Detroit Tigers’ Pitchers Strain To Hit The Right Notes


Although the Detroit Tigers’ pitching staff is tuning up in Florida, they’re not all singing from the same hymnbook.

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Though some hurlers are already in perfect harmony, others haven’t quite found their voice.

Most worrisome are those who are entirely off-key.

With Opening Day set for April 6th in Detroit, it’s imperative they get their act together quickly.

So let’s take a peek at the dress rehearsal currently drawing to a close in Florida to get a sense of whether this Tiger pitching staff is ready for prime time.

(Spring training ERA’s appear in parentheses)

Starting Pitchers

Staff ace David Price (5.76) has been tinkering with a new curveball.

Perhaps that’s the reason he had a desultory spring, which included getting hit hard Tuesday in his final appearance before Opening Day.

But if we have to worry about Price, we might just as well stop right here.

So let’s proceed.

Anibal Sanchez (4.38) has been rounding into form, as evidenced by his ten strikeouts in six innings against the Phillies on March 29th.

As always, the issue with Sanchez is not his arsenal, which is widely considered the best on the staff.

It’s whether or not he stays healthy.

If he avoids the disabled list, 200 innings from the right hander would go a long way toward ameliorating the loss of Max Scherzer.

One of the prime questions entering spring training was which Justin Verlander (5.63) would show up in Lakeland–someone approximating his former dominating self or the eminently hittable hurler of 2014.

The answer remains elusive, because although his velocity has been acceptable (low to mid-90’s) and his curveball improved, he’s been hit rather hard. To complicate matters, Verlander’s been diagnosed with a right triceps strain, which though reportedly not serious has placed him on the disabled list to start the season.

The Tigers can ill afford a setback to any member of their starting rotation, leastwise their former ace who remains vital to their success.

Shane Greene (3.95) is slotted as the fourth starter and at least in the early going has shown he may be able to compensate for the loss of Rick Porcello. Of course Porcello, with 76 career wins to his credit (versus five for Greene), has done it over the long haul.

One also has to wonder why the starting pitching-starved New York Yankees, who knew Greene best, would trade him. With Greene coming off a moderate breakout season last year at the age of 25, his acquisition could be a classic boom or bust move for the Tigers.

Thirty three-year-old Alfredo Simon (5.56) arrives in Detroit after making the National League All-Star team as a Cincinnati Red last year.

Unfortunately, after a strong first half he was mediocre down the stretch and has struggled to put it together this spring. The hard-throwing right hander has about six different pitches and may simply need more time to corral his diverse portfolio.

He’ll be granted ample opportunity to do just that, as at this point there is precious little behind him.

Relief Pitchers

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Unless forty year-old closer Joe Nathan (4.76) gets his act together quickly (we’re talking April here), he’ll soon be a dead man walking.

Sadly, any reprise of his 2014 tendencies will probably result in the Tigers paying him $11 million to go away.

Unquestionably, the bullpen sets up far better with Nathan throwing well.

But his spring training has been uneven, and a less-than-perfect Nathan (dare we even imagine an Opening Day blown save?) will ensure the decibel level reached by Comerica’s boo birds this April will far exceed that of the Rolling Stones, who play Copa in July.

All is not lost, though, as there is some good news at the back end of the pen.

Joakim Soria (0.00) has had a pristine spring and should flourish out of the box in an eighth inning set-up role. Soria has a solid track record, is only 30, and should have several good years left in his arm. With 178 career saves, he should also fit in seamlessly at closer should Nathan falter.

Bruce Rondon (4.91) was seemingly fully recovered from arm troubles until suffering shoulder soreness on Wednesday, and will again begin the season on the disabled list.

As always, his unavailability is a severe blow to the bullpen and bodes ill for the team’s fortunes. Considering his long-term importance to the the franchise, he should be shelved indefinitely and dealt with conservatively from this point forward.

Al Alburquerque (3.38) has quietly had a sturdy spring and will again be employed as the sixth or seventh inning set-up guy. His mid-90’s heater and virtually unhittable slider serve him extremely well when he’s throwing strikes, which is generally the case.

Late signee Joba Chamberlain (7.00) was expected to buttress the right handed relief corps, but has had an unspeakable spring.

Though he’ll probably be given time to work things out, after last year’s pedestrian second half and playoff meltdown expect the front office to act quickly if he doesn’t show something soon.

The Tigers like right handed prospect Angel Nesbitt(2.77), but he’s not pitched above AA and could profit from a stint in Toledo to begin the year. His stuff is genuine–a high-90’s fastball and respectable secondary pitches–and his command is surprisingly advanced.

Nesbitt’s chances to head north with the team greatly improved Thursday with the news Bruce Rondon will begin the season on the disabled list.

Free agent veteran Tom Gorzelanny (6.48) was signed to anchor the left side of the pen but has been sporadic in Lakeland. As a veteran with an established body of work, he’ll be granted a chance to gather himself.

But as with Chamberlain, the Tigers’ patience will be measured.

Ian Krol (3.86), the lone survivor of the Doug Fister trade, has re-dedicated himself to his craft and the results have been evident this spring.

He is working on a cutter to complement a mid-90’s fastball, but needs to throw more strikes. Still only 23, if he figures things out he could be that power left hander the Tiger bullpen so desperately needs.

Though not a power arm, Kyle Ryan (6.23) is on the short list of available lefties in the bullpen.

The converted starter tacks on a couple miles per hour as a reliever (to 91-92 mph) and has a solid make-up. Depending on how things break this season, he could find himself pitching anywhere from starter to long reliever to situational lefty.

Blaine Hardy (4.35) is the fourth left hander under consideration for bullpen duty. With average stuff, he’s had a nondescript spring and does not project beyond the “serviceable” category.

Nonetheless he pitched well in spurts in limited duty last year and if he doesn’t crack the Opening Day roster, will appear with the big club at some point this year.

The Bottom Line

If you visualize a contending major league team as a three-legged stool, supported equally by offense, defense, and pitching, the Detroit Tigers have two of the three legs solidly in place–offense and defense.

That leaves pitching as the weakest pillar.

With the loss of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello from last year’s staff, it appears the starting rotation will be diminished, though a full season of David Price, a healthy Anibal Sanchez, and a rejuvenated Justin Verlander could conceivably compensate for their loss.

Aside from their respective success last year, neither Shane Greene nor Alfredo Simon is an established long-term major league starter.

The Tigers are thus vulnerable in the four and five slots in the rotation, and a serious dip in production from either or both could easily torpedo their fortunes in what is expected to be a tight fight for the American League Central Division title.

But the greater concern is the bullpen.

Given the full off-season to fill the team’s gaping needs in this department, it appears coming out of spring training that the Tigers yet again came up short.

To be fair to general manager Dave Dombrowski and his lieutenants who have to make difficult personnel decisions within a financial context, they’ve once again assembled an exciting, competitive team.

But as far as the bullpen is concerned, one is reminded of that 1960’s hit by Detroit’s own Four Tops, who’ll appear at Comerica Park on Opening Day:

“It’s The Same Old Song.”

Great tune.

But maybe it’s time for some new sheet music.

Next: Verlander and Rondon fallout