Monday, January 29, 2007

2007 Detroit Tigers Preview - Pitching

No, I'm still not down from the high of the 2006 American League pennant winning Detroit Tigers season. It was simply a thing of beauty to behold and one of the most unexpected great seasons I have ever seen. That said, it's now time to look ahead to 2007. I'll start with the pitching. It was the strength of the 2006 team and could be even better in 2007 (though that will take some luck).

First up, the rocks of the starting rotation. Barring injury, these guys are the starters.

Kenny Rogers - The Gambler just turned 42, but is coming off one of the best seasons of his career going 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA. What can we expect in 2007 from the soft tossing lefty? Well, for starters, he isn't likely to duplicate those numbers again. Wins? Maybe. But ERA will likely be north of 4.00 and closer to 4.50. His career ERA is 4.19, though he has been under 4.00 in 3 of the last 5 years. But at some point age will catch up with him. I think 180 innings and a 4.40 ERA are reasonable expectations. He won't anchor the rotation, but he won't hurt them either.

Jeremy Bonderman - This kid is the face of one of Dombrowski's first big moves with the Tigers when he jetisoned Jeff Weaver for a trio of players including Bonderman. He just turned 24 at the conclusion of the season and has 4 full seasons under his belt. What's not to love about this kid? Check out his season by season progressions:

2003 - 6-19, 162 IP, 5.56 ERA, 108 Ks, 58 BBs, 1.549 WHIP
2004 - 11-13, 184 IP, 4.89 ERA, 168 Ks, 73 BBs, 1.310 WHIP
2005 - 14-13, 189 IP, 4.57 ERA, 145 Ks, 57 BBs, 1.354 WHIP
2006 - 14-8, 214 IP, 4.08 ERA, 202 Ks, 64 BBs, 1.299 WHIP

It doesn't take a math major to see the consistent and steady improvement in nearly every category from Wins and Losses to K/BB ratio to WHIP to ERA, etc. Gotta think we'll see more of the same in 2007 as Bonderman looks to break out into the stardom he seems destined for. 18 wins, 200+ Ks, and an ERA in the 3.50-3.75 range seem well within his reach as he becomes one of the top starters in the American League behind Johan Santana.

Justin Verlander

The reigning AL rookie of the year is coming off a season in which he went 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA for the AL champs. Pretty heady stuff for a 23 year old. His peripheral numbers weren't nearly as good as Bonderman's however, and he likely had quite a bit of luck involved in that ERA and W/L record. In 186 IP, he only managed 124 strikeouts vs 60 walks and gave up a WHIP of 1.328. I'd expect he'll fall off a little this year, though the potential for greatness is still there. His low strikeout totals were somewhat perplexing given the actual quality of the pitches he throws. His fastball routinely touches 98 or 99 on the gun and he has one of the biggest knee buckling curveballs in the league. Maybe with a little more experience he will learn how to put away the big leaguers via the whiff. This year I'd expect him to come in around 200 innings with an ERA in the 4.00 to 4.25 range and hopefully >150 strikeouts. Not quite as good Bonderman, but a very good young starter.

Nate Robertson

Nasty Nate was the tough luck pitcher on the staff last year only putting together a 13-13 record despite a 3.84 ERA in 208 IP. Like Bonderman, he just keeps getting better. 2006 marked the 4th consecutive year that he lowered his ERA and WHIP, though his K and BB rates have stabilized. What can we expect this year? Well, he's a good pitcher. I think 200 IP and a sub 4.00 ERA is well within reach again, though I'm not sure how much he has left in him to improve based on his K and BB rates. He doesn't have dominant stuff, but gets the most out of what he has. For a 3rd or 4th starter in the bigs? He helps make the Tigers staff as good as any in the league.

Mike Maroth

Mike was the forgotten man in 2006 after a hot start when he was lost to injury for the rest of the season. Don't forget, however, that he has continued to battle back since he lost 21 games in 2003. Maroth was on pace for his best season ever with a 5-2 record and a 4.19 ERA before being injured. He doesn't have great stuff and considering he's coming off a major injury I don't know exactly what to expect. But for a 5th starter he is certainly a solid option to have.

Other contenders for the 5th starter spot if injury or poor performance creeps in? Gotta think of names like Jordan Tata, Zach Miner, and Wil Ledezma. Now, off to the bullpen.

Todd Jones

TJ earned his nickname of roller coaster last year with all the excitement he brought to the mound (for both teams) when he entered the game. He did somehow manage to string together a 3.94 ERA and 37 saves, however. He is getting old as he turns 39 in April, but is still likely the closer heading into spring camp. I don't expect a whole lot out of a guy that only managed 28 strikeouts in 64 innings last year, but he might just keep plugging along and holding 3 run leads by the skin of his teeth.

Joel Zumaya

Kid K was a human highlight reel last year. From his flame tattoo on his forearm to the 103 mph radar gun readings to the goatee and glare, he was sheer intimidation on the mound to opposing hitters. The sight of him mowing down the heart of the Yankees order in postseason still warms my heart. While he wasn't a closer last year, he arguably pitched much more important situations than Todd Jones often entering in the 7th or 8th inning and the game on the line. His talent is why I'm a lot less concerned about Jones as closer. If it gets that bad, Zumaya simply moves to the 9th inning. Zumaya's stats last year were off the charts. In 83 1/3 IP, he managed to rack up 97 strikeouts and a 1.17 WHIP. His 42 walks allowed and 2 HBP were just wild enough to keep hitters on their toes. He is as dominant as any young reliever in the majors and is likely destined to be closing games for a long time in Detroit (think Mariano Rivera for the Yankees).

Fernando Rodney

Fernando was up and down last year, but still put together a 3.52 ERA in 71 2/3 innings pitched to go along with 65 strikeouts. He walked too many (34), but was lights out for most of the season. Over the last 2 years, he has a combined ERA of 3.27 which is excellent. A power arm like Zumaya (though not quite that fast), his devastating change up makes him tougher on lefties than righties which really helps this right hand heavy bullpen late in the game.

Wil Ledezma

60 IP with a 3.58 ERA isn't bad for this swingman who can both start games or work as a lefty out of the pen. Still on the younger side (just turned 26 last week), he has very good potential with a 95-97 mph fastball and a big curveball. If somebody goes down in the rotation, he could get a shot at starting again. Otherwise, he likely gets Jamie Walker's old job.

Jose Mesa

Buddha was signed as some insurance in the bullpen. Last year in Colorado, he managed a 3.86 ERA at the age of 40 which isn't bad. In 72 innings of work, though, he only had 39 Ks to go against 36 BBs and gave up an opponents OBP of .364. Not exactly great pitching, but decent enough as a 5th or 6th arm in the pen. Besides, it's at least worth noting that in 4 of the last 6 seasons he has managed to keep his ERA under 4.00. He was only 19/26 in save situations last year. He's a good veteran to bring in and apparently has an excellent work ethic. Hopefully he will not be counted on for innings in anything other than garbage time.

That's all I've got for guaranteed spots in the pitching staff which brings us to 9. Guys like Ed Campusano (rule 5 lefty reliever), Zach Miner, Jason Grilli, and Roman Colon probably have to earn a spot in spring training. All in all it is an excellent pitching staff, though they will have a tough time matching the production of a staff that lead the entire major leagues in ERA in 2006 (pretty good for an AL squad). The good news is that with the addition of Gary Sheffield, the offense should be better next year.



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