Tigers’ rotation may become crowded and confusing very soon

Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello seem to be going in different directions for the Detroit Tigers in 2014.

Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello seem to be going in different directions for the Detroit Tigers in 2014.

When the Detroit Tigers broke spring training camp in late March they had a set starting rotation but some new faces and question marks in their bullpen. It’s mid-September and the situation is somewhat reversed.

Joe Nathan seems to have settled into a groove as the closer and Joba Chamberlain is steady as the setup man. Joakim Soria has returned from an arm injury that shelved him before Tiger fans even got to know him and has a lot of life on the ball. Two other pieces of the bullpen have been effective all season: Bigs Bunny changeup master Al Alburquerque and crafty left-hander Blaine Hardy. Even Phil Coke has been throwing the ball well enough to quiet the boo birds in the second half of the season. The Detroit bullpen has been doing fine work.

It’s the starting rotation that has changed a lot since opening day and it poses some serious issues entering the stretch and a potential playoff run.

First let’s look at what hasn’t changed: Max Scherzer is nearly as good as he was in 2013, he’s 16-5 and striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings. His low fastball still poses huge problems for opposing batters and Max has been the most consistent of the Tiger starters this year, posting 20 quality starts in 30 outings. The team continues to win a lot when Scherzer takes the ball: they are 46-16 over the last two years when Mad Max is on the mound.

Rick Porcello does not fit in the “this is what we expected” category, but that’s a good thing. The tall New Jersey kid (he’s still only 25) has elevated his game to the next level, taking his place as one of the best mid-rotation pitchers in the game. This season Slick Rick has thrown not one, not two, but three shutouts, channeling his inner-Verlander and Scherzer in impressive outings many times. But Rick wins in a different way than his two more famous teammates: he makes hitters pound the ball into the ground, which is a great strategy of course. Most hits occur on line drives and Porcello gives up few liners and fly balls. His infield is active when he pitches and he pitches quickly. He’s already set a career-high with 15 wins and like Max he’s put up 20 quality starts. Holding on to Porcello was a wise decision by Dave Dombrowski. There were many trade scenarios over the last two seasons in which Slick Rick’s name was bandied about. But the Tiger front office put a hefty price tag on Porcello because they were confident the righty would evolve into a more consistent and lethal pitcher. He’s done so.

That’s all of the good news. The rest is bad, disappointing, or murky.

Former MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander looked like a future Hall of Famer as recently as 2012 when his fastball was still crackling at 95-100 MPH and he had complete control of his curveball and other offspeed pitches. It looked like he was this generation’s ace and as wins and strikeouts piled up it didn’t seem like he’d slow down or be derailed. But the trains have come off the tracks. In mid-season last year Verlander started to post inconsistent outings, often getting hit early and hard. His velocity took a nosedive and even though he insisted he was healthy, it didn’t seem like it. In September of ’13 he righted the ship and looked the JV of old, dominating opponents again. He carried that into the postseason where he was almost unhittable and he vanquished the Oakland A’s (again) in a Game Five. Then in the offseason it was revealed that he had a injured his left side while doing squats. He had minor surgery but was ready for spring training. While many people think that injury has effected him in 2014, it’s important to note that Verlander started this season very well — he had a 2.48 ERA in six starts in April. But in May he was pounded to the tune of a 5.54 ERA and in June it got worse (6.82). Most alarmingly he seemed to be fatigued — his fastball was in the low 90s and he wasn’t able to dial it up later in games, in fact he wasn’t even making it late into games. Finally, in August he missed two starts due to a sore shoulder. He’s returned and had some modest success since, going later into games and getting three wins in four starts since the injury, but he looks a guy trying to figure things out, like a guy trying to deal with the fact that he doesn’t have what he used to have on the mound. Though the ultra-competitive Verlander would never admit it, his confidence has taken a hit.

Many people around the Tigers think that Anibal Sanchez has the most electric stuff of any of their starting pitchers. When he’s on he mows down batters and makes them look silly. Problem is he has almost annually dealt with injuries of some sort, minor or major. This year it’s been a long spell on the disabled list dating back to early August. Sanchez missed a few starts in May too with blister problems. When he has been healthy, Sanchez has been excellent, but unfortunately he’s only made 21 starts this season for Bras Ausmus.

The lone left-hander in the rotation when the season started was Drew Smyly, a popular player with an aw-shucks demeanor who grew up and toughened up a lot in front of the eyes of Tiger fans. Smyly rarely ever got good run support but he usually kept his team in the game. He was traded at the deadline in the deal that brought David Price to the Tigers. While the deal makes sense talent-wise, it still hurt — Smyly was well-liked in the Detroit clubhouse and at just 25 he has a lot of fine years ahead of him.

Price is under contract for one more season so the Tigers have upgraded the left-handed side of the rotation. He’s a Cy Young winner and he’s obviously a great pitcher. Since coming to Detroit he’s either been shut-down or shuttering. He overpwoered the Bronx Bombers in his first start for the Tigs, allowed just three hits in a victory over the M’s, then lost a game against his former team even though he surrendered just one hit. But in a start against the Yankees at Comerica Park he allowed seven straight hits and exited after two innings. Two starts later against the Giants he got hit hard again. In his five good starts for the Tigers, Price has a 1.37 ERA, in his other three starts he has a scary 9.44 ERA.

As the Tigers finish out the season battling for the division title or a wild card spot they have three starters they can rely on (Scherzer, Price, Porcello), and two they have to worry about (Verlander and Sanchez or his replacement which has been Kyle Lobstein of late). It’s likely that the rookie Lobstein will be skipped over when the schedule permits. Come postseason the Tigers will only need four starters in a five-game series (I don’t think Ausmus will be brave and use only three), but who would Detroit pick? Mad Max and Price are locks and Porcello has earned a spot. Verlander has struggled at times in the postseason but the first round has been where he’s shined. It’s possible, if Sanchez is healthy (he’s scheduled to throw off a mound today), he could get a nod. Could Detroit out Verlander in the bullpen in the postseason? As I’ve written before, JV has the makeup to be a good reliever — he can control his emotion on the mound and he has two pitches (his fastball and slider) that are above average. Knowing he may only need 15-20 pitches, Verlander could push himself and throw the heater at 98 MPH if needed in a one-inning situation. That may make the difference between winning or losing a series in the playoffs.