April 6, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Despite spring struggles, Tigers confident in pitching staff

Edwin Jackson came to the Tigers in the trade that sent outfielder Matt Joyce to the Rays. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

Lakeland, Fla. -- No one quite understood it, at least to hear baseball sages talk about a 2008 baseball season that saw the Tigers become the year's most stunning failure.

And yet there was little to not understand.

Tigers pitching fell flat.

And it did so for three reasons:

  • Injuries.

  • Chillingly poor performances by proven pitchers.

  • Team defense that at too many positions was a base hit or extra base waiting to happen.

    It was that concise.

    Fixing it, however, figured to be more complicated heading into 2009, particularly for a front office and a manager who were shaken and humiliated by what had happened to a team and an organization that had previously been on a fairly steady ascent.

    Diving into a new season that begins with a tough four-game series at Toronto, all that matters to Dave Dombrowski, the team's president and general manager, and to Jim Leyland, who heads into his fourth season as manager, is whether the team has undergone enough recoveries, additions, and upgrades to make the Tigers a contender.

    "I think our pitching has a chance to be significantly better," Dombrowski said. "What we've seen out of a lot of guys is that we should have significantly better pitching this season."

    Young guns

    Rick Porcello andright-handed reliever Ryan Perry could provide an element of surprise for the Tigers.

    After all, it was new pitching blood in 2006, in Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, which factored heavily in the Tigers' surprise march to the World Series.

    Dombrowski concedes the kids have been looking better than good. It's the GM's way of saying he wouldn't be surprised if each pitcher at some point this season has a say.

    "You have to tip your cap to two of the most talented young kids I've ever seen in camp," Dombrowski said. "They have great abilities and have opened people's eyes here. We'll sit back and see where it takes us."

    The possible contributions from Porcello and Ryan are significant because of the pitches each prodigy throws: Porcello has a sinker; Perry throws a 98-mph fastball, a power slider and solid change-up.

    Verlander appears to have purged last season's gremlins because of two influences: his superb talent, and some ideas and techniques introduced by the team's new pitching coach, Rick Knapp. Whether those tweaks are anything new from what the former pitching coach, Chuck Hernandez, advocated has not been determined.

    What's clear is that Verlander wants to return to the Verlander of 2006-07 when he won 35 games and that listening to Knapp was viewed as prudent.

    "He's been working on some of the things we wanted him to work on," said Dombrowski, who has no doubt been heartened by Verlander's marginally slower pitching pace, as well as by a front-leg adjustment in his delivery that appears to have helped Verlander with the strike zone, and with an absolute need to reduce his pitch-count.

    In tandem with Verlander, the Tigers need a comeback season from Jeremy Bonderman. But his recovery has been slowed and he starts the season on the disabled list.

    Bonderman, like Verlander, is 26 years old and if he returns to 100 percent will continue to be viewed as the second half of a 1-2 pitching punch the Tigers always envisioned.

    The guy who could mess up that pecking order is Edwin Jackson, 25, who became Dombrowski's surprise offseason acquisition.

    During his first years in professional baseball with the Dodgers, Jackson was renowned for having a power arm that might carry him into elite status by the time he was ready for the big leagues.

    Control issues held him back and ultimately got him traded to Tampa Bay. But by last season, at age of 24, Jackson had tamed his tendency to over-throw. He could still bury a fastball at 97 mph. But he throttled back just enough to stay friends with the strike zone. He won 14 games for a World Series team.

    The Tigers were pleased to learn last autumn Jackson was available. He was being offered by a Rays team that had excess starting pitching and needed a talented, inexpensive outfielder.

    The Tigers got Jackson in a straight-up deal for Matt Joyce. It has the capacity to be an enormously important trade for a Tigers team that can advertise a third power pitcher in its rotation. Not often do starting pitchers with Jackson's fusillade of hard pitches become available for the price of a 24-year-old corner outfielder.

    "I can't answer that question yet, but we like the addition for our ballclub," Dombrowski said of thoughts the Tigers made a steal, Joyce's talents notwithstanding. "When we looked at it at the end of the season, there were a lot of uncertainties with our starting staff.

    "What he (Jackson) brought was the certainty of someone talented and young, as well as a pitcher who won 14 games. It goes back to the old adage that you never have enough pitching."

    In the pen

    As vital as fixing up their starting pitching, it was as critical for the Tigers to repair a bullpen that last year was perilous. Zumaya pitched only for a few weeks at midseason. Todd Jones was on the verge of retirement. Fernando Rodney did not pitch until late spring and never regained control of his fastball.

    Brandon Lyon became an answer to Jones' departure when the Tigers signed the 29-year-old right-hander who could work as a back-end reliever or closer. Lyon did not have a strong spring and won't start the season as closer. That role, at least for Monday's opener, has been given to Rodney.

    Zumaya, if doctors are correct, should ultimately shake off his nagging battery of spring-training aches and return to full force as some form of late-innings fireman, possibly as Leyland's closer. As of now, Zumaya starts the season on the disabled list.

    Dombrowski believes the bullpen has been shored up reassuringly.

    "The situation with Joel, I do feel good about what the doctors are saying," said Dombrowski, who has gotten assurances from no less than famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews that Zumaya should be able to pitch effectively for the long term.

    "I think with Joel, he's gonna have to get out there and pitch at some point. And that's when I'll start to feel good, I know he has the ability. It's understandable that he's gone through a lot over the last year and-a-half. We feel good that this is something he can work through.

    "The doctors' report is very encouraging."

    Any assessment of Lyon by Dombrowski generally leads to the use of one word, repeatedly: "veteran." Lyon has pitched for seven seasons in the big leagues. He was believed to have been over-used by the Diamondbacks in 2008, which in the Tigers' view was why he lost his closer's job later in the season.

    The Tigers understand Lyon is not a conventional closer with a high-horsepower fastball and bat-busting slider. But they believe he has a solid repertoire of pitches and will throw strikes, somewhat in the fashion of his predecessor, Jones.

    "He's a veteran presence at the end of our bullpen who's gonna pitch well," Dombrowski said.

    Rodney presents a different discussion. It is one of redemption for a right-hander whose health and control issues made him the personification of a bullpen accident in 2008.

    It is no secret Rodney is eligible for free agency this autumn and pitching effectively this season could lead to a jackpot contract. Was that incentive, perhaps, to have come to camp strong, with a slightly reduced waistline, in 2009? The Tigers aren't arguing.

    "I don't think there's any question that Fernando is in great shape, that he's worked hard during the winter, and that he's healthy," Dombrowski said. "We know he has a lot to be gained."

    Manager Jim Leyland has said repeatedly this spring how much "I like, really like, our ballclub."

    And for Leyland, that usually begins with his pitching.

    "If it plays out the way I think," he said, a couple of weeks before heading north, "I think I'll be happy with the pitching. We're going to have to put it all together at the end, but I like our team a lot."

    Backing them up

    Leyland and his pitching staff definitely should like the bricked-up defense engineered by Dombrowski during the offseason.

    The Tigers were not prepared for what they saw, and probably should have foreseen, in 2008. But the atrocious left-side infield defense, the deterioration of Pudge Rodriguez behind the plate, and some generally below-average performances in the outfield (even hallowed center fielder Curtis Granderson had a remarkably undistinguished season with the glove) pushed Dombrowski and his team to get busy fixing the defense.

    James Click of Baseball Prospectus, which operates as a kind of M.I.T. of baseball, used its Bill James-inspired science to compute a calibration for how the Tigers' defense had slipped.

    It's a little thing called Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. And what it says is this: The Tigers, who in 2006 were first in the American League and fourth in Major League Baseball in turning batted balls into outs, fell to eighth in the AL and 18th in the majors in 2008.

    Small wonder a pitching staff not known for massive amounts of strikeouts got its ears boxed by fielders who couldn't grab ground balls or fly balls.

    Much has been re-aligned. Adam Everett rather than Edgar Renteria will be patrolling shortstop, which will be a night-versus-day comparison in terms of range. Brandon Inge will be a regular fixture at third base, completing the makeover of Leyland's left-side defense. Gerald Laird will be catching and restoring more solid and consistent behavior at a vital defensive position.

    Carlos Guillen in left field should be something of an upgrade, at least on a relative scale.

    Magglio Ordonez has little range in right field and remains problematic. Granderson needs to play more to his considerable capacity in center field. But, on balance, the Tigers should at least be average in their outfield defense, which will be an improvement on 2008.