01/31/2003 1:21 pm ET
Tigers Spring Training preview
Young pitching staff has big-league task ahead
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
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DETROIT -- Mike Maroth doesn't think of himself as a staff ace. He doesn't care to ponder the title of No. 2 starter, for that matter.
Top starter? He just got here, making his big-league debut six months ago and finishing the year with 21 Tiger starts. But that's enough to make him one of the most experienced members of the Tigers rotation.
The rebuilding plan facing president/GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Alan Trammell will take time in the field, where potentially four 30-somethings could be in the everyday lineup. For the pitching staff, however, the time to rebuild is now. And who will take the mound on Opening Day March 31 is almost as much of a guess as who will take the mound on Opening Day in 2005.
"I wouldn't have expected it," Maroth said last month of all the change. "A lot of guys have good opportunities. Spring Training will be interesting."
After rebuilding the sense of pride on the Tigers, starting pitching might be the toughest task Trammell faces in Spring Training. It's a major reason why he broke with his pattern of ex-Tigers as coaches in favor of veteran pitching instructor and longtime friend Bob Cluck. He worked with young staffs in Houston and Oakland, and he'll have another group of kids to mold here.
It's not that Detroit's starting pitching was awful last year. The starters actually provided most of the few Tigers highlights, from Jose Lima's 1-hour, 41-minute win to Jeff Weaver's one-hitter to Andy Van Hekken's complete-game victory in his Major League debut.
Tigers starters were good enough, in fact, that other teams wanted them. When president/GM Dave Dombrowski chose to restock the farm system with prospects last summer, he soon realized he couldn't acquire top young talent unless he offered up his ace, Weaver. That deal brought in the Tigers' cleanup hitter (Carlos Peña) and two of the team's current top three prospects.
Six months later, the man who replaced Weaver as the ace was gone, too. The Marlins gave up three young pitchers for lefty Mark Redman, one of whom (Gary Knotts) could make the rotation right now. With Jose Lima's unconditional release falling in between the two trades, three-fifths of the rotation from last Opening Day is gone.
When asked about his rotation during the Tigers' winter caravan, Trammell listed Maroth and Van Hekken as strong possibilities. He listed others -- specifically Steve Sparks, Nate Cornejo, Knotts and Shane Loux -- as competing for the other spots. When pressed further about it, he said no plan is clear just yet. For one reason, it's too early. For another, it's too confusing at this point.
"I'm not going to say Mike and Andy [are locks] because of their lack of experience," Trammell said. "I'm not going to just give it to anybody. But right now, they would be the first two guys."
Sparks and Cornejo both began last season in the rotation and were bumped out of it at some point. Sparks would seem a strong choice for his experience, more than twice as many big-league starts compared to the rest of the 40-man roster combined, and the respect he earns in the clubhouse.
But at age 37, Sparks has as many question marks as the young kids. He ranked as the AL's worst pitcher in four statistical categories, including ERA, as hitters pounced on his knuckleball. As great as he looked on occasion, the worst of his struggles were difficult to watch: seven runs on eight hits in 1 1/3 innings May 11, a 10-game stretch in which opponents hit .374 against him.
"With what we have right now," Trammell said of Sparks last month, "he will be given an opportunity [to start]. But I'm not going to lock myself into anything right now, because I don't know."
Cornejo enters his third season as a top prospect on the verge of sticking in Detroit. His second-half stint in 2001 impressed enough Tigers brass to earn him a spot in last year without having to earn it in Spring Training. But his struggles in camp carried over to the regular season, and by Memorial Day he was back in the minors. This year, he needs a strong spring to seal a spot, or his top prospect status becomes clouded.
Loux had a stellar summer stretch in the minors, tossing three shutouts in a four-game run. When he reached Detroit in September, however, he was battered for 14 runs on 19 hits in 14 innings. He's the fourth competitor in a battle for three spots, meaning he'll have to beat out somebody.
Then there are the fringe entries who are more likely this year than anytime in recent Tiger history to compete for spots. Rule 5 pick Matt Roney has the velocity to earn a job if he shows control with his pitches and keeps his calm. Transplanted Marlins prospect Nate Robertson could bypass Triple-A for the Majors with an outstanding spring. Then there's minor-league free agent lefties Rafael Roque and Steve Avery, both trying to reclaim promising past.
Not only could any of these guys start the season with the Tigers, but any of them could start on Opening Day. "When you're 55-106," Cluck said when Avery signed, "you can't turn your back on anyone with talent."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at
email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.