Tigers Rotation Battle Heating Up


If the Tigers brass thought of these guys were going to pitch their way out of town, so far it hasn’t worked out that way. In the Tigers 6-2 victory over the New York Yankees on Saturday, three hopefuls for Detroit’s starting rotation took steps toward solidifying their places. If this keeps up, there will be very difficult decisions to be made.

When camp opened for the Tigers a little better than three weeks ago, conventional wisdom figured Jeremy Bonderman was the front-runner to win the job as the number four starter. This would only happen if the Tigers were convinced he was completely healthy after missing basically the last year-and-a-half due to artery problems that lead to surgery. When Bondo returned to Detroit last season, his once live fastball had lost 5-6 mph, and his slider had last its tilt.

But Bonderman has shown this spring that he has that old life again. In Saturday’s three innings, Bondo consistently hit 94 on the gun. His slider has been effective, and he has added a splitter this year, another weapon for the right hander. His three innings Saturday resulted in four hist allowed, one runs, and two strikeouts. A nice rebound from his previous outing, where he didn’t escape the first inning.

Lefty Nate Robertson was to be in the running for the fifth starter’s job, along with a handful of others. Like Bonderman, Robertson had to show he was healthy after elbow surgery last summer, and groin surgery last fall. Also like Bonderman, Robertson was a key part of the Tigers rotation prior to injuries catching up to him. Over the past two years, Nate has lost his rotation spot, lost 3-4 mph on his fastball, and at times, lost the bite on his slider. But Robertson had a realistic chance at getting back his old job, just so long as he could do enough to earn the trust of his manager, and out-pitch the competition, including Eddie Bonine, Armando Galarraga, and Dontrelle Willis.

So far, Robertson has probably been the best of the bunch. His two perfect frames versus New York on Saturday included three strikeouts and brought his spring total to seven in just 6.1 innings. He has allowed four walks, four hist and two runs.

But if Willis has anything to say about it, he too is still in the running. After two scoreless stints totaling four innings coming into Saturday, Willis made his initial start of the spring. The Yankees are known to work the count and make the pitcher throw strikes, something that Willis has had difficulty with, to put it mildly.

But Willis responded to his latest, biggest test with flying colors once again. In three innings Saturday, Willis walked just one, allowed four hits, and one earned run. He also hit one batter. But he was able to get two ground ball double plays with good movement on his low-90s two seamer, and his slider was sharp as well. In now seven innings this spring, Willis has allowed five hits, one run, and four walks. He has struck out four.

In fact, the only pitcher who has pitches his way out of the competition thus far is Galarraga. The right hander has made three appearances, but totaled just four innings. In that time he has yet to strike out a batter, but batters have been knocking him all over the park, at least when they get a chance to swing. Galarraga has walked four and allowed nine hits and six runs over his four innings. An alarming 52 percent of batter have reached base against him so far. He will make his second start of the spring today versus Toronto.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland has offered no guarantees that any of the failed starters will wind up in the bullpen for Detroit. In all likelihood, the Tigers are staring at the very real possibility of releasing one or two high dollar contracts depending on how the competition plays itself out. For Bonderman, Willis, and Robertson, the pressure to perform builds with each passing day. At most, two of them will start the year where they want to be; whomever fails to earn a starting job will likely be looking for work elsewhere.