Justin Verlander has an ERA of 1.83 and a WHIP of 1.19 through six starts. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Houston — Thirty days into a new season and here's what we know, and don't know, about the 2013 Tigers:
Their starting pitching is good enough to win a World Series. No news there, except on the plus side. It's better than most anticipated. Justin Verlander is now a craftsman as well as a blow-away ace, which is why he could win another Cy Young Award. The next three (Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez) are blue-chip starters. Rick Porcello will probably pitch 185 innings and in the final analysis be a contributor. Drew Smyly awaits his turn.
Their bullpen, predictably, has calmed down. It gets back to the old April issue: Don't judge a team by the regular season's first weeks. It's as distorted as looking at a fun-house mirror. Jose Valverde has absorbed the ninth inning and looks as if he will be fine. The rest of the crew is a mixed bag of reasonably talented people. There is enough depth at Triple A Toledo to withstand disabled-list visits and to replace blown tires (Bruce Rondon).
The Tigers still have to deal with the Porcello-Smyly issue. For now, the Tigers insist they can use Smyly sufficiently to keep a starting pitcher's arm well-oiled. That's critical, because Smyly belongs in the starting rotation. A kid with his talent is a godsend to a relief corps. But the Tigers have a jewel of a starter and need in time to make him part of their five-man crew. It suggests a July trade involving Porcello is still the percentage bet.
Torii Hunter was the off-season's best free-agent signing. The Tigers got an extraordinary gift from the Angels when Los Angeles decided against offering Hunter a one-year contract. Hunter is a perfect No. 2 hitter. He has cleaned up the team's right-field defense. He is a Nobel Peace Prize in a baseball uniform. Canonization proceedings have begun in Rome.
Victor Martinez is Victor Martinez. Fans who didn't see him in spring camp were skeptical. He is 34 years old. He missed an entire season. He had a lousy April batting average. Therefore, his bat must be slow. Uh, no. His bat was fine. He hit a crazy number of ropes that were straight at a defender's glove. He remains Victor Martinez: a seemingly eternal pure hitter.
Bruce Rondon wasn't ready for the big leagues. On a list of spring sports surprises, this was right there with: "Jets release Tim Tebow." Rondon is 22. The Tigers were hoping against hope that a pitching prodigy was ready. He wasn't. The constructive news is that they will now allow him time to mix in his second and third pitches and evolve into the Pentagon-grade weapon he soon will be. But that won't happen inside of a month, or even two. The Tigers learned their lesson.
July will feature another big Dave Dombrowski trade. This, probably, is where the Porcello-Smyly issue will be resolved. It's still early, almost three months until the trade deadline, and much — much — will happen. But whatever soft spots Dombrowski sees in July will almost certainly be handled by way of a summer deal in which the Tigers front-office chief specializes. The Tigers have the trade chips: Porcello, Avisail Garcia, deep organizational catching. That all equates to another July blockbuster.
The Tigers' defense is stable. That word, "stable," is also what they say about recovering patients who are a long way from hospital discharge. But there have been defensive improvements, most of them in the outfield, thanks to Hunter, and to left-fielders (Andy Dirks, Don Kelly) who unlike last year's cast don't turn outs into game-changing hits. Huge gains there. The infield is still challenged, more than fans or metrics are probably acknowledging. Omar Infante's work at second base is a major plus. And, in most cases, infielders are making plays on balls hit their way.
The payroll is paying homage to owner Mike Ilitch. Like a big road-repair project, the Tigers' dollars are at work in gainful ways. Consider their Tuesday victory over the Twins. Miguel Cabrera drew a walk with a man on base, all because the Twins stayed away from mayhem. They chose as their poison Prince Fielder, who mashed a 430-foot home run to left-center. It was a payroll victory. It happened primarily because two players who will draw a combined $44 million in 2013 each did extraordinary work in one inning to win a one-run game. Dare fans say, as they happily spend the owner's bucks, Cabrera and Fielder — among others — are worth every penny.