Henning: Tigers will rise or fall with their pitching

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. —  Brad Ausmus likes his new digs. And really likes his old team.

The Detroit Tigers manager stepped inside his new blue-and-white office Tuesday morning at Publix Field at Marchant Stadium. It’s the revised name for a ballpark and baseball complex flashing $48 million in spectacular upgrades that probably most please the skipper and his players.

Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander smiles as he warms up during spring training Monday at Tigertown in Lakeland, Florida.

The new Tigers clubhouse is the size of a small banquet hall. Ausmus’ office is a den-sized escape no longer home to a whirring cold-drink machine that made managerial briefings in the old closet-sized space a daily challenge for one’s ears.

“Sometimes no change is the best change of all,” Ausmus said as he talked about that “old team” business – the fact Detroit’s roster has been tweaked so sparingly since 2016.

It is a strange atmosphere as the Tigers convene spring camp, 2017. It’s as if there was simply a four-month interlude between February and that Sunday in Atlanta on Oct. 2 when the Tigers were shut out, 1-0, by Julio Teheran, wrecking their 2016 playoff dream.

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Center field has since become unsettled. Mikie Mahtook, JaCoby Jones and Tyler Collins will fight for time once owned by the since-traded Cameron Maybin. But otherwise the team is pretty much unchanged.

It leads any student of baseball and the Tigers to appreciate what can, and will, decide whether playoffs are in a team’s picture for the first time in three years.

It’s about pitching. Almost entirely.

The Tigers were 28th in ERA in 2015 and finished 74-87. They were 20th in 2016 and won 13 more games.

It’s about arms – and yes, defense, as Ausmus acknowledged Tuesday, which isn’t the Tigers’ strong suit, not in the outfield. But if a starting rotation that in 60 percent of the slots could feature youngsters (Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd) can join Justin Verlander and a rebounding Jordan Zimmermann to offer six good innings in a typical game, the Tigers will have nailed a first step in reuniting with their old October playoff habit.

That’s an ambitious thought. The kids are young, indeed. Fulmer was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2016, and Ausmus knows what’s ahead. Teams and advance scouts will have him in their crosshairs.

“Hitters will adjust, and he’s got to make adjustments back,” Ausmus said.

The bigger question, even more than how left-handers Norris and Boyd fare when they have so few starts behind them, is Zimmermann. Was last year all about a neck and disc issue that has since healed? Can he locate pitches he acknowledges “were all over the place” in 2016? Can he rediscover some of that mid-90s zip on his fastball, which is more essential that Zimmermann cares to acknowledge?

If not, the Tigers will need a bailout from Anibal Sanchez or, perhaps, from Drew VerHagen, who was responsible for Tuesday’s news. A one-time starter who later turned reliever wants a crack at his old role. And the Tigers will grant him a shot during their Grapefruit League tune-ups.

A rotation Ausmus and his boss, Al Avila, can count on will make it easier on that nightmare-inducing roster appendage known as the bullpen.

This might be the best relief group Detroit has seen in years, which is a wager best made with pocket change. Bullpens are notoriously freaky and nearly impossible to project.

The difference is pitchers who make percentage bets possible.

Francisco Rodriguez saved 44 games in 2016. Bruce Rondon turned the corner and became a reliable set-up man. Alex Wilson is annually solid. Justin Wilson has worked mightily on an off-speed pitch. Shane Greene probably has the best pure arm next to Rondon in the bullpen’s back end. Blaine Hardy has shown he can be trusted.

And then there’s the kid, Joe Jiminez, who is getting very close to Comerica Park and could pitch his way onto the team during spring camp.

If a rotation and bullpen can rise seven spots, as they did a year ago, the Tigers not only will work overtime in October’s playoffs, they’ll put heat on a potentially great team that probably got better during the offseason: the Indians, who all but won last year’s world championship.

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Do not be fooled. This isn’t about the Tigers lineup, or about how Ausmus constructs his batting order. The offense on most days will be fine. It’s not about a skipper’s moves, tempting as it will be to make one guy responsible for final scores.

It’s about pitching. Almost exclusively.

Keep an eye not so much on center field, which stands to get a defensive upgrade if either Mahtook or Jones is Ausmus’ choice on Opening Day. Rather, inspect during the next six weeks linescores. Listen to the manager’s and pitching coach’s appraisals of starters and relievers, what they’re throwing, and how they’re getting batters out.

There is your window into 2017. The team’s the same. The pitching can’t be.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning