Thursday's news brought word of what had become an increasingly likely outcome as spring training began to wind down for the Detroit Tigers. Justin Verlander will open the 2015 season on the disabled list with a triceps strain in his throwing arm, making it Verlander's first career trip to the disabled list since he made his major league debut with the Tigers in 2005.
On the surface, Verlander is putting a positive face on the situation. He's calling it a "bump in the road," and stating the importance of being ready for the long haul through September and into October, rather than rushing back for one start in April. Hopefully, this is accurate.
The Tigers will be hard-pressed to miss Verlander for any significant amount of time given the lack of internal options currently on-hand. There are also a bevy of question marks throughout other parts of the rotation as well. If Verlander cannot be counted on to pitch 30 starts and 190+ innings, president and general manager Dave Dombrowski could be scrambling to find a replacement over the course of the summer.
A big question, of course, is what version of Verlander is showing up for the Tigers this season? Is he about to take a step back in the right direction from his malaise of 2014? Or have the the positive reports he has been touting an indication of a return to his "top of the rotation" presence of previous years? No one really knows right now and the current physical issue only adds to the unknown.
If the Tigers did have to replace Verlander for a longer stretch than they are currently willing to contemplate, how will that look?
One thing we know is that this isn't 2013, with a talented pitcher like Drew Smyly sitting in the bullpen biding his time for a rotation slot. The current cast of likely replacements starts with Kyle Lobstein and then meanders through the likes of inexperienced arms like Kyle Ryan, Buck Farmer, Drew VerHagen, and Kevin Ziomek.
The situation more closely resembles the 2008 season. A shaky starting rotation was in decay and suddenly guys like Zach Miner, Eddie Bonine, Chris Lambert, and Freddy Garcia were taking starts to limp through the season (otherwise known as "the Days of Anguish and Despair").
Lobstein was called upon in 2014 to take important starts in a tight division race. There is no question that he held up. He even had a few starts where he was impressive and acted less like a placeholder and more like a plus. He generated 18 swing-and-miss pitches in one start against Cleveland, and followed that up with a strong effort in a victory over the Giants on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. Lobstein also looked good in a 2-0 loss to the White Sox when he went seven strong innings.
In the end, however, it was only six starts and he logged just 39 1/3 innings for the season at the major league level. It wasn't a meaningful sample in terms of predicting whether he could do it again. He did enough to get another look and that's fine. Expectations have to held firmly in check however.
As for the Tigers' other options, most were drafted after solid college careers. All of them have had stretches of effectiveness at various minor league levels. All but Ziomek have had at least a taste of MLB experience, but none have a very high ceilings in the estimation of most, and the learning curve would be steep. Most likely they would be replacement-level types in need of good run support to contemplate victory in many of their starts.
If Dombrowski doesn't wish to saddle manager Brad Ausmus with an overabundance of youth at the back end of his rotation, he will need to look outside the organization. Obviously this could yield something, but there are at least three factors working against the idea.
- Anyone getting cut right now is likely getting released for a good reason. You can only hope for so much. The pitching equivalent of J.D. Martinez might be hard to scoop up.
- The idea of trade will be floated. That's possible but how many clubs are going to be shopping for arms before the summer months? With the extra Wild Card in play, it's harder for teams to put the "For Sale" sign out and justify it. For instance, Arizona and Colorado will both likely underperform this year, but how soon will they be willing to admit it?
- If the Tigers do find an arm they like, they've already used many of their assets in the minor league system for other moves over the last several months. Do they have the bullets worth sacrificing for the mediocre starters in return? Is it worth moving Steven Moya just to get a replacement-level starting pitcher for a few months? That seems questionable. If Dixon Machado really does look like a big leaguer, do you bolster your rotation by moving him?
When it's all said and done
These questions should be answered rather quickly. If Verlander's arm really is okay for the long-run this year, many of the above scenarios won't come into play until later in the year, and Dombrowski will have more information at his disposal. He'll know if Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene have been an effective part of the rotation. He'll know if Anibal Sanchez is having a healthier year.
As a friend pointed out the other day, Oakland A's starter Scott Kazmir had a couple of bouts dealing with triceps stiffness at various points in 2014, yet he still logged 190 innings with a 3.55 ERA on the season. This doesn't mean Verlander is destined similarly, but it at least gives us one anecdotal reference point that Verlander's current strain may not be a foreshadowing of worse things to come.
It's imperative for the Tigers, who are hoping for a fifth consecutive AL Central crown, for Verlander to at least mimic Kazmir's performance after his triceps stiffness, and exceed it if at all possible.
- Yoenis Cespedes has been very fun to monitor in a Tigers uniform this spring. Thursday he alertly sprinted for home on a wild pitch that only scooted a few feet from the catcher. Its a small display of athleticism that's been in short supply for the Tigers. Match that with the power potential and a top throwing arm and Cespedes could quickly be a fan favorite if he gets off to a good start in Detroit.
- Victor Martinez is looking rusty. That's to be expected. Coming off a surgery is never a piece of cake. And it's probably worth noting that the last time he returned from knee surgery, he took nearly three months to shake off the doldrums. Certainly this is different. He missed an entire season last time versus only a few days of spring training this time around. Still, he's older now and his contributions are vital. The Tigers could use some good news, and seeing Martinez's bat perk up would be a good sign with spring almost over.