It’s the Starting Five or Bust for the Tigers in 2014


Can the Tigers survive a catastrophic injury to one of their starters in 2014? Everyone knows how effective Detroit’s rotation was in 2013. But one of the untold stories of last season is how remarkably healthy the Tigers’ rotation was. Detroit used only six starters in all of 2013 and enjoyed more starts by the five pitchers in its starting rotation on opening day than any other rotation. The Tigers may have been unlucky in terms of Pythagorean underperformance in 2013, but they were extremely lucky with regard to the health of their starting rotation (and another reason why “only” winning 93 games was so frustrating).

Can the Tigers expect their rotation to remain as healthy and fit in 2014 as it was in 2013? If Justin Verlander’s offseason, non-baseball related injury is any kind of portent, the answer is no. More worrisome is that 125 years of baseball history also suggests no. That’s why good front offices enter every season counting on and planning for a few rotation injuries and missed starts.

Oct 10, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) pitches against the Oakland Athletics during the eighth inning in game five of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game at Coliseum. The Detroit Tigers defeated the Oakland Athletics 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

So, where does that leave the Tigers entering 2014? Frankly, it leaves them hoping they can once again buck the odds, cold comfort for an organization desperate to win now. Currently, Detroit’s rotation pitching depth is about as shallow as the kiddie wading pool. There’s Jose Alvarez and his 5.82 ERA in six 2013 starts and sparkling 2014 ZIPS projections (-0.7 WAR and another 5.82 ERA). Then there’s… Casey Crosby (-1.2 WAR projection)? Robbie Ray? Kyle Lobstein? Drew Verhagen? I’ll stop here, because, well that’s pretty much where the possibilities end, with a AA prospect most Tiger fans, even those who casually follow the minors, know little about.  There are no lipsticks on pigs here. The picture of Detroit’s starting pitching options after Rick Porcello is grim.

But before Tiger fans break out into a cold sweat they can take some solace in recent markers that suggest Detroit’s 2013 rotation health may have been due to something other than just luck.  Now for some context. In all of major league baseball in 2013 the average number of starts teams gave to pitchers who could be termed rotation depth was 32 (thanks to Fangraphs for the research and methodology). That’s 32 starts to pitchers who were not considered part of a team’s core five.  Determining the core five of every franchise is a bit messy because an organization’s best five can change over the course of a season. Nonetheless, rotation depth attempts to pinpoint the number of starts given to pitchers who wouldn’t have started except for a missed start by someone the franchise deems better. Alvarez’s six starts represent the entirety of starts the Tigers gave to pitching depth in 2013. Other contenders were not so lucky. The Red Sox gave 18 starts to its pitching depth. The Dodgers 27. The Rangers more than 40.

The number tends to fluctuate from year to year for every franchise, some being kissed by lady luck one year and then stung the next. The Giants, for instance, gave 25 starts to pitching depth in 2013 and only one start in 2012 (a year, not coincidentally, SF won the World Series). The Tigers, however, have been remarkably consistent over the last three years. In 2012, Detroit only gave 10 starts to rotation depth. In 2011, the number was 10 again. In 2010, the number rose to 17, high but still below the league average (and disconcerting because the Tigers failed to finish atop the Central division after 162 games for the only time in the last five years). Does this trend mean anything? One could interpret in these results that the Tigers know something about keeping starting pitchers healthy. Or that the Tigers rotation is composed of pitcher’s blessed with a natural ability to stay healthy. Or that the Tigers have simply been damn lucky. Whatever the reasons, the Tigers are, once again, banking on this trend to continue, because as outlined above the options after Rick Porcello are lean, not lean as in hale and hearty but lean as in the portions on a Weight Watchers diet.

June 26, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Jose Alvarez (52) pitches in the second inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers know Alvarez’s limitations, and Crosby is likely to be moved to the bullpen. The next best options are a fringy lefty (Lobstein), a sinkerballer who made a handful of starts at AA (Verhagen) and the man involved in the infamous Doug Fister trade (Ray). None of these three have major league experience and only one has pitched above Triple A (Lobstein). And none of them cause prospect mavens to do cartwheels. They all have limited upside and numbingly dull WAR projections for 2014 that range from -0.7 (Ray’s Oliver projection) to the 0.4 (Verhagen’s ZIPS projection).

Young pitching depth was a prime motivator behind the Fister trade, according to Dave Dombrowski. I suspect he’s comfortable (at least more than the rest of us) with moving Robbie Ray into the starting rotation, if necessary. If there is a lengthy or season-ending injury to one of the Tiger starters, especially the top three of Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez, Tiger fans can only hope that what Dombrowski and his Tiger scouts see in Ray, and what just about no one else does, emerges quickly. The Tigers can probably overcome the loss of Porcello or Smyly. The difference between each of them and a replacement is, according to ZIPS, about 2 wins over the course of the season. That would probably tighten the Central Division race but not cripple the Tigers chances of a fourth consecutive division title. To lose one of the top 3, however, could result in a 3-5 win drop (according to ZIPS). And if that doesn’t unsettle the stomach of Tiger fans, to lose two of any combination of the core five would set off fire alarms all over Comerica.

The Tigers apparently don’t have the budget to add reliable pitching depth (although Masahiro Tanaka would certainly shore up the problem). And a trade seems unlikely, given the franchise’s lack of decent trade chips. That leaves the organization and its fans one option, tiresomely mentioned twice earlier in this article: hope the trend of the last three years continues.  Three-fifths of the rotation, however, is now on the bad side of 30, and  those three represent the top end of the rotation. Buckle up for what could be a hair-raising ride.