April 3, 2010 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers still look like a third-place team

Austin Jackson is hitting .353 in spring training games with a .429 on-base percentage. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Issues and answers a day before the Tigers dive into their 2010 regular season:

Do they have enough pitching? No. Nobody has enough pitching. In that context, the Tigers are no different from any other team on Opening Day. The Tigers still have a comparative advantage on most teams. Their top three starters are deadly. They have a terrific bullpen, beginning with the security attained when they signed Jose Valverde. Joel Zumaya's return to his old, blow-'em-away habits (his last three appearances in Florida were devastating) is huge, as is the presence of Ryan Perry, the single most under-appreciated big arm on the Tigers staff.

But it's still a question as to those last two rotation spots. Jeremy Bonderman -- I think -- is capable of a .500 season with significant innings. He needs to make his share of quality starts, as does Dontrelle Willis, or those will be difficult games for the Tigers to win, and potentially taxing on a bullpen heading into the starts by Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Max Scherzer.

How will Willis do? Big question there, which leads into congratulations and to an apology. I wrote two weeks ago that I believed Willis would be released and Bonderman and Nate Robertson would be in the Tigers rotation. Other than the fact Robertson was traded and Willis became a fifth starter, it was a great call.

Hey, no one who knows Willis doesn't root for a man so honorable. He is consistently upbeat, has Johnny Carson's gift for good-hearted humor, and has fought through two horrific years to have made the club (the applause begins here). If he can keep the ball within home plate's radar, he should be fine.

Why did Dave Dombrowski trade Nate Robertson? No idea. It was a stunning announcement Tuesday, and as this is written four days later, it's still baffling. We discussed it with Dombrowski on Tuesday, and it came down to this: He believed Willis was back to his earlier ways as a solid big-leaguer. By putting Willis in the rotation, he would need to stick Robertson in the bullpen, and that wouldn't sit well with Nate, which was a long face the Tigers didn't believe would be helpful.

I get that. What I don't share is Dombrowski's assurance Willis will be sturdy. He still walked 12 batters in 19 1/3 innings during his seven Grapefruit League stints. That ratio isn't going to do the Tigers any favors if it persists through the regular season, and there's zero reason to believe it won't be a pattern.

So what if Robertson was ticked about going to the bullpen? He was upset last year and still pitched fairly well. He was throwing strikes and putting away batters in Florida. So, rather than have him as a safety valve if things don't work out with Willis, rather than having him in the bullpen as a long or short reliever, the Tigers sent him to Florida and still picked up most of his salary.

I don't get it. I don't get it. I don't get it.

There has been a feeling for some time the Tigers are bound and determined to validate the trade for Willis and the big 2009-10 contract extension that was soon granted. Would that motivation happen at the expense of putting together a competitive roster? Of course not. But in this view there was a deep, abiding need to justify the Willis investment and it had its overtones here.

Will the Tigers have enough offense? Again, no, and this time it's not only a matter of every team needing another bat. The Tigers look from this perch like a second-tier offensive team. They likely won't hit enough home runs, or have sufficient slugging percentage through the back stretch of the batting order, to generate enough runs to support pitching that won't always be shutout-grade.

That's why the 2010 Tigers appear, from this vantage point, to be an 80-victory team. Again, any surprises likely are to be on the plus side, which include this player:

Brandon Inge will hit 30 home runs. This was bound to happen if Inge's knees were healthy. His knees are solid, and so is the swing he adopted last spring when he finally got on the same page with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. The Get Rid of Inge Club will still scream because his batting average might not exceed .245, and because he probably will rack up 100-plus strikeouts. But for a third baseman with his knockdown glove to hit 30 home runs and drive in almost 100, which are the thoughts here, those are terrific numbers everywhere but in the Out With Inge camp.

Magglio Ordonez should be an All-Star hitter again . No question. It took terrific drive to get into the condition Ordonez showed off in Florida. His determination made it possible to add more miles to a high-horsepower engine.

Austin Jackson will be a game-changer . Probably not this year as much as in 2011 and beyond, but the Tigers earn a blue ribbon-plus for trusting in their belief of Jackson and his skills. He was, personally speaking, the most impressive player in spring camp. Fans will love the way he plays center field and they'll steadily cheer his hitting and the multi-gear offense he can bring to an inning. In two years or less, he will be -- in this view -- a better all-around player than Curtis Granderson.

How will the Tigers do in the division? They will be hard-pressed to be more than a .500 team. I thought for most of the spring they would finish third, behind the Twins, and the second-place White Sox, who have an excellent rotation. And, while conceding the White Sox have their own issues, that's the view today.

Willis hopes a certain scribe is as wrong there as he was on the rotation's forecast.

lynn.henning@detnews.com">lynn.henning@detnews.com

Tigers pitcher Dontrelle Willis proved some people wrong when he earned a ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
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