We're less than a week away from the start of the Tigers season. Expectations are just a little higher now, when compared to last year. Actually, I had no expectations last season. All I wanted was for the Tigers to not suck. Nothing more. Just don't suck. That's what 2 decades of lousy baseball had done to me.
95 wins, and an American League pennant later, we fast forward to 2007.
Tigers fans actually have expectations this season, and they are quite high. In win the World Series high. The Tigers are considered one of the best teams in all of baseball. They play in what is without question the toughest division to win, with 3 other legitimate title contenders. The division is so loaded, the Tigers could replicate their 95 win 2006 season, and not make the playoffs.
Last year my Tigers preview was titled, "Wild card contenders, or the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked?" This season, I think we can be sure that the Tigers won't suck, But just how good will they be? Damn good. But good enough to win it all?
Let's start with the pitching...
Jeremy Bonderman: I've been saying for 2 years now that Bonderman was going to take the next step, and become a 20 win top of the rotation stopper, a Jack Morris for the new millennium. This season is no different. THIS is the year that Bonderman becomes that 20 win top of the rotation stopper, a Jack Morris for the new millennium. Lather, rinse, repeat. We're hearing that Bonderman may have found the off speed pitch that's been missing from his repertoire. If true, the American League best lookout.
Mike Maroth: I've said in the past that Mike Maroth's fastball couldn't break cracked glass. This season is no different. Maroth is still a soft tossing finesse lefty whose fastball couldn't break cracked glass, but now he has had elbow surgery to boot. Reportedly, Maroth was feeling the elbow pain from spring training on, yet he was still on track to have his best ever season. So now that Maroth is fully healthy, I think he'll pick up where he left off, and be one of the best 5th starters in baseball. Maroth will eat innings, keep you in games, all while winning more than he loses. You can't ask for more from your 5th starter. Most teams don't have a 3rd starter that capable.
Nate Robertson: The unluckiest pitcher in baseball, and in my mind, possibly one of the most underrated as well. Robertson's ERA has improved every season, and could be a pitcher that is on the verge of figuring it all out. He deserved better in 2006, yet to his credit, never bitched about it. If Robertson gets any run support at all, he'll have a breakout season. No pitcher can be that unlucky 2 seasons in a row. A bigger challenge for Robertson is if he can come up with this year's version of "Gum time."
Kenny Rogers: Detroit fans haven't seen such a dominating postseason by a Tigers pitcher since...Well, we've never seen that dominating a performance from a Tigers pitcher. I may go to my grave not seeing another game as well pitched as the Gambler's performance against the Yankees in the playoffs. That effort was rightly called a "Masterpiece." Obviously, the Gambler won't pitch like the next coming of Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, and Jesus combined over an entire season. I see no reason why Rogers couldn't have a 2007 regular season much like his excellent 2006. All I ask is that he hides the pine tar a tad better. I'm sure if the Gambler asks, Gaylord Perry would be more than happy to suggest a few hiding places...
Justin Verlander: Here's the big question mark in the rotation. Will Verlander's throwing more innings in one season than he had in his previous 2 seasons combined take a huge toll on his 2007? Yes and no. I'm not expecting Verlander to be as effective as he was in the first 2/3 of 2006. Actually, not many pitchers are that effective, ever. But I'm not expecting him to be the Verlander we saw after it hit the August rookie wall, either. Verlander will have a solid season, but not a dominating one. Those seasons are to come. If he can win 14-15 games, and have an ERA around 4, Tigers brass and fans will be more than happy. Just thinking about a 1-2-3 punch of Bonderman, Verlander, and ace in waiting Andrew Miller gets me feeling all tingly...
Chad Durbin: The favorite son of the Detroit News columnist Lynn Henning. When it was announced Monday that Durbin won the final spot on the Tigers staff, the biggest cheers weren't from Durbin, but from Henning. Durbin pitched very well for Toledo last season, and would have been snapped up by another team if the Tigers had attempted to send him back to Triple A. He'll be long relief, and a spot starter, for the Tigers. I do guarantee one thing. Whenever a starting pitcher goes into a slump, expect a column from Lynn Henning demanding that Durbin be inserted into the rotation. It'll happen, trust me...
Jason Grilli: Grilli has become the favorite whipping boy on Tigers message boards. Grilli's blowing up in the 8th inning of game 4 of the ALCS was just more fuel for the message board fire. Personally, I thought the umpire was squeezing the strike zone on him. Despite the gnashing of teeth by Tigers fans, Grilli is one of Jim Leyland's favorites. Even though he had a below average spring, no matter what happened, Grilli was going north with the Tigers as middle relief. So expect another year of Jason Grilli pitching decently, while being grilled on message boards 'round the web.
Todd Jones: The pitcher with the most apt nickname in baseball, the Rollercoaster is still the closer, but is also the place holder for Joel Zumaya. If all goes to plan, Zoom Zoom will be the closer in 2008 and beyond. So we'll have only one more year to survive Jones' heart attack inducing, crap your pants style of closing out games. Despite having a fastball that even Timmy Lupus could turn on, and allowing more baserunners than Ricky Vaughn without glasses, Jones still somehow manages to pile up saves. If Jim Leyland learned anything from last season, it's to never pitch Jones more than one inning, and never bring him in with runners already on base. NEVER. Keeping that in mind will allow Tigers fans to not have to invest in home defibrillators.
Wilfredo Ledezma: Ledezma is the pitcher who bailed out Grilli in the playoffs, and the only lefty in the Tigers bullpen. Ledezma may be the most versatile pitcher on the Tigers staff. Last season Ledezma was effective wherever the Tigers used him, and Leyland used him everywhere. As a LOOGY, long relief, set up, and as a spot starter. This season he's the obvious replacement for Jamie Walker as the LOOGY, but Ledezma also has the ability to stay in and be effective against right handed hitting. I would not be surprised if Ledezma leads the team in appearances this season.
Jose Mesa: "Joe Table" was signed in the off season, adding even more depth to an already very good bullpen. Mesa has been a starter, a shutdown closer, a set up man, he's pretty much held every role that a pitcher can fill on a staff. During his closer days with the Indians, Mesa led the league in saves. Unfortunately, Mesa's biggest claim to fame was blowing the lead in the 9th inning of game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Despite that, Mesa has been a solid pitcher for a very long time. Anyone who can put up respectable stats in the pitchers Hell that is Coors Field, must have something left in the tank.
Fernando Rodney: He of the funny name, off kilter cap, and the OMFG change up. When he's on, Rodney is unhittable. When he's off, Rodney puts more men on base than Todd Jones, giving fans conniption fits. His blowup in the 2006 regular season finale being a prime example. Despite his occasional propensity for wildness, Rodney has closer stuff, and would be closing on another team. With the Tigers, Rodney is the 8th inning set up man. That's a deep bullpen...
Joel Zumaya: The flamethrowing, tatooed, bloodshot eyed Tigers closer in waiting is still pegged as a set up man by Jim Leyland. Currently, I have no issue with that, as I have much more faith in Zumaya stopping a rally in the middle innings than any other pitcher on the staff. Who would you rather come in with men on base? Zumaya with his 103 MPH heat, let alone his ability to freeze hitters with his curve, or the puff ball throwing Todd Jones? That's why Jones is still the closer, and why Zumaya is pitching in the often more difficult set up role.
When you look a the Tigers pitching, you don't see many weaknesses. The most glaring being the fact there is only one lefty reliever, Ledezma. But with the talent on hand, does it really make that much difference? Given the choice of bringing an average lefty out of the pen, or either the right handed Zumaya or Rodney, who would you rather see on the mound?
On paper, that's a damned good pitching staff. Is it the best in baseball? You could argue the rotation is the best, and probably win that argument. But any staff that has the Rollercoaster as the closer? We'll have to talk...
Overall, the Tigers have, at the very least, a top 5 pitching staff. Lets hope they live up to the hype.