Bob Cluck wants to put some pressure on his pitchers without putting any pressure on them.
The Tigers' pitching coach is saying this winter he expects Detroit's starting rotation to be the strength of the team -- in 2006, not this year.
"They're not as good as they are going to get," Cluck said of his starters. "I've always said that 2006 is the year when this rotation will be a championship rotation. But I'm not going to be the guy who says we can't win in 2005 because the rotation doesn't have enough experience. Who knows what this group can do?
"But 2006 should be the year it comes together if you are looking long term. It could be a championship class, but it's not ready to be. I think baseball will say, 'Wow, look at that rotation' in 2006."
Loosely translated, that means Detroit's starting five have the potential to be excellent; they just lack the consistency that comes with experience.
RHP Jason Johnson (8-15, 5.13) is the grizzled veteran at the age of 30 and with eight years of experience behind him. LHP Mike Maroth (11-13, 4.31), 26, is next in seniority but is entering only his fourth season of starting. LHP Nate Robertson (12-10, 4.90), 27, has major league experience in parts of three seasons, but 2005 figures to be only his second whole year.
RHP Jeremy Bonderman (11-13, 4.89) turned 21 after last season ended yet will be entering his third full season in the majors, a period marked by enormous potential but peaks and valleys that need to be leveled out.
LHP Wilfredo Ledezma (4-3, 4.39), 24, spent part of last season in Double-A after being with Detroit for all of 2003 as a Rule 5 choice. He's got a chance to be outstanding -- with more experience.
"If (Jeremy) Bonderman pitches like he did his last eight starts (5-3, 2.33 ERA, 60 strikeouts in 58 innings)," Cluck said, "he'd be the Cy Young Award winner. But it's not fair to expect that of him. We saw what he's capable of.
"We saw flashes of brilliance from Nate Robertson, too."
Cluck wants his pitchers to know they're good and that much is expected of them. He wants to rush them without putting too much pressure on them.
But that's the way to go given that Bonderman just started to figure things out -- once he stopped thinking too much and went pitch-to-pitch. And that Ledezma is roughly a year behind Bonderman in experience, that Johnson hopes he can put two good halves together for a change, that Maroth is starting to come into his own and Robertson needs another year of experience to begin realizing his potential.
What their pitching coach wants is for them to be good enough this year to go through championship-chase pressure -- to prepare them for what he hopes are championships ahead.
--Six players agreed to contracts with the Tigers by Jan. 31, bringing the total of signed players on the winter roster to 22.
Detroit could have renewed their contracts had they not agreed to new one-year deals.
Granderson, who impressed in a brief September trial after an outstanding season in Double-A (.301-21-94), is expected to open the season at Triple-A Toledo but with a good start would create pressure to bring him to the majors if someone falters.
Gettis hopes to challenge for a reserve spot with Detroit but will need a spot to open for that to happen.
Raburn needs to cut down his strikeouts and get better defensively. He, too, will open at Toledo.
Rodney is coming off elbow ligament transplant surgery, but the Tigers think he could make the roster if he shows he's healthy.
Novoa is expected to begin the year in Triple-A but a good spring and an opening could get him to Detroit.
Woodyard earned a spot on the 40-man roster after an impressive season at Erie, where he went from valuable reliever to late season starter when injuries depleted the SeaWolves' rotation. He posted a 6-4 record and 3.52 ERA in 102 1/3 innings over 43 games, then went 0-1 with a 5.82 ERA over 11 games in the Arizona Fall League. He, too, is expected to begin at Toledo.
--RHP Fernando Rodney, coming off reconstructive elbow ligament surgery last spring, is making such good progress in his rehabilitation the Tigers are counting on him being part of their relief staff this season.
"He's coming into camp without any restrictions, as far as I know," pitching coach Bob Cluck said. "We're not going to push him, but he doesn't have to be held back. He'll come in throwing with everyone else, but if we're not careful, he'd do too much too soon. He's such an incredibly strong guy."
Rodney had the inside track on a bullpen job a year ago, but late in spring training he was unable to throw a slider and then his velocity diminished. It was determined he needed his elbow ligament repaired.
Rodney, who turns 28 in March, pitched for Detroit in parts of the two previous seasons. In 47 games he was 2-6 with a 6.04 ERA. However, he was more effective at the end of the 2003 season.
In 58 career appearances at Triple-A Toledo, Rodney had a 1.14 ERA.
--Former major league pitcher Lary Sorensen, once an All-Star and a former announcer for the Detroit Tigers, pleaded guilty to his sixth drunk-driving offense Jan. 31 and faces up to five years of prison time, according to Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith.
"The defense requested a one-year cap on his sentence, which would have meant he'd stay here in the county jail," Smith said. "But the judge declined. It appears as though (Sorensen is) going to be in prison.
"With six drinking-and-driving offenses, we need to make sure he's off the road, and prison is a place where he certainly won't be driving."
Sorensen, 49, pleaded guilty before Macomb County Circuit Judge Richard Caretti to operating under the influence of liquor, third offense or higher. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Sentencing was set for March 22.
Sorensen drove his car, littered with empty beer cans and one that was half full and still cold, into a ditch off a Chesterfield Township road just after midnight Oct. 30, according to police records. His blood alcohol content on one test registered .31 -- nearly four times the .08 level at which police can charge drunk driving.
He was serving a three-year probation from a September 2003 conviction on the same charge. An electronic tether monitoring his location and blood alcohol content had been removed the month before.
Sorensen, a native of suburban Detroit, pitched for the University of Michigan before embarking on an 11-season major league career with seven teams. He was an American League All-Star in 1978.
Sorensen became a Tigers announcer in 1995 but resigned during June 1998 for undisclosed reasons.
BY THE NUMBERS: 4.91 -- Earned run average of Detroit relief pitchers last season. The figure was next-to-last in the American League and a major reason the Tigers were so vigorous in their pursuit of RHP Troy Percival, their new closer.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Consistency is the last hurdle, though. Just when you think they have it figured out, they break your heart. And when you start getting frustrated, they pitch four good ones in a row. It goes up and down, but the emotional swing is even greater for them than for me or Tram (manager Alan Trammell). They're not as good as they are going to get." -- Detroit pitching coach Bob Cluck on the potential of the Tigers' five returning starters.
Detroit has added three players, two of them backups, in its drive to improve for 2005. INF Ramon Martinez was signed to complement INF Jason Smith as reserves and backup C Vance Wilson was obtained in a deal with the New York Mets. Closer RHP Troy Percival was the Tigers' marquee free agent signee. Adding Wilson allows Brandon Inge to remain on third base full-time while giving manager Alan Trammell a competent catcher to rest C Ivan Rodriguez 1-2 days per week. The Tigers would still like to make a significant outfield upgrade.
ARRIVALS: RF Magglio Ordonez (free agent from White Sox), C Vance Wilson (trade with New York Mets), INF Ramon Martinez (free agent, signed from Chicago Cubs), RHP Troy Percival (free agent, signed from Anaheim), RHP Colby Lewis (waiver claim, from Texas), OF Byron Gettis (waiver claim, from Kansas City), OF DeWayne Wise (waiver claim, from Atlanta).
DEPARTURES: CF Alexis Gomez (outrighted to Triple-A Toledo and invited to major league spring training, waiver claim from Kansas City), RHP Esteban Yan (elected free agency, club declined arbitration, signed two-year $3 million deal with Anaheim).
MEDICAL WATCH: RHP Colby Lewis (rotator cuff surgery in mid-April) hopes to be ready to pitch in the spring. SS Carlos Guillen (right knee ACL surgery Sept. 28) will be prepped in the spring with Opening Day in mind. CF Alex Sanchez (right quadriceps) will be ready for spring training. 2B Fernando Vina (right hamstring, 2/3-torn left patella tendon) declined surgery, which was iffy as far as a recovery, and is facing the end of his career. Won't be ready for spring training or Opening Day. RHP Nate Cornejo (right shoulder labrum surgery) will be brought slowly in the spring. RHP Fernando Rodney (right elbow ligament transplant) is throwing again and hopes to be ready in spring training. RHP Chris Spurling (right elbow ligament transplant) is throwing again and hopes to compete for a job in the spring.