Everything likely starts with the Tigers recent free agent acquisition of Kenny Rogers. Rogers, who is expected to be the Tigers Opening Day starter, was signed to be just that. Prior to 2004, the Tigers signed Jason Johnson, a non-tendered innings eater, to be the ace of the rotation. This time around, the Tigers got Rogers, a two-time All Star who is just ten wins shy of 200 for his career.
Of course, there are concerns with Rogers. Besides the ‘camera incident' a year ago, Rogers is now 41, and his strikeout numbers have been declining. But, he's never been a strikeout pitcher (with a 1.72 K:BB ratio), and he's averaged more than 14 wins a year over his past five seasons, despite his aging. So, if he can continue to work his way through hitters despite his age, he should be a solid presence at the top of the rotation.
Coming after Rogers will be Jeremy Bonderman, the team's Opening Day starter in 2005. Bonderman, who will likely start the team's home opener on April 10th against the defending champion White Sox, had a great first half of the season in '05, until he tired and experienced arm problems in the second half.
At just 23 years of age, Bonderman is still far from reaching his peak. But, having now had the opportunity to develop with three full major league seasons under his belt, it's time for Bonderman to fulfill the promise that so many see in him and turn the corner for the Tigers. Bonderman had a 3.99 ERA with 11 wins before the All Star break, and there's no reason to believe that in '06 Bonderman can't post numbers like those over the course of the whole season. 16-18 wins and an ERA under four is not out of the question for the Tigers' young star pitcher.
Moving on to the Tigers other two lefties, and members of the rotation the past two seasons; Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson. Despite the appearance of Maroth as the consistent grizzled veteran and Robertson as the youngster with a hard fastball and plenty of potential, the two are actually just a couple weeks apart in age.
Maroth led the club with 14 wins in 2005, and has averaged more than 200 innings per season for the past three years since he became a full time starter for the club. Looking at Maroth's stats, he has been incredibly consistent for the team, and possesses the ability to continue to post similar numbers. That provides the Tigers with a respectable #4 starter, a pitcher that will take the ball every fifth day, and give the team a chance to win on most days.
Robertson will be the real wild card of the group. He had some of the worst luck in 2005, that granted him just seven wins despite an ERA under 4.50. Unfortunately, much like the previous season, Robertson fell apart after the All Star break, and with no real reason. In the first half, he had a 3.35 ERA. In the second half, he actually had more strikeouts, less walks, and saw his jump all the way to 5.70. A key for new pitching coach Chuck Hernandez will be figuring out how to turn Robertson into a productive starter all season long.
The fifth and final spot is in reality the only spot up for grabs, as a trio of young arms will battle for the right to start their season out in a big league rotation. Justin Verlander has the inside track for the spot, but both Roman Colon and Joel Zumaya will be given a shot at the job as well.
Verlander of course has the high profile, being the 2nd overall pick drafted in 2004. He got a pair of guest starts for the Tigers last season when the Tigers needed an extra starter, and after being far and away the Tigers top pitching prospect in 2005 (including TigsTown's 2005 Minor League Player of the Year award), he has moved in on the rotation. Now the Tigers will just have to see if a pitcher who has less than 140 innings of professional experience is ready for the big time.
If he's not, the job may go to Colon, who the Tigers acquired from Atlanta last summer in exchange for Kyle Farnsworth. Colon's ERA in 2005 was high (5.58), but he had a good K:BB ratio, and was more effective in three late season starts than he was coming out of the ‘pen. Colon has a live arm, and the Tigers certainly are willing to give him a long, hard look.
Finally, we come to Zumaya, who at just 21 years of age, has already emerged as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Zumaya, or ‘Zoom' as he's been nicknamed, has risen all the way up to AAA Toledo in just three years of professional work. The Tigers aren't insisting on rushing him, but if he appears big league ready, they won't hesitate to use him, even if that means he'll come out of the ‘pen.
The Tigers will have some competition in the back end of the rotation, but regardless of who wins the job, it should be noted the enthusiasm Jim Leyland remarked about the talent of the young arms the Tigers have collected. If there's one group where things are looking very promising in the organization, it's their stock of arms.