This is the article I wanted to write for my Bleacher Report debut. Still, I wanted to write it under more pleasant circumstances.
I had intended to open this piece as follows: "I have not officially given up on the Detroit Tigers in 2008, but the key word in this sentence is 'officially.' With that in mind, it couldn't hurt to take a look ahead at what Motor City baseball fans can expect next season." And, over the course of last night's loss to the Chicago White Sox, I kept alternating that opening in my head with one lamenting the failures of the team that not only didn't win the World Series they were clearly built for, but may not even finish at .500.
To be sure, the Tigers are still not exactly out of it. However, they are perilously close to 2007 Phillies territory at this point, except they need two teams to collapse and, unfortunately, neither of those teams are the Mets.
So, given the bleak outlook for the rest of 2008, let's begin our look at 2009 with perhaps the lone pleasant surprise of the season, Armando Galarraga.
The Tigers' run to the 2006 World Series certainly featured a capable lineup, but it was primarily fueled by spectacular pitching. Not one starter that spent any considerable time in the rotation had an ERA of 5.00 or above. Nate Robertson, despite a lackluster 13-13 record, posted an ERA of 3.84, the exact same number posted by teammate Kenny Rogers. Justin Verlander put up an ERA that was .21 runs better. Jeremy Bonderman came in with a very solid 4.08, and even rookie Zach Miner (who took over for Mike Maroth and his 4.19 later in the season) rounded out the starters with a serviceable 4.84.
The primary starters in 2006 posted an ERA of 3.97 (including any relief work). Toss in seven starts by Wilfredo Ledezma, who posted an overall ERA of 3.58 (also including work from the bullpen), and you're looking at an opportunity to be protecting leads as games wear on.
One of the team's keys to success in 2006 was reliability from their starters. They pitched well, but equally as important, they pitched often. Four men started at least thirty games in 2006. That number was cut in half in 2007 (Verlander, Robertson), and the number of pitchers starting ten or more games rose from five to seven. The lack of stability had its effects. The rotation saw only a single sub-four ERA in 2007, Justin Verlander's 3.66. After seeing three pitchers accomplish the feat a year earlier, only Verlander logged 200 innings.
After dominating one season prior, the pitchers doing the bulk of the starting for Detroit in 2007 saw their ERA jump well over half a run to 4.62.
While batting has not overall been a problem in recent years for Detroit, though timely hitting could be considered another matter entirely, Detroit's 2009 fate is inexorably tied to the performance of its rotation. Of whom will that consist?
Armando Galarraga. He has been a rock for the Tigers so far. The twenty-six-year-old has posted the team's only sub-four ERA, a 3.23 in twenty appearances, nineteen of which have been starts. He will undoubtedly garner some consideration for the AL Rookie of the Year award, and might have a chance at winning it in an alternate reality where Evan Longoria does not exist. Considering that the Tigers shipped Michael Hernandez (who?) to the Texas Rangers for Galarraga, and he is no longer even in the organization, it seems safe to say that the organization is satisfied with his performance, and rightfully so.
Nothing is going to stand in the way of Galarraga figuring prominently in the 2009 rotation. He has shown that he knows how to throw, he knows how to pitch, and he has showcased considerable consistency. And while that entire list is important, Armando's delivery on the last item is what sets him apart from his teammates, at least so far.
Pencil Galarraga in as the second or third starter for next season.
Jeremy Bonderman. Given what Bonderman was supposed to mean to this organization, especially pre-Verlander, it is somewhat surprising that the pitcher has never once broken four in ERA for a season. Bonderman came to Detroit by way of the Jeff Weaver trade. The trade has been a mixed bag. Bonderman has shown all the potential in the world at times, and it's next to impossible to find a pitcher his age with as much major league service as Bondo. The A's (mostly receiving Yankee's starter Ted Lilly in the deal) also shipped Franklyn German, no longer with the organization or of any consequence to anyone, and Carlos Pena, never terribly productive for the Tigers but the 2007 AL Comeback Player of the Year for Tampa Bay, and selected Bonderman as the "player to be named later" to complete the trade. He was heiled as the man to carry the pitching staff into the future. The story hasn't exactly played out that way.
Bonderman has electric stuff on the hill, and no one questions that. However, he is a notoriously slow starter, boasting an astronomical first-inning ERA, and while he has dominated in stretches, he suffers from interminable inconsistency.
After being shut down early to avoid the stigma of losing twenty games for the moribund 2003 Tigers, Bonderman showed maturation beyond his years as he toiled on the hill for a generally very bad baseball team, culminating in a 14-8 record and 4.08 ERA in 2006 as the much-improved Tigers won the American League. Since, however, his ERA is up to 4.81 in forty starts, showing little improvement from the 4.97 he recorded in his first three seasons.
To add to the uncertainty, he is now lost for the season due to Thoracic outlet syndrome, the same condition that sidelined Kenny Rogers in 2007, partially responsible for destabilizing the team's pitching situation.
Bonderman will compete with Galarraga for the second or third spot in the rotation next season, assuming a timely recovery. Where he gets slotted may rely on the development of his change up, a pitch he has worked diligently to develop in addition to his very effective slider and fastball.
Justin Verlander. It is troubling to think just how close the Tigers came to losing Verlander after selecting him in the first round of the 2004 MLB Draft. Contract negotiations between the Tigers and Verlander's agent were going nowhere, and the club had finally had enough. Upon getting wind of this, the disconnect between the Verlander family and the negotiation process quickly became apparent, and the organization and prospect spoke directly and quickly reached an accord.
Since, then, Verlander has dominated the minor leagues, won 43 games (all as a starter), posted a 3.94 ERA, made an All-Star appearance, thrown a no-hitter, and established himself as the Tigers' ace. He can hit triple digits with his fastball and shows excellent movement on his breaking pitches, including a superb curveball.
Despite a rocky start this season, he won six straight decisions and pitched very well froim June to July, even getting his ERA to dip below four, down from a season-high of 7.03 on April 17. So even as he continues to experience the growing pains of a young Major League pitcher, he has shown the ability to be effective for long stretches and to take a pitching staff on his back.
Verlander is the unquestioned ace next season. You can mark that down in pen.
Nate Robertson. Robertson is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the Detroit pitchers. The best pitching performance I have witnessed by a Tiger in person was a 0-1 loss to the New York Yankees in 2005, in which Nate, despite allowing ten baserunners, still only needed 110 pitches to get through nine innings against the Yankees' potent lineup. It seemed all but sure that if the Tigers were somehow able to tie the game in the ninth, Nate would trot out to the mound to start the tenth.
Of course, that quickly became a moot point.
For a back-end starter, Robertson has been adequate, but any given start could see him explode into an all-around dominant pitching clinic. The trouble is that never has Robertson exhibited this ability consistently. And while I'm never in the clubhouse or around the team to verify this, it just seems as though his teammates don't like him very much, as he never seems to get the run support other starters enjoy. This was highlighted clearly in 2006 by his stellar 3.84 ERA and 13-13 win-loss record. But just watching the games, I have always gotten the feeling that the guys don't even defend with the same intensity they do most days.
That being said, Nate has over and over shown the ability to self-destruct, as well. All too often a great start turns on a dime to either a precarious or disastrous one. Last night's game is a prime example, as Nate allowed a two-run home run in the sixth to take what had been a nice start and cast a feeling of uncertainty over the whole situation. More so than any other pitcher on the team, Nate's consistency is what holds him back.
Figure Robertson to start in the four spot.
Dontrelle Willis. Willis is effectively done for 2008, but given the three-year commitment the Tigers made to him after his acquisition from the Marlins, it seems unlikely they are inclined to completely give up on the former prodigy, especially considering they only hope for him to fill the role of fifth starter.
Dontrelle Willis exploded onto the baseball scene in 2003 with the eventual World Champion Florida Marlins. His career began with a 9-1 record, a 2.08 ERA, two shutouts (though one was as five-inning affair), and an All-Star selection. Yet, even in that first season, something emerged that Willis has turned into an undesirable trend, weak second half numbers. In the second half of the season, he went 5-5, saw his ERA jump to 4.08, recorded no complete games, and pitched four fewer innings than in the first half, despite one more appearance. He was even worse in the postseason, going 0-1 with a 8.53 ERA in seven appearances, two of them starts.
To drive the point home, glance at his career numbers:
First half - 42-25, 12 CG, 6 SHO, 3.61 ERA
Second half - 26-30, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 4.15 ERA
Basically, he hasn't been a complete disaster in the second half, but he is far from the dominating force he has so often been early in the year.
Still, Willis continued to be effective throughout his career, never posting an ERA in excess of 4.02 through 2006. Then, in 2007, his numbers spiked. While his records rarely indicated his effectiveness due to poor team performance, he went 10-15, never previously coming in more than a single game under .500, his ERA was 5.17, and his WHIP jumped from 1.419 in 2006 (then a career-worst) to 1.597. Once again, the second half was particularly brutal, a 3-8 record and a 5.74 ERA.
The Marlins, always offering a steadfast refusal to all trade proposals, sent out the message that they were finally willing to part with their former phenom, and the Tigers swooped in with a blockbuster trade designed to pack the Marlins with talent for years to come and deliver the Tigers a much-desired World Series title. Florida believed something was wrong.
Thus far, the Marlins appear to have been right. Nothing is more telling about Dontrelle's Detroit tenure than the following: he has only pitched 11.1 innings and has made only four starts. And that tiny number of innings also includes one relief appearance. Some speculate he's been hurt, others feel that he's gotten too big to maintain all of those moving parts in his delivery. Even before he took the field for the Tigers, many pundits opined that Willis had been declining in effectiveness for some time now, and that he may never be the same.
The Tigers certainly hope that's not the case. Expect them to work extensively with the embattled starter between now and Opening Day '09, and don't be surprised when he trots out to the mound on the fifth day of the season.
The inning eaters. The Tigers have some decent options for long relief next season, perhaps in contrast to first impressions. Zach Miner has pitched the most innings of any Tigers that is primarily a reliever, 62, has a respectable 3.77 ERA, and can serve as a spot starter. He can definitely give the team two or three innings and seems to have fared better as a reliever in the past two seasons than he did starting sixteen games in 2006. He can be one of the primary bridges between the rotation and the late-inning guys.
The next guy on the list of big inning relievers would be journeyman Aquilino Lopez. The Tigers haven't really got any better options, so it would make sense for them to re-sign Lopez this Winter. He's a guy that's bounced around, but in limited innings has put up an acceptable 3.71 ERA, including 3.17 so far this season for the Tigers. Just so long as they can forget about that 5.19 from last season, expect Lopez to be the other long-inning option out of the '09 'pen.
Another possibility for the bullpen is Eddie Bonine. Bonine has thus far started five games for the Tigers in 2008, and might make a Miner-esque bullpen move for the Tigers next year if he performs well in spring training.
The specialists. Of late, Bobby Seay has been perhaps the best reliever the Tigers have, posting a stellar 2.35 ERA, including no earned runs in his last 8.1 innings of work. Additionally, right-handers have not been able to touch Seay, hitting a mere .190 against him. He should continue to be an integral and reliable member of this team's bullpen for years to come.
Freddy Dolsi is an unproven commodity, but he has spent the vast majority of his time this season in the majors, and has pitched fairly well, if inconsistently. It's obvious to all that he is a young pitcher vulnerable to getting overwhelmed by the moment, but as the season has worn on he has shown a few stretches of effectiveness. If he can bring his career 3.58 ERA from the minor leagues and even out his performances, he will certainly find a place, most likely in the Tigers' seventh.
The late innings. Fernando Rodney is a guy that has survived in the Tigers organization for quite some time now, since being drafted by the team in 1997 to be exact. He made his big league debut in 2002, but aside from a superlative 2005 and surprising 2006, he has showcased more bark than bite. Armed with one of the premier change ups in all of baseball, Rodney is a well-located fastball away from becoming a dominant force on the bump. Trouble is, he has never been able to locate what is, for most, the pitch easiest to locate. Despite the rumors that Detroit was willing to trade Rodney at the deadline, it seems unlikely that they will allow a player with a pitch like that change up to walk out the door for nothing. Rodney figures to fit into a platoon with our next pitcher at the back end of the bullpen.
Lastly, the bullpen would love to see the return of the 2006 Joel Zumaya. He may not have 104 MPH heat anymore, but even back in '06 there was evidence that he was beginning to throw less and pitch more. His fastball is obviously overpowering, and his change up is effective by virtue of his velocity, but he also features a big league hook, and if he can locate it, as well as stay healthy, the Tigers should be much closer to a fully functional pitching staff.
The others. Of course, it's pretty rare to see a staff, especially a bullpen, not have some call-ups and send-downs. Here are a few other guys that could make an impact, or at least the Tigers hope will make an impact.
Yorman Bazardo. Bazardo started 2008 in the big leagues, but quickly disappointed, inserting what figures to be his second twenty-plus ERA on the back of his baseball card. Still, he impressed the coaches enough in spring training to put himself in that position and was excellent in limited major league time in 2007.
Jordan Tata. Once thought to be the final terror in a three-headed pitching monster with Verlander and Zumaya, Jordan Tata seems to have fallen off the face of the planet. He has the tools to be a big time reliever, but has been touched up every time he gets the call to join the big club. After pitching well for two seasons at AAA Toledo, Tata has spent 2008 in rookie and A ball. Given his history, however, a great spring training could land Tata back in Toledo and on the short list of call-up candidates.
Kyle Farnsworth. Considering the start Farnsworth's second tour with Detroit has gotten off to, plus the fact that Kyle seems anything but excited about being here, it seems unlikely that he will be back in the Tigers' 'pen in 2009. But never say never. Look at Lions running back Tatum Bell.
Rick Porcello. Could it be time for Porcello to taste the big leagues? He was the team's first draft pick in 2007, and has been very good (2.81 ERA, 1.18 WHIP) for Advanced-A Lakeland. He figures to get a promotion next season, and if he does well, could certainly be among those considered for call-ups.
Catcher. Love him or hate him, Brandon Inge is back. The Tigers will hope to field a lineup where they can hide Inge's weak bat in the nine hole. Just so long as he doesn't continue to have a problem with passed balls, the Tigers should be able to survive with Inge in this role.
First base. Even though that $150 million looks better when Miguel Cabrera is patrolling the hot corner as well as swinging the bat, it simply doesn't look like he is going to have the long-term commitment it will take to stay in third-base shape, so the Tigers have found their first baseman of the future.
Second base. With great range and a steady bat (as well as an impromptu display of power last night against the White Sox), Placido Polanco isn't going anywhere. Expect the Tigers to also re-sign versatile backup Ryan Raburn. He may not be hitting the lights out, but he can fill in here, at third, at first, or in the outfield, if needed.
Third base. Well, Carlos Guillen can probably cover the hot corner well enough next season. His arm isn't the strongest in the league, but he has enough to beat most guys with his throws. The Tigers gave him an extension before last season, but that contract seemed to be predicated on him playing first base. But he's still playing a corner infield position, just the other one. More troubling is the idea that his declining batting average, though still certainly not a problem, will be a continuing trend.
Shortstop. Boy can Edgar Renteria hit when it doesn't matter. The 2005 Red Sox and 2008 Tigers certainly learned that lesson. Still, with a club option for 2009 and no better option in the system, expect Renteria to be back for one last Motor City hurrah, unless another trade opportunity somehow presents itself. Of course, he could clear waivers, maybe clearing the way for an in-season trade to a contender. Considering they gave up my personal favorite pitcher not currently with the Tigers, Jair Jurrjens, to get Renteria, it would be foolish to let him walk away after the season for nothing as a free agent.
Hitting .344 in limited ABs, expect Ramon Santiago to be back to back up the left side of the infield.
Fun fact: Santiago was the player traded to Seattle (along with the Juan Gonzalez) for Carlos Guillen.
Prospect to keep an eye on: Maxwell Leon, who seems to be figuring out how to hit better pitching, hitting .313 and .284 in AA and AAA, respectively. Could make a nice replacement for Renteria down the road, and could be primed for a big league debut.
Outfield: Things have always been interesting for the Tigers in the outfield. I can't remember ever feeling that a team was so over-manned then quickly so under-manned.
Most of the problems have been in left, since guys like Craig Monroe and Jacque Jones were unable to hold onto the job. Marcus Thames has been a productive member of the club and figures to be brought back next year, and if so, seems the most likely candidate to get first crack at left field. But don't count out competition from strong-armed youngsters Brent Clevlen and Clete Thomas. Clevlen has been all over the Tigers system in recent years, but has been held back by inconsistency with the bat. Thomas was the primary replacement for Curtis Granderson in center field to start the season and made pretty good use of his time, hitting .284.
Center field is locked down for the forseeable future, as Curtis Granderson posseses a rare combination of range, baserunning instincts, patience, and power.
2009 figures to be a year in which Magglio Ordonez continues to be an adequate right fielder. With Granderson's range to his right, Maggs can still cover enough ground to effectively patrol the Comerica Park outfield. He doesn't quite have the pop the team wants out of a DH, but there is simply no way they can afford not to have his bat in the lineup, as he has progressed into perhaps the best player in the game at doing the most with what the pitcher gives him.
Designated hitter. As long as he is healthy, count on Gary Sheffield to continue DHing for the Tigers throughout the last year of his deal. The Sheffield experiment hasn't gone terribly well, producing 34 home runs, 106 RBI, and a .252 batting average in 204 appearances, but Sheff has been somewhat patient at the plate and has worked his share of walks for the Tigers. As long as opposing pitchers still respect his power, he is an asset at the plate.
A few other names that could end up in the big leagues for stretches next season include Matt Joyce, Jeff Larish, Mike Hessman, Mike Hollimon, Dane Sardinha, and Jeff Frazier. It also wouldn't be shocking to see the organization retain Timo Perez as an emergency veteran option, just so long as he agrees to a two-way contract.
Offseason moves are next to possible to predict at this stage. I mean, at this time last season, who would have envisioned Miguel Cabrera wearing the old-English D? Still, it seems as though Dave Dombrowski believes in the makeup of this team, and the focus is likely to be on improving consistency and reliability, and praying for health.
Don't expect a lot of new faces. The more likely route to success in 2009 is comprised of hard work, focus, and a little bit of luck.