Thursday, February 16, 2006

Tiger Spring Training Preview - The Starting Pitchers

A bitter cold weekend is forecast and several weeks of winter are still ahead of us up here in the north but all thoughts are warm as we have heard that pitchers and catchers reported to Lakeland yesterday to begin Spring training. This day which baseball fans anticipate all through the long dreary winter is the surest harbinger of Spring. It will be a couple of weeks before the games actually begin but it doesn’t matter. We know that baseball is back and it’s time for everybody, including fans, to get ready for opening day.

In that spirit, I will be writing a series of posts previewing the spring training season. I’ll take a look at the positional battles and other things I think we should be watching as the spring progresses. I’ll begin today with the starting pitchers. There are two big questions surrounding the starting staff and they are related. First, there is still some concern in my mind about the health of their big three pitching prospects. Then there is the question as to who will be the fifth starter.

Maybe I’m just being a paranoid Tiger fan fearing the worst but I can’t help but be a little worried about the arms of Jeremy Bonderman (and yes at age 23 he’s still a prospect regardless of his major league experience), Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. Bonderman ended last season with a sore elbow and Verlander and Zumaya were shut down with tired shoulders. None of these ailments were considered to be serious and all of them are supposedly ready to go but I still want to see what happens when they go all out in the spring games. Any loss of velocity, stiffness, tired arm, discomfort or “dead arm period that every pitcher goes through” should be viewed with suspicion. The good news is the Tigers aren’t letting Bonderman pitch in the World Baseball Classic. I think it will be much better for him if he gets his arm into shape under the eyes of Tiger coaches.

Assuming everyone is in good health, it is a foregone conclusion that Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson will begin the season in the starting rotation. There will be a battle for the fifth starting spot and the three leading candidates seem to be Verlander, Zumaya and Roman Colon. Verlander who posted an ERA of 1.29 in 119 innings with Lakeland and Erie last year appears to be the front runner despite struggling in two starts for the Tigers last summer. With only 9 starts above A ball, he may need more seasoning but he did dominate AA last year and is considered one of the top prospects in all of baseball.

The second most likely candidate is probably Roman Colon. Colon has always had great raw stuff and had a few good starts for the Braves last year before being traded to the Tigers but he has had problems with consistency. He had a great season at AAA in 2004 after being converted to a reliever but bounced between relieving and starting last year. He did better as a starter last year but had greater success in the minors as a reliever so his ultimate role is still up in the air. Right now, I think they are looking at him as a candidate for the fifth spot with relief pitching as a possible role if he doesn’t win the starting job.

Zumaya who is still just 21 would probably need an outstanding spring and failures from Verlander and Colon in order to make the rotation. There has been some talk of him making the team as a relief pitcher but he would be probably be better off getting innings and refining his pitches at Toledo at least for the first part of the season. He had an amazing 199 strikeouts in 151 innings for Erie and Toledo last year but he also walked 76 so he needs to work on his control.

If none of the above impress the Tigers enough this March, then the next two candidates are probably Jason Grilli and Wil Ledezma. At 29 years old, Grilli is not much of a prospect anymore but he might get a shot just based on the fact that he was about the only pitcher on the staff with a pulse down the stretch last year. His two decent starts at the end of last season give him a glimmer of hope for this season. After dominating for Erie in 2004, Ledezma was handed the fifth starting job almost by default last year even though he had a poor spring. He went on to have a horrible season struggling with his control all year for both Detroit and Toledo. He reportedly pitched better during winter ball but still hadn’t mastered his control problems.

There are other starting pitchers in camp but all of them will be pitching in the minor leagues once the regular season starts. Humberto Sanchez and Jordan Tata are two top prospects so it will be very interesting to see how they do as they get ready to pitch most likely for Erie. Another pitcher to watch is Kyle Sleeth, a first round pick in 2003, who missed the entire season last year and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery. His progress is reportedly going well but for the time being he’s just trying to get back to full strength and probably won’t pitch in game situations until later in the year. Preston Larrison who pitched 71 innings last year for Lakeland and Erie after returning from Tommy John surgery and Colby Lewis who missed all of 2005 with a rotator cuff injury will be trying to regain their prospect status.

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