Tigers rotation well-stocked
Club's World Series arms provide depth, command respect
LAKELAND, Fla. -- If the American League comes down to an arms race, the Tigers are already well armed. The only question left for them is whether they can repeat their stinginess on hitters from last year.
Logic suggests the Tigers' rapid rise from 71-win dissatisfaction to 95-win league champions would be followed by some sort of fall back to mediocrity. Other teams to reach the World Series seemingly out of nowhere have done it before, from the 2004 Marlins to the 2003 Angels and beyond. Detroit's pitching staff defies that logic. Not only is it deep, but it's young enough to gain more from an extra year of experience than it loses with an extra year of age, and varied enough to keep hitters from getting into a pattern.
Soon after the Tigers began workouts last month, manager Jim Leyland talked about the traps that can befall a good team.
"When you have a good team and you have some success," Leyland explained, "I think the only things that can really hurt you are injuries and self-destruction."
As Opening Day looms, those are seemingly the two ways in sight that the Tigers wouldn't pitch well. But each pitcher has a different potential downfall, and a different factor to fight on his way to repeating last year's success.
A year ago, the White Sox were feared not only for adding Jim Thome, but for reinforcing their rotation with Javier Vazquez alongside Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras. It was an intimidating staff simply on depth, let alone individual stuff.
A statistical benchmark for rotations is that a team needs 70 wins from its starting pitchers to be a contending team. The 2005 White Sox rotation went 75-42 with a 3.75 ERA. The next year, Sox starters went 72-54 with a 4.65 ERA, still good but a small drop. The Tigers rotation, meanwhile, went 75-47 with an ERA at an even 4.00. That's an average of 15 wins per pitcher from a staff that hadn't had a 15-game winner since 1997.
For Kenny Rogers, obviously, the swing factor is age -- the opponent he has already fought off for years. Eventually, age will win out, as it does over every player. But at 41 years old, he was starting in last year's All-Star Game on his way to a 17-win season. Rogers' pitching style lends itself to age. Besides Rogers, baseball's finesse lefty club includes 44-year-old Jamie Moyer, who has six straight 200-inning seasons, and Tom Glavine, who turns 41 this weekend and has made at least 30 starts a year for the past decade.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Rogers is the one guy in the rotation who had success like this before last year, and he's already talking about pitching beyond this year. In last year's postseason, he fed off the energy at Comerica Park so well that his fastball actually gained life. He knows he can't do that for a full season, but he thinks he can summon it on occasion.
"To be honest, I'll still try to throw some fastballs firm," Rogers said. "But it's not what's going to be conducive for a full season."
At the other end of the age and velocity scales sits reigning American League Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander, who contrastingly lost life on his fastball as the season closed. No Tiger will probably be scrutinized more closely for weakness than the 24-year-old, who racked up 186 innings last year.
In many organizations, that kind of total rings alarm bells for injury risk in the follow-up year. The Tigers tried to thwart that by putting him on complete rest this offseason, not letting him throw a baseball again until late January. Once the season starts, however, Leyland has no plans on using it as a crutch.
"I'm going to handle him the same way I'd handle any pitcher," Leyland said. "If there's somebody on my staff I think I have to be cautious with, I'll be cautious with them. He's getting ready like everybody else. He's throwing good. He's strong, got strong legs. He'll be fine. If I need to back him off at some point, I'll back him off, just like I would with anybody else."
Verlander has struggled at times this spring to find his old mechanics as a pitcher. As long as it remains an issue of comfort rather than health, the Tigers aren't overly concerned.
Though Jeremy Bonderman is just a few months older than Verlander, he has four big-league seasons to back up his building reputation as a workhorse pitcher. His challenge isn't to keep on pitching, but to throw his offspeed pitch. It's the addition that scouts and coaches have long said is his last step to stardom, and the answer to the struggles that followed him last summer when left-handed hitters stayed off his slider and punished his fastball.
"I think it'll be something that's in progress the rest of the year," Leyland said.
The key won't just be mechanics, but confidence. If Bonderman loses faith in it after a few bad results, he might go to the fastball-slider combination that would help him in the short end but hurt him eventually.
"I feel good throwing it," Bonderman said. "I can throw it in counts where I need to now."
Confidence was the major difference in Nate Robertson last year, and it showed in the toughest situations. Once shaky in scoring situations, Robertson held hitters to a .199 average with runners in scoring position, and .153 in such situations with two outs. His aggressiveness with no one on might always yield hits, but his mentality helps him out.
Whether that translates into wins is the next step. Though Robertson had the same 3.84 ERA as Rogers, he went 13-13, in part due to run support. Team success helped him avoid the frustrations that plagued his 7-16 season in 2005.
The fact that Mike Maroth rounds out the rotation speaks volumes about depth, but it means little unless he picks back up where he left off from an injury-plagued 2006 campaign. He was 5-2 with a solid 4.19 ERA when he finally had to have surgery for bone chips in June, essentially ending the relevant portion of his season.
Maroth has no doubt that he can pick it back up, insisting that his elbow feels great and pitching well in the spring. That said, he has yet to pitch in a regular-season game.
The rotation is strong enough that Leyland's main focus this spring has been to find sixth, seventh and eighth starters as insurance in case any of his main arms are knocked out. But while Zach Miner, Chad Durbin and Wilfredo Ledezma can fill in for a rotation, the Tigers' best chance at another playoff run is to have their four World Series arms repeat their form.
"There are so many guys on this team that could start Opening Day," Bonderman said. "To me, it doesn't matter where you start in this rotation. There are four guys who could be the top-two in any rotation in the game, in my opinion. Nate had a great year last year, Verlander, Kenny. I expect Mike to come back and have a good year, too."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.