The Tigers came into the spring with three pitchers in mind for the fifth and final rotation spot; top prospects Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, and hard-throwing youngster Roman Colon, acquired last summer from Atlanta.
In the last three days, each has pitched. Only two though came through with solid performances, distancing themselves from the competition.
On Thursday, with manager Jim Leyland watching on a split-squad day, Joel Zumaya turned up his performance, giving up one unearned run in three innings of work. Zumaya, clearly calmer than his previous appearance, worked his way through the Jays lineup, including two strikeouts. Leyland hoped to help give some confidence to Zumaya by attending the game against Toronto as opposed to the squad's other game with New York, where Kenny Rogers was making the start.
Wednesday, Verlander went head-to-head with Atlanta, and it didn't start out well when he allowed a leadoff home run to outfielder Michael Ryan. But after that, Verlander settled down, and that home run was the lone run Verlander would allow before he was lifted from the game after 2 2/3 innings when he reached his pitch limit. He struck out two and walked one, but reaching the 60 pitch limit while just recording eight outs was a bit of a concern. Verlander though chalked it up to being too fine at the plate and not working to put hitters away.
Colon on the other hand didn't step up in his appearance against Cleveland on Tuesday. Colon also turned in three innings, but unlike the other two, wasn't nearly as effective, giving up three runs on five hits. Colon did strike out two and didn't walk any, a promising sign for a pitcher that has often struggled with strikeouts vs. walks, but Colon will need to be effective if he has any hope of claiming a spot in the rotation (or a spot in Detroit, period).
At this point, it is still early, and none of the three has clearly distanced themselves as the favorite for the spot. But the most recent appearances by Verlander and Zumaya certainly give them a leg up, as does their lofty prospect status. Colon on the other hand already has the strikes of not being a high-profile Detroit prospect, being 26 years of age, and having a career ERA of 5.09 in more than 88 innings.
Verlander and Zumaya of course are younger (Verlander 23, Zumaya 21), are the top two prospects in the organization as draft products, and only Verlander has big league experience, and that being just a pair of token starts because of Verlander's dominance in the minors last season.
Things are beginning to shape up in one of the few position battles that exist in Lakeland, but at the midway point between reporting day and opening day, and no one has yet to emerge as the clear cut candidate to take the mound for the Tigers in April.