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Tiger hopes begin with the return of Doug Fister

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Prior to the acquisition of Doug Fister in July of 2011, the Tigers had a pitching rotation that was below league average in most statistical categories, except for wins. The addition of Fister gave the Tigers a solid No 2 starter behind Justin Verlander. Now, in 2012, with Fister on the disabled list after being removed from his first start of the season, the rotation is struggling again. Nobody should be surprised at this.

Without Fister, two of the five pitchers in the Tiger rotation are rookies who were minor leaguers in 2011. But that’s not the only problem with the Tiger rotation. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have been inconsistent starting pitchers over their early major league careers. 2011 and 2012 have been no exception to that pattern. Neither one has been even league average in their brief careers up to this point. If the Tigers hope to advance in October, they will need a healthy Fister, and they will need Porcello and/ or Scherzer to step up their games on a consistent basis. Both have shown the capability to win against any level of competition.

Fortunately for the Tigers and their fans, Fister could return soon. He is scheduled to make a minor-league rehab start for the Mud Hens on Wednesday, and could return to the Tigers' rotation as soon May 7, manager Jim Leyland told the media. That's a good start.

Before anyone accuses me of hitting the panic button, let me say that I am still picking the Tigers to win the AL Central division this season. I still believe that they have the best team in their division, including the best starting pitching -- as long as they have a healthy Verlander and Fister at the top of the rotation. But the performance of the rotation following the loss of Fister should serve as a stark reminder to Tiger fans that their rotation prior to Fister’s arrival in 2011 was not all that good.

It’s easy to point to the win totals, 14 for Porcello and 15 for Scherzer in 2011. That sounds pretty good, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Every pitcher in the Tigesr rotation benefited from a bullpen that saved just about every lead that they were given in the seventh inning or later. Hence, many of those "quality starts" were converted to wins. Even Brad Penny, who had the highest ERA and the highest WHIP among qualified starters in the league, wound up with 11 wins and a .500 record. Put them up against the Yankees or Rangers lineup, and their flaws can be exploited with disastrous results, as we've seen.

To further aid their win totals, Porcello and Scherzer ranked third and fifth, respectively, in run support, among qualified starters in the American League in 2011. The point here is that the Tigers had a couple of starting pitchers that boasted inflated win totals, while their peripheral numbers indicate that both were below league average starting pitchers last season. Despite having the league's best pitcher, the Tiger rotation overall was below league average through July.

Enter Doug Fister. When the Tigers obtained Fister from Seattle in July, the team took off. The surge that led the Tigers to their first division title in a quarter of a century was not only about Fister, but he was a big part of it. Prior to the Fister trade, the Tigers rotation ranked 11th or 12th in the major pitching categories. In the second half of the season, with Fister in the rotation, the Tigers were a top third rotation. Scherzer and Porcello pitched slightly better down the stretch, but a big part of the surge was Fister’s impressive 1.79 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in his 10 starts for Detroit.

The Tigers currently sit at .500, one game out of first place in the mediocre AL Central. They’ve gotten there without Fister, and with their sluggers, well, not yet slugging. That’s not a big deal. The bottom line here is that, if the Tigers want to be more than just the best of a bad lot in the AL Central again this season, they will need to have Porcello and/ or Scherzer step up and take the next step in their careers. But they'll also need Fister healthy and back in the rotation, contributing like he's expected to.