neck, confirmed the injury and we placed him on the IL.”
The injury indeed proved serious enough that Turnbull was moved to the 60-day injured list on June 9.
“It was not a difficult process,” Boras told The Athletic in May. “I went through the medical, got imaging, got it reviewed by experts. We had a discussion. We all agreed on the medical, and they put him on the IL.”
After completing a minor-league assignment with a 7.71 ERA in four starts at Triple-A Toledo, the Tigers again optioned Turnbull on Aug. 23 rather than activate him to the major-league roster. Turnbull proceeded to miss multiple minor-league starts with what was described as a cracked toenail.
“He’s been referencing a cracked toenail and saying that he’s limited with pitching,” Hinch said on Sept. 1. “He’s been getting some treatment. We expect him to be on the mound and ready to go any given day.”
Turnbull made two more starts in Triple A before the season ended, giving up two earned runs in 4 2/3 innings.
Turnbull, a 31-year-old who has wicked stuff when at his best, had become noticeably frustrated as the year went along, to the point he sought to be moved at the trade deadline. The Tigers received little outside interest then, according to a team source briefed on the matter.
Turnbull, though, raised his August foot issue with the MLBPA. He ended the 2023 season five days short of reaching five years service time for his career. A full year of service time in 2023 now puts Turnbull over the five-year threshold. That means Turnbull (who is now a free agent) must consent to any future options in his career. It also comes with additional pension benefits, though a full MLB pension does not vest until 10 years of service time. Another full year of service would mark Turnbull’s sixth, making him again eligible for free agency.
If not for Monday’s decision, a club could have signed Turnbull for 2024, kept him in the minor leagues and then retained him in arbitration through 2025.
So after a year of back and forth, the drama between Turnbull and the Tigers appears to have reached an end.
(Photo: Joe Puetz / Getty Images)