DETROIT -- What can make up the subtle difference between a pennant-winning season and a very good season that ends without a postseason berth? For the Tigers, it starts with the starting pitching. But then, everything with the Tigers starts with starting pitching.
There's a belief by some in baseball, one that is statistically proven over history, that a playoff-caliber team usually needs about 70 wins from its starting pitchers. The 2006 American League champion Tigers earned 75 wins from their rotation, which posted a Major League-best 4.00 ERA and 976 1/3 innings. This year's Tigers finished with 62 victories from starters, a 4.68 ERA, and 932 innings from the starters.
They were good, but not great, which reflects the Tigers as a whole in 2007. The wins ranked them sixth among American League teams, but the other two categories ranked ninth.
A large part of that was an issue of depth. Mostly because of injuries, partly because of inconsistencies, Detroit used 12 starting pitchers in 2007, four more than last year and more than any Tigers team since the 2002 version went through 13 starters. Five Tigers made their first Major League starts, from top pitching prospect Andrew Miller to lesser-known Virgil Vasquez to relatively anonymous Yorman Bazardo. None of them goes into 2008 assured of a starting spot.
While Jair Jurrjens opened organizational eyes to his potential, Miller eventually showed the work he has left to do before being ready to stick. Bazardo showed why he might be worth keeping next season, when he's out of Minor League options. Vasquez and Jordan Tata loom as options to come out of the farm system again, should the need arise.
Meanwhile, the core had mixed results. For all the success of Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman saw his ERA rise almost a full run to 5.01 while he tried to pitch through a sore elbow. He'll enter his sixth big league season at age 25. Nate Robertson's ERA also rose by almost a run, in part because his batting average against rose 30 points. Those three form the guaranteed spots going into next season.
If momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher, as Leyland is apt to say, then the starting pitching says a lot about this year's team. The rotation had its quality starts, but never in the quantity to build much momentum. Its season-high winning streak lasted eight games from the end of April into early May, a stretch that surprisingly included just four quality starts. It won more than five games in a row only once after that.
Defining moment: Coming off a dramatic walk-off victory the night before at Comerica Park, the Tigers came out flat in a rubber game against the Royals. Two runs in the sixth and another in the seventh off Nate Robertson helped Kansas City put away a 5-2 win. The Tigers would go a month and a half without a series win until the end of August, an 11-23 stretch that eventually cost them the AL Central.
2007 Tigers statistical leaders
|Average: Magglio Ordonez, .363||Wins: Justin Verlander, 18|
|Doubles: Ordonez, 54||Losses: Nate Robertson, 13|
|Triples: Curtis Granderson, 23||ERA (starter): Verlander, 3.66|
|Home runs: Ordonez, 28||ERA (reliever, min. 10 appearances): Yorman Bazardo, 2.28|
|Runs: Granderson, 122||Saves: Todd Jones, 38|
|RBIs: Ordonez, 139|
|Stolen bases: Granderson, 26|
What went right: So much for that sophomore slump, since Justin Verlander won 17 games and added a no-hitter to his already impressive resume. Magglio Ordonez also built off last year and reached numbers he hadn't seen before, including a batting title and RBI numbers rivaling Hank Greenberg. Curtis Granderson learned from his high-strikeout ways, changed his approach and matured into one of the most dangerous all-around leadoff hitters in baseball.
What went wrong: Injuries. At one point, the setup duo of Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney were both on the disabled list. Kenny Rogers missed most of the season with two different DL stints. Gary Sheffield's summer-long shoulder woes proved one injury too many for the team to overcome. Craig Monroe and Brandon Inge took free-swinging steps backward from their 2006 campaigns, while calls up to Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin backfired. Jose Mesa, whose Tigers tenure now seems like ages ago, didn't provide the bullpen depth the Tigers hoped to add.
Biggest surprise: Most expected Granderson to make some progress, but 20 homers, 20 doubles, 20 triples and 20 steals? Considering no one had done it since Willie Mays, that wasn't in the plans.
Rotation: It's young, possibly real young, but it's not as stable as one might think. Nate Robertson is eligible for arbitration again, and Miller and Jurrjens may or may not be ready for the big leagues full-time. However, the decisions start with Rogers, who wants to come back but will be 43 years old and coming off elbow problems. The Tigers would like him back but have to know he is healthy first.
Bullpen: The closer's spot is open with Todd Jones a free agent, leaving a decision to make as to whether Zumaya is ready to take over -- and whether it's prudent to take either one out of setup. Either way, if the Tigers don't re-sign Jones, they'll be on the market for a late-inning arm, whether the inning is the eighth or ninth. The middle and long areas are more stable.
Biggest need: Though Zumaya and Rodney are maturing, the back end of the bullpen needs that one veteran arm, whether it's Jones or someone else.
Prospect to watch: The Maybin experiment down the stretch didn't have nearly the impact the Tigers hoped, but it shouldn't be long before Maybin does. He'll start next year back in the Minors, likely at Double-A Erie, but a hot start will begin the debate again if the Tigers can't get more production out of left field.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.