Monday, February 19, 2007

Spring Training Pitching Questions

Photo Credit: Roger Dewitt

As the above photo suggests, the hot stove league is over and the real thing is starting up. The Tigers pitchers and catchers officially reported last Thursday, the rest of the players players report on Tuesday and the first spring game is just a little more than a week away (February 28 versus the Mets).

For the first time in years, the Tigers are expected to win and there are few doubters even in the national media. Also, unlike past years, the team is pretty much set with no real battles for starting spots. However, there are still some questions to be answered and today I'm going to list some things to watch from pitchers this spring. Next time, I'll look at the position players.

Assuming everyone is healthy, the starting rotation will consist of Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth. Health is never a safe assumption to make with any pitching staff though and there are two pitchers to watch in particular. First, Mike Maroth missed most of last year with an elbow injury and struggled a lot when he returned in September. He is reportedly healthy and ready to go but any pitcher coming off an elbow injury causing him to miss more than 4 months is a question mark.

The other pitcher whose health is a concern is Justin Verlander. Last year, his innings jumped from 130 to 208 including postseason and he was hampered by a tired arm in the second half. This was seen in his sub-par performance and inconsistent velocity the last two months of 2006. Another thing to watch with Verlander is the blister problem which made it difficult to throw his knuckle curve last season. That pitch may have been the reason for his relatively low strike out rate last season. A return of the blisters or a reluctance to throw that pitch could be a sign of trouble.

Besides potential health problems, another issue of interest is Jeremy Bonderman's quest to develop a change-up that he can trust. I know this story sounds familiar but my hope is that he has recognized that he may not be able to progress any further with his two pitch arsenal and stay committed to learning the third pitch this year. Developing a good change-up is not an easy task though so this should be an interesting story to follow.

Five bullpen spots are set with Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney, Jose Mesa and Wil Ledezma. The other two spots will be up for grabs among almost 20 candidates including non-roster invitees. Not all of them have equal shots at making it but Leyland has shown in the past that he's not afraid to take even the most inexperienced pitchers north if he feels they have the talent .

The leading candidates for the last two spots are probably right-handers Jason Grilli, Zach Miner, Jordan Tata, Chad Durbin, Andrew Miller and left-handers Edward Campusano, Tim Byrdak, Felix Heredia, Bobby Seay and Joey Eischen. Roman Colon would be a strong candidate except that he will likely start the season on the disabled list with a disk problem in his neck. Craig Dingman is reportedly healthy after artery bypass surgery. This is great news but it is hard to imagine that he will be ready to step in and help in the Majors by opening day.

Leyland has said that he would prefer to have a second lefty out of the bullpen to go along with Ledezma. So, if one of the lefties has a good spring, he would have a good chance to make the 25 man roster. The best bet might be Edward Campusano who they obtained via trade during the Rule 5 draft. Some think that Eischen is a strong candidate but he had rotator cuff surgery in June and I have to question whether will be ready to help by opening day.

If none of the lefty relievers come through, then there is the possibility of a trade before they head north. That won't be easy to do though. The other option would be to put two right-handers in the two open spots. In that case, the most likely choices would be Grilli and Miner.

Another bullpen storyline this spring is Zumaya's wrist which caused him to miss some time during last year's stretch drive and again during the playoffs. The wrist was supposedly caused by Zumaya playing the game Guitar Hero too much or too vigorously. I'm not convinced that's the case and he hasn't stopped playing the game anyway. Thus, this is still a potential problem.

As always, there will be a number of young pitchers who will be fun to watch whether the have a chance to make the team this year or not. The most prominent name is Andrew Miller who saw action with the parent club at the end of last year and who is regarded as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. It is more likely that he'll stay in Lakeland than go north to Detroit but the latter scenario is not out of the question. Of particular interest is whether he shows improvement in his control this spring. Other youngsters to watch are Jair Jurrjens, Eulogio DeLaCruz, Virgil Vazquez, Yorman Bazardo and Kyle Sleeth.

So, most of the pieces are already in place this spring but there are still many questions to be answered. Next time, I'll ponder questions concerning the position players.

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