Tigers Opening Day outlook
Starting rotation needs to eat innings to spare bullpen
The dream team of sorts that Tigers fans have been eyeing on paper takes the field in games that count for the first time on Monday, starting the process of determining if what has been lauded as one of baseball's best offenses can live up to the expectations against a difficult American League Central division.
More important to the club's fortunes, however, will be the pitching staff. While Detroit should be able to plate runs without do-everything leadoff man Curtis Granderson -- who will start the season on the disabled list with a broken finger -- for a couple weeks, they'll need pitching and lots of it to come out on top, especially late in the year. That's a major reason the Tigers sought advantage in having five experienced arms of various ages in the rotation.
Overcoming injuries in the bullpen will require performances from more unproven arms, but the tone of the relief corps will most likely be set by that of the starting staff. A series of deep, efficient starts will allow manager Jim Leyland to pick and choose his relievers according to the situation from the seventh inning on. A couple of quick exits in a row, by contrast, will require the Tigers to fill innings rather than simply managing them.
Even if it's just on paper -- or in this case, a Web page -- the Tigers' offense looks formidable. Besides the individual production of Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the order, there's enough balance up and down this lineup to wear down pitchers over the course of a three- or four-game series. That's where this lineup could have its real effect.
Projected starting lineup
|1. SS Edgar Renteria|
|2. 2B Placido Polanco|
|3. DH Gary Sheffield|
|4. RF Magglio Ordonez|
|5. 3B Miguel Cabrera|
|6. 1B Carlos Guillen|
|7. C Ivan Rodriguez|
|8. LF Jacque Jones|
|9. CF Brandon Inge|
|1. RHP Justin Verlander|
|2. LHP Kenny Rogers|
|3. RHP Jeremy Bonderman|
|4. LHP Nate Robertson|
|5. LHP Dontrelle Willis|
|Closer: RHP Todd Jones|
|Setup: RHP Denny Bautista|
|Setup: LHP Bobby Seay|
|Middle: RHP Zach Miner|
|Middle: RHP Jason Grilli|
|Middle: RHP Aquilino Lopez|
|Long: RHP Yorman Bazardo|
Injuries and inconsistencies have taken what was a workmanlike bullpen entering Spring Training and made it questionable. Some relievers, such as Zach Miner, Bobby Seay and Jason Grilli, will have to take the next steps in their careers. Others, notably Denny Bautista, need the confidence from a solid start to the season to simply build a career.
You'll know they're rollin' if ...
Detroit's starting pitchers are averaging six innings a game, allowing manager Leyland to cover the final three innings with his bullpen rather than having to handle the sixth, too.
You'll know they're in trouble if...
The Tigers' bullpen ends up with anywhere near as many decisions in games as the rotation, especially if the offense is piling up runs as expected. For all the focus on runs scored, Detroit has assembled a veteran rotation in hopes of commanding games and eating up innings. If the Tigers need their relievers to win more than a handful of games in the opening month, even with the schedule they have, that's not a good start.
For all the focus on the big names in what shapes up to be a doozy of an opening month -- visits to Boston, New York and Cleveland included -- the Tigers' four-game weekend in Toronto in mid-April could give a fairly good indication of how this team's start will be judged. It's a long series against an up-and-coming club. It will likely give the Tigers a test against Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett. It brings the letdown factor into play after the first AL Central showdown between the Tigers and Indians. Plus, weather shouldn't play a factor inside Rogers Centre.
The Tigers primarily face the National League West this year, starting with an intriguing mid-May series at Arizona and ending with a home weekend set against the NL champion Rockies at the end of June. In between, there's a visit from Joe Torre's Dodgers, a week-long trip to San Francisco and San Diego, and the obligatory three-game home series with the Cardinals.
The Bottom Line
The Tigers have a roster that warrants World Series expectations, but they'll face the pressure of expectations that rival what any Midwestern team has faced in recent years. They'll score their runs and could well slug their way into the playoffs, but they won't meet their goals if their pitching staff doesn't come together.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.