The Detroit Tigers have been able to boast one of baseball’s best starting rotations over the past few seasons. A few months ago GM Dave Dombrowski rolled the dice by trading away Doug Fister and hoping that Drew Smyly would be ready to step in and produce.
Will the gamble pay off?
The Fister trade meant potential double-trouble for the Tigers because not only did the bullpen get worse the moment Smyly left that 7-man unit, but the rotation is arguably not as prolific with Fister heading to Washington. The trade had dollar signs written all over it, which is odd for a team on the cusp of World Series glory.
It feels odd not typing Justin Verlander’s name in first but when you win a Cy Young, you get dibs on being called the staff ‘ace’. I still wouldn’t be shocked if JV gets the ball on Opening Day for tradition’s sake alone, but with his offseason surgery and rocky regular season in 2013, Scherzer has to be the guy the Tigers lean on in their moments of greatest need.
Prior to last season we wondered what a full season’s worth of a mechanically sound Max Scherzer would look like. Shazam! I’m not sure anyone thought it would be as nice as a 21-3 record, 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 240 K’s to just 56 walks in 214.1 innings.
Just to make sure you were paying attention Max followed that effort up with a lights out postseason in which he fanned 34 hitters in a mere 22.1 innings of work.
Max enters his final year prior to free agency having just agreed to a $15.525M salary for ’14. Considering that Anibal Sanchez gets $16M and Clayton Kershaw, the NL’s Cy Young winner, now grosses north of $30M/year, this is the last time Scherzer will be considered affordable.
To ask for a repeat performance of his 2013 is a substantial request, but with Scherzer set to hit the open market and command $250M or so next offseason you can fully expect to get his best every 5th day. 2014 should be another Cy Young-caliber offering.
JV suffered a sports hernia while working out in December, has undergone ‘core muscle surgery’ and is in the midst of what is expected to be a six week recovery process. If all goes well he should be ready to break himself back in slowly at the beginning of spring training.
This comes as disappointing news on a few fronts. First, after struggling for so much of 2013 he finally put it all together late in September and was a dominant force throughout the playoffs. Hopefully this setback doesn’t derail that progress. And second, this is the first crack in the armor of an otherwise historically bulletproof Verlander. This is the first surgery he has undergone, though thankfully not on his elbow or shoulder where it matters most. Will Verlander, who will turn 31 next month, start to see age and a substantial workload of big league innings start to catch up to his body or will he shake this off and remain a workhorse?
With Verlander being just one year into a guaranteed 7-year deal that could become an 8-year contract lasting through 2020 with money ranging from $180-202M, the Tigers desperately need this to be an aberration and not the beginning of a trend.
Even when JV isn’t quite right, like in 2013, he still managed a 3.46 ERA, 13 wins, and 217 K’s. Clearly the revamped Tigers are leaning on the big three in their rotation more than ever. Verlander must remain a part of that equation for his usual 34 starts.
To me, Sanchez is the player that truly sends Detroit’s rotation into elite status. He would be an ace on at least half the teams in the big leagues, yet he is a #3 man in Motown. Had he not missed a handful of starts midway through 2013 it stands to reason that he would have finished as runner-up to Scherzer in the Cy Young voting.
When Detroit signed him to a 5-year, $80M deal the general perception was that the Tigers overpaid. Just one year later it appears as though they stole Sanchez. As difficult as the notion sounds, having Anibal locked up for four more years and JV for at least six makes it that much more likely that this is Scherzer’s last year in Detroit.
Sanchez is immersed in his prime and has been pitching to his talent level since arriving in Detroit. His 202:54 strikeout to walk ratio was a joy to watch in 2013, gold star stamped by his record-breaking 17-strikeout performance against the Braves in late April. His 2.57 ERA led the American League. He might regress a tad in the ERA department in ’14 but the overall numbers should persist.
At age 25, when most pitchers are just starting their big league careers, Porcello has already rolled up five big league seasons and a 61-50 record. After being the subject of trade rumors all offseason, Porcello finally showed the signs of life in 2013 that team officials had been waiting on.
Porcello smashed his career-high in strikeouts with 142. His previous high was 107. Even more impressive is that he reached new heights in punch-outs while still maintaining his elite strike-throwing ability, walking just 42 hitters in 177 innings.
With a revamped infield Porcello should reap the benefits more than any other starter on the staff with his groundball-inducing power sinker.
Porcello finished 2013 with a 13-8 record, 4.32 ERA, and career-low 1.28 WHIP. In his 29 starts Porcello was extremely reliable except for on four occasions when he allowed 9, 6, 7, and 8 earned runs. Not that you can, but wipe away those four starts from his ledger and he would’ve posted a sparkling 3.08 ERA for the season. He is literally that close to being elite.
Smyly has been the consummate teammate in his two years in Detroit, doing whatever it was that Jim Leyland asked of him. He must be overjoyed that he’ll now be getting the ball every 5th day and finally giving the Tigers a legitimate left-handed starter.
The slightly built Smyly has added 20 pounds this offseason to prepare for the rigors of 160+ innings of big league work. To his credit, he has been extremely effective early in his career, striking out 175 hitters in 175.1 innings combined between starting and relieving.
His high-angle release point causes enough deception that lefties hit just .189 against him in ’13 while righties managed only a .242 average. His splits are solid. What concerns me somewhat was his decreased velocity from his rookie year in 2012 to last season.
Working mostly as a starter in 2012 he averaged 91.4 MPH on his heater only to see it drop to 90.7 as a reliever in year two. Most would expect the velocity to increase in a relief role but the opposite occurred. Perhaps Smyly’s increased weight will help him dial up his fastball a few notches.
Regardless, Smyly projects to be a very steady #5 man in the rotation. Double-digit wins seem well within reach and an ERA under 4 shouldn’t surprise anyone.
For my infield preview, click here.
For my outfield preview, click here.
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