The Detroit Tigers have been synonymous with starting pitching the last few years as they've ran off a four year domination of the AL Central. Few clubs have been able to match the Tigers' star power and depth when it comes to marching out a dynamic starting pitcher most nights to the hill. There have been Cy Young winners, strikeout artists, and ERA champs. Mid-season moves have also been made three times to add big time arms for the stretch drive.
The Tigers rotation has rarely been left of the gift list.
The Tigers know how to win with a roster built around their starting staff. This is why 2015 promises to be a major test of General Manager Dave Dombrowski's ability to continually identify quality starting pitching to plug into his rotation. Change is really afoot this season and bodies have been brought aboard to plug holes created by departures.
It's also worth mentioning that Justin Verlander is coming of an injury effected year where he posted a 4.54 ERA and looked little like his MVP caliber former self. Anibal Sanchez missed plenty of starts and logged merely 126 innings. These two talented pitchers will need to rebound to previous form every bit as much as the Tigers need their new additions to yield production replacing what has left.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both took a bullet in the movie The Departed. Two major A-list stars rarely get clipped in the same movie. For the Tigers, they saw two majors cogs in their rotation move on from Detroit. No, they didn't get tossed into the Detroit River by the nefarious Gene LaMont's gang, but they're gone all the same and they need to be replaced.
Max Scherzer's exploits have been well chronicled over the years. We know what the Tigers have lost. Scherzer's dynamite stuff was a reliable force for the Tigers that will be missed and not easily replaced. The high-octane strikeout machine gave the Tigers a shot to win most every time out. Win-loss records for starting pitchers are a bit passé in many quarters, but when you see '82-35' next to Scherzer's name in Detroit you take immediate notice. It's a huge hole blown into the ship that needs patching.
Also moving on is the reliably healthy Rick Porcello. Traded this offseason to bring aboard Yoenis Cespedes, Porcello goes to Boston for his final year prior to free agency. Will the Tigers miss Porcello? The verdict here is "yes." Porcello was a constant force in one very important area: availability. The disabled list is a foreign concept to Porcello and that steady presence has been a bigger benefit to the Tigers success than some of his critics in past seasons were often willing to admit.
Then Porcello also managed a bit of a breakout campaign in 2014 to boot. He posted a career low ERA of 3.43, broke the 200 inning plateau for the first time (204 2/3), and tossed three shutouts. Only a September swoon kept him from having a truly amazing year.
Subtracting two pitchers of this ilk from any rotation sets up plenty of work for a team without a much starting pitching that looks ready in their minor league system. How did the Tigers address these new needs?
The New Faces
Many will say a key part of the Tigers blockbuster trade deadline deal for ace starting pitcher David Price was Price being under contract for 2015. These folks like to count Price as the replacement for Scherzer. That's a legitimate argument. However since Tigers starter Drew Smyly was dealt for Price, the Tigers still needed to set about replacing two starters in their rotation.
The first new pitcher arrived this winter via trade in the person of Shane Greene. Greene was obtained in a three team swap involving the Yankees and Diamondbacks. Detroit sent away "the jewel" of the Doug Fister trade, Robbie Ray, to Arizona (yes, I know, he looked very un-gem like in his Detroit stint). Sweet-swinging Class A second baseman Domingo Leyba also accompanied Ray to the desert. Given Ray's underwhelming look and Greene's solid work for the Bronx Bombers, the price didn't seem wholly out of proportion for the Tigers.
Greene was generally good in New York last season. In just under 80-innings he posted a 3.78 ERA (3.73 FIP) with a solid strikeout rate of 23.5 percent. It is interesting to note that two of Greene's very best outings came at the expense of the Tigers. They definitely saw his best stuff. (15 innings pitched, 2 earned runs, 13 strikeouts, 1 walk) It would be fun to know how much of the Tigers' evaluation was based on seeing those two outings. If you subtract those two games, Greene's season looks a bit more pedestrian.
The scary part about relying on Greene in Detroit this season is the small-ish sample of his stint in New York. He had more success against major leaguers than he did for the majority of his time in the minors. That little fact can't be understated. It's downright troubling in some respects. If he's pushed to a full-season workload in Detroit, will the regression monster come calling?
In Greene's favor will be getting him out of Yankee Stadium. Green struggled against left-handed hitting last season and the hitter friendly environment in the Bronx could not have helped. His ERA was a full two runs lower on the road. Detroit probably favors lefty batters as well, but it seems a bit more fair than New York's bandbox dimensions in right-field.
Greene's 50 percent groundball rate should also be helped quite a bit by having Jose Iglesias at shortstop behind him instead of the aging and statuesque Derek Jeter. If Iglesias can stay healthy the Tigers middle infield defense will have him teaming with Ian Kinsler. That duo should rank among the best with the leather in the American League if they stay on the field.
The second major addition also came via trade. This time Dombrowski was dealing at the Winter Meetings and teamed up with the Reds' GM Walt Jocketty to acquire veteran Alfredo "Big Pasta" Simon. To get Simon the Tigers coughed up 2013 first round draft pick Jonathan Crawford and last year's rookie shortstop Eugenio Suarez.
To be honest, the Tigers really gave up plenty to get Simon considering he has only one season left on his contract. Crawford posted a sub-3.00 ERA in his first full professional season at Class A West Michigan. Crawford evidently may not have "wowed" scouts overall with his stuff judging by comments gleaned all year from prospect mavens on twitter. It was still surprising to see the Tigers cut bait in trade on a first rounder for a short term acquisition like Simon. Suarez? He was no rookie of the year candidate, but he didn't embarrass himself as a Tiger overall in his debut. He'll likely have some kind of career and isn't a "throw in" guy.
What at are the Tigers getting in Simon? Frankly, nothing special. Don't let his "All-Star" designation in 2014 fool you.
Simon was great for three months last season after the Reds pressed him into service as a starter. In his first 18 starts he posted a spiffy 12-3 record with a 2.70 ERA. However, considering his prior workloads mainly as a reliever, he faded down the stretch in predictable fashion as the innings piled up. His 4.52 ERA in his final 12 starts surprised very few. His 196 innings was a career high and it will be interesting to see how his arm responds this season from that test.
The extra work also bit into Simon's ability to miss bats. Never a huge strikeout guy even out of the bullpen, Simon's strikeout rate plummeted to a career low of 15.5 percent in '14. A K-rate like that is quite low among perennially successful starting pitchers and it was the biggest contributor to Simon's final ERA of 3.44 not matching up with his FIP of 4.33, nearly a full run higher.
Simon's groundball rate is only a tick behind Greene's at 48.2 percent, so Simon should get some of the same beneficial effects from Iglesias and Kinsler. Also, Simon was very effective in the two prior years with the Reds working from the bullpen. He at least has some possible fallback utility out there should his efforts from Detroit's rotation come up short of expectations.
Off-Season Grade: D+
The Tigers have basically swapped out Scherzer, Porcello, and Smyly over the last eight months for Price, Greene, and Simon. This seems a bit underwhelming.
Scherzer and Porcello were the guys most likely to take the ball 30+ times on schedule. They're gone. Verlander and Sanchez are the two holdovers. They had questionable results in 2014.
Greene and Simon are both legit red-flag regression candidates. Price and Simon both have merely one year of club control left. To get these pitchers the Tigers wiped out a fair bit of their minor league depth in the process.
There is certainly a scenario where this works out great. Price could dominate from April through September (and sign a new deal? We can hope.). Greene could prove his former teammate Brandon McCarthy correct. McCarthy gave Greene's overall stuff a high endorsement and touted Greene's new changeup as a possible game changer. Greene also has several years of club control left. Then Simon might be able to come to the American League and get by for a few months like he did last year. Sanchez could get back near 190-innings. Verlander might have fully recovered his strength with another off-season between him and his abdominal surgery. This is all possible but holds plenty of "if's", "could's" and "might's."
But it's also possible that Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, Kevin Ziomek and Buck Farmer are being auditioned by mid-May if the Greene/Simon moves are looking regrettable. If that happens, lots of scenarios are in play at that point.
Seeing Scherzer and Porcello leave was never going to be easy. Seeing Greene and Simon be pursued as suitable replacements lends a big cloud of uncertainty for the Tigers once-vaunted rotation as they launch their "Drive for Five" consecutive AL Central crowns.