Spring Training is in full swing at the facility in Lakeland, Fla. and there are plenty of story lines that have already emerged. Each year, stories are written about how players have lost weight or gained muscle, become more focused or increased velocity, and this year isn’t any different from past years.
Many of this spring’s storylines have involved pitchers this spring. In the rotation, each pitcher has been looked at under a microscope since the Doug Fister trade, especially from fellow MCB writers. The current starting five have all been in the news while at Spring Training, and the Tigers feel optimistic about how they will fare in 2014.
Justin Verlander has looked good in bullpen sessions so far as he recovers from core muscle surgery in January. Max Scherzer is in a contract year with Scott Boras as his agent so a big year could mean big money for Scherzer this offseason whether it’s from the Tigers or not. Tigers’ management sees Anibal Sanchez as a No. 1 starter and ready for another big season. Rick Porcello looks to be trending up and primed for a breakout campaign. Drew Smyly is back as a starter in 2014 and is ready for the opportunity to be part of the Tigers’ rotation.
Everything is positive with the rotation right now, as it should be. But, will it be able to match or even out perform last year’s rotation? The loss of Doug Fister has been the talk of the offseason, and it’s easy to say the rotation will be weaker in 2014.
Despite the trade, the Tigers could come close to the production of last year’s staff, who compiled a total WAR of 24.1. Current projections look like this for the 2014 Tigers rotation, according to Fangraphs:
Despite the steamer WAR projections being so low, the Tigers have four starters (all but Smyly) who are projected to finish in the top 20 of all starters. Compiling a total WAR that the 2013 rotation accomplished will be a tough task, but the Tigers have the pieces there to keep their status as one of the best rotations in baseball.
In 2013, Verlander had WAR of 4.6 which was out of the ordinary for Verlander, who totaled a WAR of 16.2 in 2011 and 2012 combined. Questions arose last season about whether or not Verlander will be dominant again. It appears he was fighting some abdominal pain last season, so his not quite Verlander-esque season could be just a blip on the radar.
His average fastball velocity dropped to 94 MPH in 2013, but that shouldn’t be a cause for concern either as Verlander’s goal for this spring has been to make sure he is healthy come Opening Day.
Scherzer’s 2013 season could have been an anomaly, similar to Verlander, but for different reasons. Scherzer won the 2013 AL Cy Young and compiled his best season (by far) to date. Scherzer is a great pitcher and will get paid in his next contract, but it’s hard to suggest that he can complete 2013 all over again.
With that said, Scherzer is 29 years old, right in his prime as a pitcher. He will still be an All-Star caliber pitcher in 2014 and an anchor in the rotation for the Tigers, but back-to-back Cy Young awards is a tall order in the American League; Pedro Martinez was the last to accomplish that task in 1999-00.
Sanchez led the league with a 2.57 ERA and in HR/9 with 0.4. He finished fourth in the Cy Young award voting despite finishing with a 14-8 record and 182 innings. Sanchez signed a four-year deal with the Tigers after the 2012 season, which goes to show what the Tigers believed they had in Sanchez when acquiring him from the Marlins via trade.
This season, Sanchez looks to continue his upward trajectory and many are predicting him to do so. When a pitcher rarely gives up home runs and can strike out a lot of batters, success will follow. As long as Sanchez stays healthy in 2014, the Tigers should see the pitcher they believe Sanchez is.
I wrote about Porcello earlier this offseason and went into much more detail there. Summary: He just keeps getting better. Most of his numbers have improved each year he has been in the big leagues, and he’s only 25. Regression isn’t expected inside the organization which was made obvious when the Fister trade went down.
Porcello is expected to step into Fister’s role in the rotation, and he has the stuff to do so. He is a good ground ball pitcher (2nd in the AL in GB% last season) but is prone to have that one game where he implodes. Consistency will be the key for Porcello in 2014.
Smyly is back as a starter, and in 2012 he was solid for the Tigers, posting a 8.52 K/9 in 18 starts. He was a stud in the bullpen last season and looks to carry that over into the rotation in 2014. Smyly could have a trajectory similar to Porcello’s which would make for a solid season from Smyly.
With Porcello ready to take over for Fister, Smyly steps into the fifth spot that Porcello occupied in 2013. Smyly was reliable in the bullpen and should be in the rotation. Smyly isn’t a power pitcher by any means, but he and Porcello steady K/9 improvement will provide more strikeout power from the back end of the rotation that the Tigers lacked in previous years.
For the Tigers to come close to the total WAR of 24.1 from its starters, the staff will have to stay healthy. While the Tigers might not be expected to match the success of the 2013 rotation, 2014’s version looks to be more valuable to the overall team success.
The 2013 rotation might compile a higher WAR, but with the likely drop in runs scored for the 2014 season, the rotation will be asked to hold a heavier burden this season; their or more question marks regarding the Tigers’ hitting than their pitching. Even if the starting rotation doesn’t perform as well as last season’s, their value to the team will more than previous seasons.