While the Detroit Tigers' pitching staff was successful in 2012, the bullpen was average at best. Their ERA of 3.79 was only the 10th best in the American League out of 14 teams. The starters helped carry the Tigers' pitching staff, as the back end of the bullpen had the worst ERA of any AL team from the eighth inning on, with 4.07.
I believe that the pitching staff will have an overall better year in 2013.
This upcoming season, there are three key reasons why the bullpen and the starters will experience more success.
The Detroit Tigers' bullpen has gotten younger, starting with odds-on favorite closer candidate Bruce Rondon.
Rondon, who is 22 years old and can throw over 100 mph, has the ability to have a one-two-three inning, even though he has a tendency to be wild as well. If Rondon can lower his 5.1 walks per nine inning minor league average, then he should find long-term success as a closer.
Rondon isn't the only relief pitcher that will be a difference maker this season. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal are expected to make the Tigers' roster out of spring training.
After Villarreal had inflammation in his pitching elbow this winter, there were questions about whether the injury would linger—though it appears he's healthy. Villarreal told the Detroit Free Press:
I didn't feel anything at all, sore or anything, Villarreal said. I felt great -- 100%.
Last season, Villarreal appeared in 50 games, pitched 54.2 innings and had an ERA of 2.63. He only allowed 38 hits but gave up 28 walks to go along with his 66 strikeouts. If Villarreal can harness his control and cut down on the walks, then he could provide a huge boost to the Tigers' bullpen.
Alburquerque, who missed most of the 2012 season due to surgery on his right elbow, only pitched 13.1 innings in the regular season. He should give the bullpen a tremendous boost being able to contribute from the start of the 2013 season.
While Alburquerque got a lot of publicity for kissing the ball before throwing it to first base in the 2012 ALDS against the Oakland A's, Tigers fans know how valuable he is. In his two seasons in the major leagues, he has a 13.5 K:9 ratio and a 1.59 ERA.
With numbers like those, Alburquerque is going to play a significant part in helping to improve the pitching staff along with Villarreal and Rondon. The Tigers could be looking at the pitchers of the future who will handle the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings.
If these three young pitchers live up to the Tigers' expectations, they will help the pitching staff greatly improve on its one weak spot from last season: The back end of the bullpen.
The Detroit Tigers' pitching staff should benefit from a pitching competition between Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.
Porcello, who has been linked to trade rumors all offseason including a possible deal with the Baltimore Orioles for J.J. Hardy, should have extra motivation to prove that he belongs in the Tigers' rotation.
Smyly, on the other hand, wants to win the No. 5 pitching competition outright. He discussed the friendly competition between he and Porcello on Jan. 23 with Steve Kaminski of MLive.com:
Rick and I our [sic] best friends on the team, said Smyly, 23, of Maumelle, Ark. We connected well and did a lot of things together all last season. He’s a competitor, I’m a competitor, we both want to be there, we both want to win. It sounds like a cliché, but we both want to help the team win.
My goal is to be back on the Tigers. I was in almost the exact same spot a year ago where I had to come in and compete for a job. All you can do is go there and play and show them what you have.
While either Porcello or Smyly will win the No. 5 rotation spot coming out of spring training, count on them to push each other throughout the season to try and prove they belong as starters. This will ensure that neither player will become complacent during the year.
The No. 1 reason why the Detroit Tigers' pitching staff will be better in 2013 is motivation. The top two pitchers in the rotation, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, are pitching for large contracts and they have the best source of motivation fueling them: Money.
Verlander is probably one of the most competitive pitchers in baseball and is looking to prove that he deserves a new contract extension. There is no debate that Verlander will get paid either by the Tigers or another club if he hits the market after the 2014 season in free agency. The only question is, how much will he receive?
Watch Verlander's bulldog mentality on the mound, and it's not a stretch to assume that he is eying the new seven-year, $175 million contract pitcher Felix Hernandez signed with the Seattle Mariners and wants to trump it. Hernandez's deal alone could be enough to push Verlander to have an even stronger season in 2013.
If Verlander and the Tigers do agree on a deal before the regular season starts, you can count on Verlander finding something else to motivate him.
Scherzer, who agreed to a one-year deal with the Tigers—worth $6.725 million—on Feb. 4, is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2014 season. He told Jason Beck of MLB.com that he wants to stay in Detroit long-term:
My preference is I love Detroit. I love the city. I love being part of this organization, Scherzer said. I love being part of this organization because of the winning atmosphere that comes from the owner that goes down to the GM, that goes down to management, that goes down to everybody. Not every organization has that, and to be part of an organization that's all about winning, it's something you want to be a part of.
And so, if they would want to include me in their long-term plans, I want to be a part of it because of the atmosphere and culture here in Detroit.
Scherzer had a very strong 2012 season, during which he had a 16-7 record with a 3.74 ERA and a strikeout ratio of 11.1:9. Yet, questions remain from fans about whether Scherzer can repeat his success in 2013.
The one problem is that Scherzer doesn't have a track record of consistent pitching success, so expect him to be highly motivated in order to prove his skeptics wrong and show that he deserves a long-term deal, either from the Tigers or another team.
If Scherzer can stay healthy and produce anything close to his 2012 season, then the Tigers will be very comfortable with their pitching staff.
Verlander and Scherzer's motivation will be the strongest signs that the Tigers' pitching will be improved in 2013.
*Stats from baseball-reference.com