Rotation has talent but also question marks for Tigers in 2015

Det SPIt’s time now to take a look at the 2015 Detroit Tigers’ starting pitching.

JUSTIN VERLANDER. The biggest question mark on the team, JV is coming off the worst season of his career, which followed off-season “core surgery.” He’s put on muscle and bulk and says he is stronger and ready to resume his role as the Detroit ace. Will his velocity return as well? That’s highly doubtful; most pitchers on the wrong side of thirty will continue to lose some heat and must learn how to compensate. Verlander is well equipped to do just that. He’s always been a hard worker, trying to hone his craft and perfect his secondary pitches, diligently studying his mechanics and the tendencies of opposing batters. He’s got a versatile arsenal and plenty of savvy, and no one’s ever questioned his discipline and determination. Will those admirable qualities get Verlander back to being something close to the MVP he once was? The Tigers will settle for less than that. But if they don’t get significantly more out of JV than they did in 2014, Detroit is in deep trouble.

DAVID PRICE. The club is blessed with another ace who can pitch deep into games. Whether his sojourn with Detroit turns out to be brief or not, Price has made it clear he doesn’t want long-term contract negotiations to interfere in any way with this season. Price has been consistently healthy and dependable throughout his career, piling up innings and striking out hitters even when he’s not always overwhelmingly dominant. Price set significant and very impressive new personal highs last season to lead the AL in innings pitched (248), strikeouts (271), and batters faced (1,009). Those numbers make him something of a throwback to the days before pitch limits made starters sit down before their job was finished. Set to turn just twenty-eight this season, Price is in his prime. The Tigers can count on him to get them to the eighth inning and beyond, give their bullpen a break, and give them a chance to win his starts. The lefty would be the undisputed staff ace on most teams.

ANIBAL SANCHEZ. Talk about an embarrassment of riches! The No. 3 starter could also be the No. 1 for many other teams. Consistently underrated and undervalued, Sanchez was lost in the shadow of Verlander and Max Scherzer—and now Price. But Sanchez by almost any measure is a huge asset if he’s healthy, as he again purports to be. In 2013, he quietly notched a league-best 2.57 ERA, allowing only 0.4 homers per nine innings. Last year was ruined by injuries, though when he did pitch Sanchez was usually just fine. In sum, Detroit’s big three is comprised of the league strikeout and innings pitched leader of 2014, the ERA champ of 2013, the strikeout and innings pitched leader of 2011 and 2012, and the ERA champ, Cy Young, and MVP winner of 2011. On reputation and on paper—if Verlander and Sanchez are close to 100 percent—this is a trio that should make Detroit a post-season favorite, if they can get there.

ALFREDO SIMON. Unfortunately, there’s a big fall-off after the big three, and it starts with this career reliever who performed unexpectedly well in the Reds’ rotation last year but wore down, not surprisingly, in the last months of the season. In 2014 Simon pitched an astounding eighty more innings than in any previous season in his pro career. “Big Pasta” is an unspectacular but efficient groundball pitcher who performed very well in all three of his seasons with Cincinnati, with ERAs under 3.00 (until he ran out of gas late last year and the ERA ballooned), a huge improvement over his previous years with Baltimore, when his ERA was nudging 5.00. For a No. 4 starter, the Tigers could do much worse. But Simon is turning thirty-four in May. Can he duplicate 2014? It’s hard to say. Will he hit the wall after the All-Star break? Probably. To help him get through the season, manager Brad Ausmus would be wise to limit him to five or six innings and well under 100 pitches in most of his outings.

SHANE GREENE. Only twenty-six and a rookie last year with the Yankees, Greene is a candidate to be the No. 5 starter since he performed adequately when thrust into the injury-decimated, patchwork New York rotation. Ideally, however, he should be pitching out of the bullpen. The quirky Greene boasts an array of hard-to-identify pitches, not to say trick pitches. He threw 145 innings between Triple A and the Yankees in 2014, and Detroit shouldn’t count on much more. He is a fringe fifth starter at best and will likely be hard pressed to take a rotation turn all season.

KYLE LOBSTEIN. By all rights, this young command-and-control left-hander, who made his MLB debut last season, should lay claim to the No. 5 spot. He doesn’t have heat (90 mph at his very best) or overwhelming stuff, but the Tigers will give him a long look this spring and this season. The best possible outcome would be for Lobstein to step way up and become the No. 4, leaving Simon and Greene to split starting assignments and help the rotation limp to the finish line. More likely, Lobstein will replace Greene, or Greene will replace Lobstein, in the No. 5 spot at some point during the season. And it’s very possible that Lobstein won’t be ready to carry the load and Detroit will need to find someone else, somewhere, to shore up the back end of the rotation.

Next time I’ll look at the source of great debate and weakness on this team in recent seasons — the Detroit bullpen.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.