Meet the 2004 Tiger Pitchers

So all the hype surrounding the Tigers and all their improvements has you excited, but when you take a look at the rotation, a lot of the names look familiar. So you wonder how exactly this group is going to improve upon a season in which they struggled to get guys out all year? Well, the Tigers don't expect to be world-beaters, but a couple of additions and some development should take this group a long way.

The Rotation

The Tigers made one significant upgrade to the rotation, and he comes in the form of former Baltimore Oriole RHP Jason Johnson. Johnson, who will be the Tigers Opening Day starter, has a very methodical delivery with a fastball in the low 90's and an excellent breaking ball. On most other teams he'd be a middle-of-the-rotation starter, but for the Tigers he'll be the number one guy. He's not on his way to the All Star game, but he should help provide stability at the top of the rotation.

Meanwhile, the Tigers Opening Day starter from last year, LHP Mike Maroth, will fall to the second spot. Maroth endured a rough year in 2003, becoming the first pitcher to lose 20 games in over 20 years. However, despite his rough spots, Maroth battled all year long, and despite an ERA that wasn't so impressive (5.73), he'll be given another year in the rotation, unless he falters to the point where the Tigers feel the need to make a move with one of their young pitchers developing in upper minor leagues. Don't bet on that happening though.

While Maroth's ERA was weak last season, the ERA leader among starters last year was RHP Nate Cornejo. Cornejo, still only 24, held his spot in the rotation all year long, coming up just 6 innings shy of reaching 200. And on top of typical improvement from a youngster, Cornejo has added a split-finger fastball – giving him the ‘out-pitch' he lacked last season (as was evident by his league low 2.13 K/9 IP. Johnson will be the Opening Day starter, and Maroth may be the resilient battler, but Cornejo could very well have the best season among the Tiger starters.

And while Cornejo has the potential to turn the corner, everyone in the organization knows that RHP Jeremy Bonderman will turn the corner, just given a little more time. Bonderman was slightly overmatched last year, as a 20-year old pitching in the big leagues. But now, with a year under his belt and his change-up developing into an excellent pitch, big things are expected from Bonderman. He might be another year away from being a pitcher that takes over games, but Bonderman is well on his way.

The fifth rotation spot is still up for grabs, with the Tigers breaking camp without announcing who would nab the job. LHP Nate Robertson appears to have the inside track, but RHP Gary Knotts remains a possibility for the job. Both started games for the Tigers last year with inconsistent results, but judging by their spring performances, Robertson could very well win the job. However, unlike last year Knotts appears much more willing to accept a job as a long reliever in the bullpen, as opposed to sulking and whining to the media as he did last year after his demotion from the rotation. So, the winner will occupy the fifth position in the rotation while the loser will take the long reliever job out of the bullpen.

The Bullpen

But since the Tigers have yet to decide who will fill each spot, they decided to keep Esteban Yan with the big league club, at least initially. While there's a good chance Yan will get sent down to AAA Toledo once closer Ugueth Urbina is ready, at least for the time being the righty will help out in the Tiger bullpen.

And who may you ask is Urbina? Urbina was just recently signed when the Tigers decided their bullpen just wasn't strong enough at that time. But how much can Urbina help, seeing as he is surely just someone off the scrap heap, signing so late in spring training and all? Well, his free agency had nothing to do with a lack of talent, but rather a lack of a long term deal – which he was demanding after taking the role as the Florida Marlins closer last year. Once he makes the jump, Urbina should give the Tigers a stabilizer at the end of games, and give the starters some re-assurance that their lead is in good hands.

With Urbina still down in Lakeland readying his arm for the majors, the Tigers will use middle reliever Danny Patterson as the temporary closer. Patterson has battled back from Tommy John surgery and should provide the Tigers consistency in the seventh and eighth innings. The righty will team with another offseason acquisition RHP Al Levine, and LHP Jamie Walker to form a veteran trio of middle relievers. Levine's ERA for 2003 was an excellent 2.53, while Walker – mainly a lefty specialist – had a very solid 3.32. These three veterans should team with Urbina to form a solid group to close out games for the Tigers this year – something the team struggled with immensely in 2003.

And while these veterans should provide the foundation, the Tigers have a couple of youngsters that project to be big contributors in the near future. The first, RHP Fernando Rodney, was projected to be the Tiger closer this year, and would have if not for elbow tendonitis that isn't clearing up. He'll start the season on the Disabled List, but him and his 98-MPH fastball should be with the Tigers very shortly into the season. And while 98-MPH heat is rare, it's even harder to find such a thing in a lefty. But that's exactly what the Tigers acquired when they shipped out top OF prospect Cody Ross for LHP Steve Colyer. Colyer possesses an excellent fastball, and while he's still a bit inconsistent, projects to be an excellent pitcher for the Tigers for many years.

So, this year's staff may not on caliber with some of the top teams in baseball, but no longer is the club searching for help in the rotation and relying on Rule V players with little experience to fill big holes in the bullpen. This time around, the Tigers have experience, youngsters ready to take on big leaguers – and overall, guys that actually should be in the major leagues. It's a novelty to Motown, but a welcome one.

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