We’re far enough along in the season that it can be interesting to look back at what folks thought about a team in the blogosphere or the mainstream media, to compare expectations to reality. I remember reading a thoughtful and well-written piece on fangraphs right around the start of spring training about Dombrowski’s risky reliance on unproven minor leaguers to provide rotation depth. I highly recommend reading that article before you continue here:
Here’s a quote that says it all: “Dombrowski moved what little MLB pitching depth he had out of the organization while rival GMs added starters in anticipation of the 162-game schedule.” - The Tigers’ Approach to Rotation Depth by Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLBTR
The gist of it is that by trading away Armando Galarraga and not resigning Jeremy Bonderman (or chasing invitees like Bartolo Colon or Freddy Garcia) Dave Dombrowski displayed a seeming ignorance of the importance of rotation depth and semi-deliberately handicapped the Tigers vis-a-vis their divisional and wild card competition.
This was debated on Tigers blogs, and in the end there appeared to be a sort of agreement with Nicholson-Smith’s perspective – we’d have felt more comfortable with more veteran depth, BUT if any of the Tigers’ big guys in the rotation went down they wouldn’t have much of a playoff shot no matter who was waiting to fill in.
If you still feel that way, to quote the Dude: “certain things have come to light, and uh, has it ever occurred to you, man, that given the nature of all this new (stuff), that…, that this whole thing might just be, not, you know, not just such a simple, but uh–you know?”
The new (stuff) that you should be privy to is, of course, the charmed seasons being had by Tigers high-minors starting pitching. Where once, perhaps, things seemed a bit thin now it looks like a logjam in motion. Dombrowski is looking prescient rather than ignorant. The only relevant pitcher actually doing badly is poor Thad Weber. Take a look at the numbers for the rest of the guys we’re interested in:
How have we been so fortunate? Well, it’s a simple combination of: 1) top prospects performing as expected (Oliver, Turner) 2.) unheralded guys maintaining the production that earned them the promotion (Wilk, Furbush, Villarreal) 3.) former top prospects returning to form after injuries or bad years (Below, Crosby, Furbush).
Oliver is obviously starter #6 for Detroit, evidenced by the fact that he’s the only one of the bunch to start a game for the Tigers so far this year. The rest, in no particular order, make up potential starters #7 through #12 and the team that needs more than 12 different starters during a season would be cursed indeed. See anyone you wouldn’t take over Bondo or Armando? Crosby has had control issues, but he’s been healthy again and awfully hard to hit. Turner is obviously young, but is simply chewing through AA lineups. I’d rather not see either in Detroit this year, but next year is another story. Four of the other five guys have already seen action in Detroit (though mostly in relief), putting up a combined 50 innings with 22 walks 38 strikeouts and a 4.50 ERA. Cy Young caliber? Not exactly (mostly thanks to a single terrible start by Oliver). But it’s better than a lot of teams (including Detroit) are getting from their fifth starter and more than adequate from guys classified as ‘rotational depth’.
Losing a pitcher of Verlander’s caliber would be obviously crippling for any team, including the Tigers, but it doesn’t seem that we have much to worry about as far as ‘rotational depth’ is concerned – at least relative to the rest of the league. The question looking forward now seems less “what do we do if (God Forbid) Brad Penny gets hurt?” than it is “how do we make room for all of these young pitchers?”. Part of the answer is obvious and has already begun to happen, due to ineffectiveness and attrition in the Tigers’ bullpen. Some of these guys will make the big leagues by becoming relievers. There is a problem there too – 5 of those 7 are left-handed. They may not all be best suited to relief roles either, at least not as ‘LOOGY’s – though Furbush and Wilk are in the Tigers bullpen now due to a lack of better alternatives both were very effective against right-handed hitters in Toledo. Below, on the other hand, who isn’t getting any love from Tigers’ brass has been lights-out against against lefties (2 BB, 16 K, 13 H in 20 1/3 innings vs. lefties) but merely solid against righties. If we need a LOOGY to replace the mightily inept duo of Thomas and Schlereth, Below looks like an option. Of course, Tigers minor league hitters have been as disappointing as Tigers minor league pitchers have been impressive – the logjam may be resolved in the offseason in a very conventional way, a trade.