Manager Alan Trammell surprised many when he came out and anointed Jason Johnson as the team's likely (although not guaranteed) Opening Day starter even before the team held an exhibition game. This is quite a vote of confidence for a pitcher that was winless over the final two months of the season, and saw his ERA balloon in the process. Trammell is likely hopeful that the confidence boost will help Johnson start off on the right foot.
It should be noted that Johnson did start the Tigers off in spectacular fashion in 2004 in their season opening triumph against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Johnson may be the most experienced, but Mike Maroth probably had the best year in 2004. Maroth carried the best ERA amongst the starters, and showed great resiliency after a 2003 that could have sent many weaker-minded pitchers out to pasture. Maroth will once again be counted on to be the steady force in the rotation, giving the team a shot every fifth day.
If Johnson is the experienced one, and Maroth is the consistent one, then Jeremy Bonderman is the one with the highest ceiling. Bonderman, who should actually only be a college junior right now, has a mid 90's fastball, a devastating slurve, and the bulldog mentality it takes to be an ace. Whether or not Bonderman is truly ready for this role remains to be seen, but if his final eight starts are any indication (5-3, 2.33 ERA), the ability is there.
Another youngster that may not have the same potential as Bonderman, but still has plenty is Nate Robertson. Robertson ended up leading the team in wins in 2004, and might have had even more impressive stats if not for a late season tail-off (possibly because of fatigue after his first full big league season). Much like Bonderman, Robertson is a confident (borderline cocky) individual that down the road could team with Bonderman atop the Tigers rotation.
Possibly the only rotation spot that isn't completely set in stone is that of Wilfredo Ledezma's. But make no mistake about it, Trammell just wants to make sure the youngster who dominated for AA Erie last year earns his job; just like Robertson last year and Bonderman the year before. Ledezma had his ups and downs in the big leagues as a rookie Rule 5 pick in 2003, and had more of the same during his call-up in July through the end of the year. But Ledezma is expected to figure things out soon, even drawing comparisons to last year's Cy Young winner, Johan Santana.
There are always things that can happen between now and Opening Day, but in all likelihood these five will be the group to make up the initial rotation. Should an injury happen, Gary Knotts, who received a few starts in '04, would likely be elevated into the group. Colby Lewis might be another option, although it doesn't appear as if he'll be ready yet at the start of the season.
All in all, this group has plenty of potential, but if the team hopes to compete, this group will have to be at its very best.