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 Tigers primed for turnaround

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PostSubject: Tigers primed for turnaround   Thu Feb 19, 2009 10:43 am

02/18/09 8:36 PM EST
Tigers primed for turnaround
Health of staff key to Detroit's hopes of contending in 2009

LAKELAND, Fla. -- This is typically one of baseball's biggest ifs, but if the pitching staff of the Detroit Tigers remains healthy, the club should be in for the major bounce-back season it wants and needs.

This is Topic A when contemplating the Tigers' chances in 2009. Wednesday at Tigertown, manager Jim Leyland was asked if the bullpen was his largest area of concern for this season.

"Not if it's healthy," Leyland immediately replied. "I think there's enough pitching here, period, if it's healthy. If we lose 40 percent of our rotation and 60 percent of our bullpen, nobody's pitching will be good, whoever that team is, any team, not just us, I don't care who it is."

Last year at this time, the Tigers were being widely touted as a team that could, and perhaps should, win everything. They already had a potent lineup, but they had added slugger Miguel Cabrera to it. And in the same trade with the Florida Marlins, they had acquired lefty starter Dontrelle Willis, previously a 20-game winner.

This was before a wave of injuries decimated the pitching staff and turned the Tigers from a top-shelf contender into a fifth-place operation in the American League Central, a 74-88 team.

There were other disappointments, but the epidemic of pitching injuries was at the core of the Tigers' problems. Starter Jeremy Bonderman went out with a circulatory problem in his shoulder and made only 12 starts. Willis suffered a hyperextended knee that would only exacerbate the control problems that eventually led to his demotion to the Minors.

In the bullpen, it was even worse. The two setup mainstays of the 2006 pennant-winning Detroit team, Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, both had shoulder problems, and Zumaya pitched in only 21 games, finishing the season with a stress fracture in his shoulder.

Rodney is healthy now, and Zumaya's recovery is on schedule. This was an imposing duo in 2006, particularly Zumaya, who has some of the most overpowering stuff in the game. Now, at 24, given good health, he may be ready to regain the high level that his talent suggests.

"I think Joel Zumaya is maturing a lot, that's what I think," Leyland said.

There were other problems in the bullpen last year. Closer Todd Jones basically pitched hurt in his final season before retirement. He has now been replaced by Brandon Lyon. Lyon was not among the top tier of closers available over the offseason, but the Tigers respect his ability and his approach.

"He's a pro, he knows what he's doing," Leyland said. "He's going to be fine."

If Rodney and Zumaya remain healthy, the bullpen could turn from the weakness of 2008 back to the strength it was in '06.
The rotation, again given good health, has plenty of potential. At the top are the extremely talented Justin Verlander and Bonderman, whose recovery is also on schedule. Then there is Armando Galarraga, who was a rare pitching bright spot for Detroit in 2008, with a 13-7 record and a 3.73 ERA. Edwin Jackson, another starter with impressive stuff, won 14 games in Tampa Bay's breakout season.

The fifth spot in the rotation appears to be a contest among veteran lefty Nate Robertson, Zach Miner, who has both relieved and started for the Tigers, and Willis. If Willis can regain anything like the highly successful form he had with the Marlins, this group could go from fine to superior. The Tigers have modified Willis' complicated delivery mechanics, which seems like a sound move. On his side of the argument, Willis is only 27, not at all at a point in his career where a decline is anything like inevitable.

Willis threw a bullpen session on Wednesday and appeared to be throwing with more than sufficient command. "So far he looks great, very good," Leyland said. "I think from what I've seen so far, the thing I've liked the most is the consistency has been there each time that I've seen him. What that'll translate to I don't really know, but he looks good so far."

Elsewhere, the Tigers should be fine. There should be nothing wrong with their offense, which, even in the depths of the disappointing 2007 campaign, was still fourth in the American League in runs scored, slugging percentage and on-base percentage and second in home runs. The Tigers can be particularly encouraged by the dramatically improved health being enjoyed now by designated hitter Gary Sheffield. He didn't resemble himself last season, but if Sheffield can still be a force, a good offense would become even better.

And the Tigers have made some defensive upgrades. The extremely athletic Brandon Inge returns to third base, and the very steady Adam Everett has been acquired to play short. Carlos Guillen, as usual, doing whatever the Tigers ask of him, moves to left, while Cabrera will hold down first base. Overall, the improved defense should make the Detroit pitching better, too.

But in the end, it will be primarily up to the pitchers themselves to take the necessary steps forward. Last year's 4.90 team ERA -- 12th in the AL -- will not suffice.

But the encouraging part of the Tigers' 2009 pitching outlook is that those '08 numbers were not recorded because their pitchers were terminally bad. They were recorded because many of their pitchers were merely injured.

The Tigers are not now asking the impossible of their pitchers. The pitchers in question have already had considerable success. What they haven't had recently in several cases is full health. There could well be enough pitching here to win again, if, as the manager says, that pitching is healthy.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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PostSubject: Re: Tigers primed for turnaround   Fri Feb 20, 2009 5:02 pm

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