Thursday, March 27, 2008

The 2008 Detroit Tigers: Contenders or the team to beat? Part 3, starting pitching

It's day 3 of TWFE's Tigers preview! Well, to be correct, evening 3! Though it's late, it's up! But I digress...

One thing I'm finding as I write these previews is that it's difficult to be my normal smart assn self in regard to the Tigers.

As you know by now, being a smart ass is right in my wheelhouse, my sweet spot. But the Tigers are too good to denigrate, too talented to rip on, too well run to criticize, unlike the team I revel in destroying, the Lions. I can't go for the cheap shot, the easy joke, as they aren't there with the Tigers. It's fun, but different, if that makes sense...

So missing my snarky asshatery or not, let's move on to part 3.

Starting pitching

Justin Verlander: What superlatives are there left to say when it comes to Verlander?

They have have all been used, and then some, to describe the Tigers unquestioned number 1 starter. Verlander is everything we fans hoped Jeremy Bonderman would be. An elite number 1 starter, a top of the rotation stud, a Cy Young winner in waiting. In other words, Verlander is The kid is superdupergreatawesomekickass! He's also really, really good.

Verlander is going to be, if he isn't already, the next great Tigers pitcher. Easily the best since Jack Morris. Hell, he's already better than Morris. If all goes according to plan, I'd be surprised if Verlander didn't win 20+ games, K 200+ batters, finish with a ERA in the low 3's, and be a serious contender for the Cy Young.

Honestly, the only fear I have with Verlander is the same you have with any young pitcher who has had a relatively heavy innings workload early in his career. (387 innings in '06-'07) The health of his arm. I'm not all that worried, as the Tigers have been more than careful with Verlander, so I don't expect a Kerry Wood or Rich Harden style flame out. But it bears watching, nonetheless, as the Tigers hopes of winning it all heavily depend on Verlander being Verlander.

The Tigers will need to lock up Verlander long-term, as they have with Curtis Granderson, in the next year or two. He's on track, as was noted by Danny Knobler at Mlive today, to become a $20 million a season pitcher. And he'll be worth every penny. Actually, it's a interesting dilemma the Tigers will find themselves in, with Verlander soon to be in line for a Johan Santana sized contract, while already paying Miguel Cabrera some very serious jingle. But that's fodder for another post...

Jeremy Bonderman: Going into the 2006 season, I said the following about the mercurial Bonderman...

How many of you were expecting Bonderman to break out last year and drafted him in your fantasy league? (raises hand) Bonderman lived up to the considerable hype before the All-Star break, winning 11 games and nearly making the All-Star roster. Before the break, he pitched like the ace the Tigers have been desperately seeking since Jack Morris left. After the break, he pitched like a bad Jose Lima, without the hot wife. Bonderman's ERA jumped nearly 2 points, and won only 3 games while pitching half the innings he did in before the break. Still, he's only 23, and the Tigers are not expecting him to be the stopper, that's why the Gambler was signed. So here's the question. How many of you expect Bonderman to pitch as he did in before the 2005 break over the full 2006 season, and drafted him in your fantasy league? (raises hand) Bonderman has the stuff for 18-20 wins, but still might be a year away from putting it all together. When he does, the Tigers will have their next Jack Morris.

At the start of the 2007 season, what I said about Bonderman wasn't much different...

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.

In 2008, I'm finally out of things to say about Bonderman. Nothing has changed since 2006. He's still more potential than actual performance. He's shown in spurts (The victories during the 2006 playoffs, the first half of 2007) that he can be dominant. But no one, not even Bonderman himself, knows if 2008 is finally the year he breaks through, and becomes a top of the rotation starter.

But maybe, just maybe, what we've seen of Bonderman as a Tiger is exactly who he is going to be. A middle of the rotation pitcher, a 3rd starter who'll give you 200 innings, 12-14 wins with a 4.50 ERA, while you scratch your head wondering, "Dammit, why isn't he a 20 game winner?"

I'm at the point where I'll be happy if Bonderman becomes the Dan Petry to Veralnder's Jack Morris. Hell, even the Milt Wilcox... How about the Juan Berenguer?

Kenny Rogers: The Gambler is beginning to push his luck by going all in for 2008. Sometime soon, possibly after this season, he's going to know it's time to fold 'em. Rogers' age finally caught up with him in 2007, missing most of the season between a blood clot in his shoulder, then developing a sore elbow. But between injuries, Rogers showed he could still get major league hitters out.

Yet the question remains, was 2007 an aberration, or the beginning of a much delayed, and likely quite steep, decline? I was all for Rogers to return for one more season, because I believe he still has something left. (Then again, maybe it's the fond memories of 2006, and clinging to the hope he could do it one more time) For that matter, if Rogers stays healthy, and pitches to his capabilities, the Tigers signed a number 1 caliber starter for essentially Nate Robertson money. Thing is, as of now, it's nothing but if's when it comes to Rogers. If he recovers, if he stays healthy, if he still has his stuff, if, if, if...

Rogers has looked solid this spring, showing few signs of slowing down. For the Tigers' sake, I hope The Gambler has one more quality year left in his aged, and extremely crafty, arm. If the Tigers are going to make a World Series run, Kenny Rogers needs to stay healthy.

Nate Robertson: Robertson is what he is, a journeyman starter, a .500 pitcher. With the Tigers though, Robertson is perfectly cast as a 4th or 5th starter. He's not expected to put up exceptional stats, just eat innings while giving the Tigers an opportunity to win when it's his turn on the mound. And for the most part, that's exactly what Robertson has done as a Tiger.

If he gets a few breaks, and some well deserved and long deprived run support, Robertson could break out, and have a career season. Say...Win 15 games, with an ERA around 4.00. Possibly in the way Milt Wilcox, a career .500 pitcher, stepped up in 1984 with 17 wins. (We'll just not talk about how Wilcox, at age 34, sacrificed his arm, and for all intents and purposes, what may have remained of his career, to have that one BIG season)

Will Robertson have that big year? With the Tigers offense, it's quite possible. Robertson has been long known as the Tigers' "hard luck" starter, often starved for run support, pitching better than his record indicates. It's time Nate found himself a little good luck while on the mound.

Dontrelle Willis: We fans were thrilled the Tigers were able to land the D-Train in the trade for Miguel Cabrera. Then we saw him pitch this spring, and were no longer thrilled.

There's a reason Jim Leyland named Willis the 5th starter. He outright sucked in spring training. I hope to Hell the Tigers get the D-Train back on track. Thanks to the 3 year, $29 million contract extension the Tigers signed Willis to earlier this year, good or bad, pinpoint location or Wild Thing, he's going nowhere, other than to the mound every 5th day.

If Willis can put together a career average season (14-11, 3.78 ERA), the Tigers will be in good shape. With his personality, if Willis has the sort of year he has shown to be capable of in the past, he'll own Detroit.

Willis is still young, so there's every chance he'll find the form that won him 22 games in 2005. But with the Tigers, he's on a team where he doesn't have to be "The Man," the number 1 starter. So the D-Train doesn't need to be great, just good enough.

It remains to be seen if that's even possible, thanks to his funky delivery, and his overuse in Florida.

Overall: The rotation is talented, without question. But there there are also question marks, the D-Train being the biggest. Bigger than Bonderman's 1st inning issues, The Gambler's age, Robertson's constant hard luck, and...Well, there's no question mark in regard to Verlander.

The Tigers not knowing what they'll have from the bullpen in the late innings, thanks to the injuries to Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, means the pressure is on the rotation to pick up much of the pitching slack. They'll need to go deeper into games to keep the pressure off of what is currently a broken bullpen.

The starters need to stay healthy and effective. I'm confident they can be, but I'm not totally convinced they will.

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