When manager Jim Leyland came in, he exclaimed that he was going to take the best players he had, and that they weren't giving spots away to anyone. The Tigers had quite a few incredible talents in spring training, but conventional baseball wisdom dictated that definitely one (Jordan Tata), maybe a second (Joel Zumaya) and possibly even all three (Justin Verlander) should still start the season playing in the minors somewhere.
That wisdom didn't affect the thought process of Leyland, who decided that if he was taking the 12 best arms in the organization that could compete at the highest level in baseball, he couldn't not take any of the three and ultimately say he held true to that.
Obviously, Tata wouldn't be a member of that group had Todd Jones not strained his hamstring on Saturday. But even then, the Tigers still elected to bring Tata north with the club as opposed to Roman Colon (who concerned the team because of elbow tendonitis) and Wil Ledezma. Of course, his role with the team is still very much in the air, as he's not a reliever (though he did pitch a few times out of the ‘pen right after being drafted).
At this point, it's likely that Tata will work as the team's long reliever, getting into the game when the team is in need of innings taken up. Tata's stint with the Tigers will likely last only as long as Jones remains on the DL -
Of course, with the absence of Jones, everyone will be getting bumped up a notch. That includes Zumaya.
Where as he was likely targeted for various middle relief work and maybe even some long relief, Zumaya is now jumping up the totem pole. So, don't be surprised if Zumaya gets thrown to the wolves in a late inning situation sometime soon, especially because Fernando Rodney will likely work as the team's closer, with Chris Spurling being elevated to the setup role.
The debate with regards to Zumaya is whether or not he's better off long term working as a closer, or as a starting pitcher. Of course, if he has his choice, he could very well take the reigns from Jones when he hangs it up. As he told Erie Correspondent Paige Edelman a year ago, he thinks his make up might make him best for the closer's role.
"Sometimes I think I'll be better as a closer because I like throwing really, really hard," Zumaya said. "I love to throw hard and I think if I come out for one inning just to get three guys out to win the game – then that's my role right there."
No long term decision has been made yet as far as Zumaya is concerned yet, as being that it's just days since being informed that he is going to start the year in Detroit, he might need to make a few appearances first before the team will make that decision.
The final member of the group is certainly the most known to the baseball community, as Verlander emerged as one of the top young pitchers, simply dominating the competition at two different levels. Verlander already got a pair of big league starts last season when the Tigers needed an extra starter, so hopefully the novelty has worn off and Verlander will be able to relax and pitch the way he knows how.
But, regardless of how talented these three youngsters are, it's important to remember that they're still going to have plenty of bumps in the road as they adjust to major league competition. Jeremy Bonderman has now become a solid starting pitcher and could be on the verge of breaking out, but his ERA was well into the 5's in his first season. Much the same, Tata, Verlander and Zumaya are all going to have plenty of games where they struggle. But for the first time in many, many years, the Tigers are trotting out three top prospects on Opening Day, and those top prospects would be top prospects for any team in baseball, not ‘Rico Brogna' top prospect.
For more on the ‘Big Three', check out feature articles on each of the players that was done last year: