This week we will explore five keys for the Tigers as they make a run at the Central Division title. Those keys are staying healthy, playing better on the road, finding success against right-handed pitching, finding a starting pitcher to step up and join Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer as front line starters, and playing better defense than expected.
The Tigers have a Cy Young Award candidate in Justin Verlander. I think few doubt that. Max Scherzer -- at least until a spring performance which saw a flaw in his mechanics come up -- has the opportunity to give the Tigers a top 1-2 punch in the diviison.
What they lack is a good answer for "Great, but who comes next?"
They have a couple of possible answers. But no one you look upon now and say "He's a for sure thing." So for that reason, if you're comparing the division's top rotations you have to give an edge to the White Sox heading into the division.
That doesn't mean the Tigers can't have someone step up. In fact, there are two pretty good candidates for breakouts in righthanders Rick Porcello and Brad Penny. Both have shown flashes of brilliance in the past.
Porcello almost needs no introduction. His second month in the big leagues -- May 2009 -- saw him win five games with an ERA of 1.50 for the month. His final 10 games -- during a division title race -- featured a 3.22 ERA. He was tabbed to pitch in Game 163 that year, during which he struck out eight in 5 2/3 innings and allowed just a run. He obviously saw a slide backward during his second year in the big leagues. But now he is a 22-year-old looking to put the emotional, intellectual and physical growth to good use.
Felix Hernandez saw his ERA balloon during his second season before improving in his third. His game on the mound is obviously different, but he's one young pitcher who comes to mind when you talk about players who made their debut as teenagers.
Penny might sound like a less obvious candidate for a breakout year, especially if you put a lot of weight on his failures during his only season in the American League. However, the question that will be answered is how much can he build on his injury-shortened 2010? (Furthermore: How likely is he to stay healthy?) Penny worked on his sinkerball before last season and used it more than ever before. That growth as a pitcher led him to an ERA of 3.23 with the Cardinals last year in nine games started.
A third breakout candidate is not even beginning his year with the Tigers: Andrew Oliver. If the above two pitchers falter, or even Phil Coke, can the young left-handed prospect who came into camp this year with better pitches than ever catch lightning in a bottle?
Questions abound with the rotation. Answers will soon be made. For the Tigers to win the division, someone has to step up.