2012 Tigers Preview: The Pitching Staff

With pitchers and catchers reporting today, our Tigers preview concludes with the pitching staff. The Tigers have one of the best rotations and setup/closer combos in the American League, but there are plenty of questions elsewhere.

The Tigers have a lot of good young pieces in the rotations, which all are under contract for a while. The back end of the bullpen locked down nearly every game last season. But there are questions about middle relief, so the Tigers made some moves in the offseason to try to sure that up. Here is a breakdown of the pitchers who have a chance to make the big-league club out of Spring Training.

Justin Verlander

What's left to say about Verlander that hasn't already been said? The first starting pitcher to win the MVP since 1986, he also completed the pitcher's triple crown, leading the AL in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250). The numbers weren't a product of Comerica Park either, as he led the AL with a 170 ERA+.

Verlander changed his style a bit last offseason. He can still hit 100 mph when he wants to, but he perfected that nasty curveball, becoming more of a pitcher than a thrower. Jim Leyland was scared to death of putting Verlander out there too much, but the offseason conditioning helped Verlander throw a career-high 251 innings. With no major injuries in his past, Verlander has thrown at least 200 innings in his last five seasons, so the conditioning is as important as anything. Once again, he should be one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Doug Fister

When Fister came to Detroit at the non-waiver trade deadline, it was a bit of a surprise. Fister's name hadn't come up in many trade talks, and he had a 3-12 record with the Mariners. But that 3.33 ERA looked promising. The result was a Doyle Alexander-like finish. Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA in the regular season with the Tigers. He also gave up one run in five innings in the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS. Based on how he finished, Fister should be the No. 2 guy on this staff. His K/9 jumped up from 5.5 to 7.3 when he came to Detroit, and he never shied away from the big moments. At 28 years old and under the Tigers' control for a while, the Tigers are sitting pretty with a Verlander/Fister 1-2 punch.

Max Scherzer

Scherzer is the reason wins can be a tricky stat with pitchers. Despite a 15-9 record, Scherzer had a career-high 4.43 (92 ERA+). His problem has always been his inconsistency. He'll have his outings where he goes seven innings of one-run ball, then he won't make it past three innings in his next start. A film-nut and perfectionist, Leyland has expressed his concern with Scherzer's over-focusing, resulting in different release points in his delivery from pitch-to-pitch. If the Tigers can get the ALDS version Scherzer (one ER in 7.1 innings), they'll have an elite rotation. If they get the ALCS verison of Scherzer (nine ER in 8.1 innings), they'll have issues. Odds are based on his history they'll end up with a mix of both.

Rick Porcello

It's wild to think that Porcello is only 23 years old. Now going into his fourth season in the Majors, some fans seem to have given up on Porcello. Similar to Scherzer, Porcello went 14-9 with a 4.75 ERA (86 ERA+) last season. The signs of becoming a top pitcher were there, like when he went 5-0 with a 3.06 ERA in July. But he had an ERA approaching seven in June and August. He still has to develop his other pitches. When opponents sit on the sinker, the result is lefties hitting .321 off him last season.

Jacob Turner

Like many teams, the fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs, and Turner appears to be in the lead for the Tigers. He spent most of his time last season in Erie while coaches kept an eye on his innings. He finished with 131 innings in Erie and Toledo and another 12.2 in Detroit. His upside is obviously tremendous, but the Tigers would have to take things slow with him. If Turner is the option they go with, don't be surprised if another young starter (see below) splits time with him in the rotation. The Tigers are being extra careful with Turner, as they should be.

Andrew Oliver

The 2009 second-round draft pick has had major control issues. Oliver averaged 4.9 BB/9 innings while posting a 4.71 ERA in 26 starts in Toledo. The lefty hasn't faired much better in his seven career Major League starts either. If Oliver is going to have a Major League future, he's going to have to turn things around in the minors. Unless Oliver has a surprising Spring Training, only expect him to make spot starts for Detroit throughout the season while continuing to work on his command in Toledo.

Duane Below

Below quietly was very solid in Toledo with a 9-4 record and a 3.13 ERA before being called up to Detroit in late July. After two so-so starts, he was moved to the bullpen, where he gave up nine earned runs in 19 1/3 innings, proving to be a flexible lefty option. Whether or not he has a future as a Major League starter still is debatable, but his experience last season may give him a bit of an edge over other young Tigers pitchers.

Adam Wilk

Wilk started the season in Toledo and moved up to Detroit for a five spot relief appearances on the year. He went 8-6 with a 3.24 ERA in his first season with the Mud Hens. Much like the other young Tigers lefties, there is an opportunity to make the big-league club out of camp, and Spring Training will be the proving ground.

Drew Smyly The 2010 second-round pick moved up the ranks in his first professional season. He started in Lakeland, where he went 7-3 with a 2.58 ERA. He moved up to Erie, where he went 4-3 with a 1.18 ERA in eight games (seven starts). In Erie, he had a 10.4 K/9. The 22-year-old likely will be back in the minors to start the season, but he's quickly making an impression on the Tigers organization.

Daniel Schlereth

Schlereth is at the point where trips to the minors don't mean anything anymore, and he has to perform at the Major League level. After giving up six earned runs in 1 1/3 innings against the Mets last season, Schlereth was sent to Toledo for a month. When he returned, he was a different pitcher. In 23 1/3 innings after being called back up, Schlereth gave up just five earned runs, 14 hits and 12 walks to go with 20 strikeouts. The question is if he'll be that same pitcher and be able to maintain that level of performance.

Collin Balester

The Tigers patience with Ryan Perry had run dry, so they shipped him to Washington for the righty reliever Balester. In 35 2/3 innings for the Nationals last season, he gave up 38 hits and 18 earned runs — six of which came in his last two appearances. Balester's splits are actually a little bit better against lefties than righties. He's only 25, and under control for another five years, so the Tigers have themselves a young reliever with four years of Major League experience — who hopefully is more consistent than Perry and can provide the club with a reliable long relief option.

David Pauley

Pauley's future with the Tigers might be in question if he has a poor Spring Training. After coming over in the trade with Doug Fister, Pauley gave up 13 earned runs in 19 2/3 innings with the Tigers. Most of his appearances weren't exactly pressure situations. He's got for four more seasons before free agency, and doesn't have any more minor league options left. With so-so stuff, he needs a strong spring to solidify his spot on this team.

Octavio Dotel

The Tigers became lucky team No. 13 in what will be Dotel's 14th Major League season when he signed in December. He spent last season winning a World Series with the Cardinals, where he gave up nine earned runs in 24 2/3 innings. He's always been a strikeout pitcher, and his 11.7 K/9 last season were the highest for him since 2008. Dotel should fill the role that Al Alburquerque did last season (before the injuries). Righties hit just .154 with a .410 OPS against Dotel last season.

Phil Coke

Last year, the Tigers tried to bide some time for the young starters by putting Phil Coke in the rotation. He wasn't as bad as his numbers showed, but after a 1-8 start, Coke was back in the bullpen. Once there, he gave up 34 hits, 12 earned runs and just 10 walks in 31.2 innings. In 13 August appearances, Coke didn't give up a run. On the season, lefties hit just .215 off Coke, while righties hit .314. After the rough start in the rotation, Coke became a reliable seventh-inning guy leading into Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde.

Joaquin Benoit

The Tigers raised a lot of eyebrows when they signed Benoit to a three-year, $16.5 million deal last offseason, one year removed from rotator cuff surgery. After a slow start, possibly due to the pressure of the contract, Benoit became perhaps the best setup man in the AL. From May 20 to the end of the regular season, Benoit gave up seven earned runs over 46 1/3 innings, not giving up a single run in his final 22 appearances. He was just as good in the postseason as well.

Jose Valverde Perfection. They weren't all pretty, but Jose Valverde went 49-for-49 in save opportunities last season, breaking Willie Hernandez's Tigers records in the process. Now, it's obviously unreasonable to expect a year like that again, but Valverde is a free agent after this season. His future beyond 2012 — with the Tigers or otherwise — hinges on this season, so he might have some more pressure on him. As good as he was in save situations, he was about as bad in non-save situations. In 23 1/3 innings in non-save situations, Valverde gave up 15 earned runs, 26 hits and 14 walks. By comparison, he gave up three earned runs, 26 hits and 20 walks in 49 save-situation innings.

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