With even a reasonable spring performance, it appears Justin Verlander will open the season as the last member of an intriguing Detroit rotation. Joining Verlander in the rotation will be returning pitchers Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth, and Nate Robertson, as well as new free agent acquisition Kenny Rogers. Also competing hard for a spot in the Tiger rotation are Roman Colon, Jason Grilli, and even young fire-baller Joel Zumaya. All three players could steal the 5th spot from Verlander, and they also have outstanding shots at the Tiger bullpen.
Both Colon and Grilli are out of options, making them unlikely to show up with Toledo at any point this season. Provided Zumaya does not make the Detroit roster on Opening Day, he will serve as the dominant ace of the Toledo staff. After a successful performance with the Mudhens to end the 2005 season, there is little left for Joel to prove at the AAA level, and any time spent there will likely be brief. Along with Zumaya, the Mudhens will rely on lefty Wil Ledezma and sinker-baller Zach Miner, both of whom suited up for Toledo in 2005. After completing his comeback from Tommy John surgery, Preston Larrison impressed onlookers with good velocity and improving command while pitching for Erie in the season's second half. Larrison, who was on the verge of making the Detroit roster along with Jeremy Bonderman in 2003, will get his first crack at AAA this season.
The final slot in the Toledo rotation could be snatched up by any number of pitchers. Humberto Sanchez is an organizational favorite, and has a big time arm, but struggles with conditioning, injuries, and control. Jeremy Johnson was impressive early in his career before arm injuries derailed him. He began to come back to life last season, but may not be ready for the AAA challenge. The last candidate will be minor league free agent Chad Durbin. The owner of a very mediocre set of minor and Major League statistics, Durbin is a low risk signing that should be able to provide plenty of innings in any role he's needed. At this point, Durbin likely has the inside track on the last slot in the Toledo rotation because of his Major League experience and age.
As one would expect, Erie will get the leftovers from the Toledo rotation, likely meaning Humberto Sanchez and Jeremy Johnson are headed for Pennsylvania in early April. Having struggled to get on track with the Seawolves last season, right-hander Virgil Vasquez will look to make people believe he has the command and stuff to get outs at higher levels. Moving up from Lakeland will be power righty Jordan Tata, and his crafty rotation mate Nate Bumstead. Tata and Bumstead are coming off exceptional campaigns at Lakeland in 2005, and prospect mavens will be looking for them to continue their success in 2006.
Two additional pitchers who will see time with the Seawolves later in the season, after they've completed their comebacks from Tommy John surgery, will be 2003 first rounder Kyle Sleeth, and finesse pitcher Christhian Martinez. Both will probably spend some time with Lakeland prior to heading north to the Eastern League, but they should see AA by the All-Star break.
The Lakeland rotation will be a crowded and ever-changing place in 2006. With rehab starts by Sleeth, Martinez, and Randor Bierd certainly possible, and plenty of promising arms coming up through the system, the Lakeland rotation could be in a state of flux throughout the season. The top five starters from the West Michigan rotation last season will try their hand at High-A in 2006. Experienced college starters Andrew Kown and Josh Kauten must take steps forward this season to avoid getting lost in the shuffle as more pitching prospects filter into the system. Neither has overwhelming potential, but they are solid pitchers with a chance to contribute down the line. The L-Tigers will also be relying on three pitchers who won't even be able to drink on opening day. Dallas Trahern, Jair Jurrjens, and Josh Rainwater are three of the Tigers most interesting pitching prospects this side of Verlander and Zumaya. All three pitchers bring different styles to the table, but all three had shown the ability to be dominating in stretches. With a rotation like this, the Lakeland Tigers will be very tough to score against this season, and should be sitting near the top of the Florida State League standings.
West Michigan will be home to the most hotly contested rotations in the system. The Tigers have tons of prospects floating around between the GCL, Oneonta, and the Whitecaps, and there will be some difficult decisions to make. Two advanced pitcher will be joining the rotation after solid seasons at Oneonta in 2005. Matt O'Brien and Burke Badenhop will lead a rotation that is likely to be very inexperienced as a whole. The remaining three rotation slots will come from a group of pitchers that includes Guillermo Moscoso, Jose Fragoso, Sendy Vasquez, Lucas French, and Brendan Wise. Vasquez, French, and Moscoso have the best shot at the three openings, but they will have to perform this spring to ensure they get their chance. Fragoso came on strong late in the 2005 season at Oneonta after being moved into the rotation. He's got a big fastball, but his future likely lies in the bullpen. Brendan Wise is a very promising pitcher, but he'll likely head to Oneonta to start the year.
Another potential candidate for the ‘Caps rotation will be 2005 draft choice Kevin Ardoin. Kevin pitched out of the West Michigan bullpen after signing last summer, but he was an accomplished starter at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. The organization feels he can move quickly out of the bullpen, and they may opt to place him in that role with Lakeland to see if he can move up the ladder in short order.
The Tigers have lots of pitching prospects, and only a limited number of rotation slots to go around. There is a slim chance the Tigers will decide to implement a tandem starter system at West Michigan to get innings for everyone, but they have been reluctant to take such measures in the past. Rotation battles throughout the system will be tight, and performing impressively will be of the utmost importance; or else that spot could be gone in a flash.