Spring Training is boiling down with Opening Day so close we can taste it on our tongues. However, for the Tigers the big question marks that hung above the skipper's head before Spring Training remain: Who will be the Tigers fifth starter? And who will be the Tigers closer?
It's not the hairy beast above. Despite his fluid mechanics and his intimidating mane, he has been suspended for the season by the MLB for violating the league's drug policy. Apparently he tested positive for three different anabolic steroids, and a low-grade beaver tranquilizer. That's too bad because both jobs were his to lose.
The competition for the fifth spot with the options being Nate Robertson, Rick Porcello, Dontrelle Willis and Zach Miner. Jim Leyland announced this past week that Zach Miner was 99.9% out of the running for the fifth rotation spot, leaving Robertson, Porcello and Willis to battle to the death for it. Oddly enough, Miner may still wind up in the Tigers rotation to start the season even though it may not be the fifth spot. He could be the fill in for Bonderman, who is unlikely to start the season in the rotation because he got a late start to his Spring Training due to complications with his surgically repaired shoulder.
Nate Robertson was about as good as clipped from consideration until he decided to turn things around. He has somehow managed to improve his Spring Training ERA to 3.09 (best out of the four) and put himself in a position to actually make himself and his absurd $7 million contract useful. I've always been a big fan of his gum-time rally, so obviously I have a soft spot in my forgiving heart for him. He's not a favorite amongst most Tigers fans, but for a fifth starter Nate has been serviceable in years past. He's reliable in that he eats up innings and I wouldn't say he's completely terrible; he tends to have his fair share of quality starts. Even last year when his ERA was above six, he was actually good in his 11 day-game starts (3.94 ERA). If I had to guess, with his contract and all the concerns about starting a kid (I'll get to that later) it appears that Nate will be the guy. However, he just hurt his hand in his last start (which was looking like it was going to be another poor one), so we may be back to square one.
Rick Porcello has been coined the lovechild of Josh Becket and Justin Verlander. However, everyone is so freaking concerned with him being 20-years old. In my opinion, just because you can't go out and legally get trashed after the game doesn't mean you can't pitch in the big leagues. In fact, there is a nice little list of pitchers that have thrown in the bigs at the age of 20:
2000 Rick Ankiel: 175 IP (MLB)
2001 CC Sabathia: 180 IP (MLB)
2002 Oliver Perez: 90 IP (MLB) + 72 IP (A+, AA) = 162 IP
2003 Jeremy Bonderman: 162 IP (MLB)
2004 Zack Greinke: 145 IP (MLB) + 29 IP (AAA) = 174 IP
2005 Felix Hernandez: 84 IP (MLB) + 88 IP (AAA) = 172 IP
2008 Clayton Kershaw: 107 IP (MLB) + 72 IP (A+, AA) = 179 IP
(from Bless You Boys)
Yet, everyone is so caught up with the idea that he needs to throw some innings at the AA and AAA levels and that breaking camp with him on the team could ruin him. How? He'll be pitching, just as he would be in AA or AAA. Yes, struggling in the MLB could mess with him mentally, but if he's as good as everyone is saying he is then he will adjust. If he can't, then a mentally weak kid is not the type of guy we need anyway. We probably don't need to worry about him not adjusting, though. What's probably most impressive about him thus far this spring has been his ability to get out of trouble early in his outings, which can most likely be attributed to same type of nerves he'll face if he's named a starter. We have a gaping hole in our rotation and we have this golden armed kid who has been proving this spring against top tier minor leaguers and big leaguers that he is worth a serious look at being in the Tigers rotation this season.
Then there's Dontrelle Willis. If it weren't for the $10 million he's making this year and the $12 million he's set to make next year, he probably would be in the Independant League right now. He's sporting a modest 12.46 ERA and walking as many hitters as innings pitched. It's pretty much a means to an end for this guy. It can probably be best summed up by the following quote from a scout:
"There are three things that stuck out for me when I saw him [Dontrelle] this spring," he began. "First, he's a lot heavier—his thighs are enormous, and I think that impedes his athleticism on the mound, as he can't contort his body the way he used to. Second, his mechanics are different. They've 'cleaned up' his delivery, but that actually makes him less effective, because it's taken away his deception. He was a freak before, and would never throw the same pitch from the same slot, but now he's just an ordinary three-quarters [delivery] guy." Using his final point to explain how these physical issues may be effecting him mentally, he continued, "Third, his mound presence and demeanor are different. He looks content to survive and does not display any confidence out there. He worked behind most hitters and would shake off his catcher—almost as if to say 'it's OK, I got it'—whenever he would fall into trouble...Will has no shot against a Major League lineup and doesn't look anywhere close to suitable for a spot in a starting rotation."Certainly, Willis and Robertson's contracts have kept them around longer, but will it seal them a chance once the season begins next week? Who do you think should be our fifth starter?
Then there's the relatively easier question to answer: Who will be the closer for the Tigers?
It's certainly looking like Brandon Lyon is the guy. Yesterday's game we had Rodney pitch the 8th and Lyon close in the 9th (a game they both blew). However, the kid Ryan Perry looks like he could be the guy who might end the season as the closer. He has a 0.93 ERA this Spring with 11 K's in 9.1 innings pitched and looks absolutely filthy. He could be the Tigers 2009 version of the 2006 Zumaya and may in fact fill in for Zumaya to start the season while Zoom gets in game shape. He won't start the season as the closer since that seems to be Lyon's job with Rodney being the predominant set up guy, but he may begin with Rodney's 2006 role as the main 7th inning guy. Either way, I don't think there's any question that Perry is the closer of the future (assuming Zumaya continues walking around with that huge "FRAGILE" sign on his forehead).
Opening Day is just 8 days and 21 hours away so start mentally preparing, filling your cooler, and ironing your game day jersey. It's going to be a great holiday. Go Tigers.