Max Scherzer Could Hold Key to Tigers’ 2011 Success


If Spring Training opened today, how well would the Tigers match-up with the rest of the division? Obviously, there would be some major offensive question marks, most notably in right field. I’d like to assume that Magglio Ordonez will be back with the club and taking up the slack which would be caused by his absence, but since we don’t yet have his signature on a new contract, we cannot pencil him in.

While there is still work to be done this winter, I think it’s safe to assume that the pitching staff in by and large finished. There might be some additional tinkering, but honestly I doubt that a name player will be joining the staff before camp opens. Anyone added at this point will likely be a fringe-type pitcher who could compete for a job, but isn’t guaranteed a spot on the staff. As such, I think we’re safe in projecting how the staff would compare to the rest of the Central right now.

The starting rotation is basically set. The staff will be once again anchored by Justin Verlander. Beyond him, however, questions abound. Can Max Scherzer replicate the numbers he put up after his recall from a brief minor league stint last May? Can Rick Porcello take a step forward after a step backward last year? Will Phil Coke make a smooth transition to the rotation? And what of Armando Galarraga?

Even at a best case scenario, you have to assume that Galarraga will be nothing more than an average number five starter. If he produces an ERA under 5.00 and contributes 170 or so innings, I don’t think the Tigers will be in a terrible position. Galarraga’s performance won’t make or break the Tigers year. Expect him to be inconsistent, but he’ll throw enough quality games to stay in the rotation and to eat enough innings to keep the bullpen relatively fresh. That’s really all you can ask from a number five. Jim Leyland was right, he’s not the best number five in the league, but he’s far from being the worst.

Unlike Galarraga, Scherzer could easily be the key to the Tigers’ fortunes in 2011. If he’s the guy who dominated the American League after May 29, the Tigers will be right there with Minnesota and Chicago in challenging for the playoffs. If he steps backward, as young pitchers sometimes do, there could be issues.

Scherzer boasted a 2.46 ERA over his final 23 starts last year. In order for Detroit to compete for the playoffs, they need Scherzer to be a very good number two starter. Chicago will offer Jake Peavy and Mark Buehrle at the top of their rotation. Minnesota has Francisco Liriano, and probably Carl Pavano. If Scherzer is right, I’ll take Detroit’s top-end versus any of the others. If he struggles, as he did at the beginning of the 2010 season when he was knocked around to the tune of a 7.29 ERA in his first eight starts, the Tigers could easily be looking up at the rest of the division. In order for the Tigers to win the division, Scherzer needs to be the pitcher he was down the stretch, and not the one he was before being sent to the minors.

Some of the pressure on Scherzer could be eliminated based upon the success of Porcello and Coke. The potential is there for both of them to become average or better starters, but with each there are also giant question marks.

For Porcello, entering his third big league season, it’s a question of development. Can he master a reliable third pitch to go along with a quality sinker and change? Porcello relied far too often on fastballs last year and wasn’t consistent with location. As a result, Porcello gave up a ton of hits. Having a solid breaking pitch should result in keeping hitters more off balance. He’ll need to eventually improve his strikeout rate as well, which should come with increased use of a good breaking ball.

I’m not nearly as worried about Coke as much of the Tigersphere appears to be. I don’t expect a C.J. Wilson type performance from the converted reliever, but I don’t expect he’ll perform so poorly that the Tigers will have to look at alternatives, either. Coke has shown over his two plus seasons as a reliever the ability to retire right handed batters and lefties alike. He has a good fastball and good command of three pitches. If he can get himself stretched out, I expect a solid number four. That he’s left handed surely makes a difference and will come in handy when facing the Morneaus and Mauers and Dunns and Kubels of the division.

If all goes as well as could reasonably be expected, I’d rate the Tigers as having the division’s second-best rotation. I still think the White Sox are the class of the starting pitching group. Peavy and Buehrle along with Gavin Floyd and John Danks form what might be the best top four of any club in the AL. While Minnesota boasts a strong number one, without Pavano slotted behind Liriano, the Twins will need all the offense they can get to overcome shortcomings on the mound. Brian Duensing figures to do well as Minnesota’s next best starter, but if they have to rely on Scott Baker or Nick Blackburn to step into a more prominent role, the Twins might be in trouble. Especially give the bullpen overhaul they are experiencing this winter.