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Going North

John Stroba-Writer

March 22, 2010

There are only a couple weeks left in Spring Training, and now the Tigers roster is paring down and starting to take shape. The last few roster battle are sorting themselves out. Still, there are cards yet to be dealt that can effect the 25 man roster going north.

Injuries

Bobby Seay LOOGY:
What starts out as some bicep tightness early on in Spring Training is now serious enough that chances are pretty good that Seay is going to be starting the season on the DL. How long that stay is remains to be seen, if he does not get into a game in the next couple of weeks, then Seay is probably going to need at least a bit of a rehab assignment to get his arm strength back. The earliest it is looking to be is late April before Seay coming back. Quite possibly, this is a long term condition.

Assuming Seay goes on the DL (and that seems very likely) who then gets his roster spot? That would probably be the strike-throwing Eddie Bonine. Leyland loves guys that throw strikes coming out of the bullpen. Bonine can certainly do that though his stuff is rather marginal. Still that is what you want out of a long man. Just throw strikes and trust the defense. Bonine does have the possibility of entering the rotation as a stop gap, but his best role is taking over the long man role.

Phil Coke and Fu Te-Ni are the top candidates to take over the top LOOGY role for the Tigers while Seay is down. Coke did excel in that role last year under Yankees Manager Joe Giradi. Coke at one time (and might be down the line) a rotation candidate, but a very good spring from Nate Robertson and an effectively wild one from Dontrelle Willis are pushing him back into the bullpen. Coke absolutely dominated lefties last year to the tune of 195/218/366. Fu-Te Ni was even more impressive destroying lefties at a 113/211/258 clip last year. Bobby Seay is a guy that better be getting healthy quickly or he is going to be finding that he is out of a pretty easy job.

Zach Miner RP: Miner does have a tender elbow. He does not seem to think it is a big deal and if he is missing some time it will be a very short time when the season starts. Miner is one of those multi-inning guys out of the bullpen that are developing because of more and more specialization in the bullpen. He can start, if needed, eat up a couple innings to be a bridge to the 7th and 8th innings. It is a rather unique role that Miner does have, and likely no one person could totally assume it.

It is a bit murky who would take Miner's place in the pen. The best bet probably would be someone like Robbie Wienhardt. Weinhardt does have a very nice fastball/slider combination that is getting notice from Leyland and Dombrowski. Weinhardt would likely take over the multi inning role (if needed) for the short time that Miner might be out. However, if a starter is needed then it would be falling Eddie Bonine/Nate Robertson.

Dontrelle Willis P: In his last start Dontrelle did experience some back spasms. The real question is how severe are they. During his start against Houston it did seem to knock a few MPH off of his fastball. Is it going to be enough to derail his effectively wild spring training quest for the #5 SP slot? If it does, then that means Nate Robertson is going to be sliding into that rotation spot. Leyland would then probably be looking at another lefty out of the pen and that would leave Brad Thomas, a lefty from Korea that the Tigers signed to a 1 million/1 year major league deal this offseason. Thomas is out of options. If Thomas does not make the team you can almost hear Zach Simons (who lost his roster spot for Thomas) shaking his head in disbelief.

3 starters/ 2 slots

Coming into spring training there are numerous options to fill the last two back slots in the Tigers rotation (Bonderman, Robertson, Coke, Armando G., Bonine and even Dontrelle Willis). Now the battle is done to the final three pitchers for these slots.

Jermey Bonderman: Make no mistake, Bonderman is not pitching well enough to cement the #4 starting slot. There is very little doubt that the Tigers, coming into spring training, are pencilling him in dark letters for that slot assuming he is healthy. All indications are that Bonderman is healthy though. Seriously, no rolling of the eyes over there! Bonderman is also supposedly learning a third pitch as well. Yeah, I think every Detroit is tired of hearing of that over the years as well. In fact, some fans call in question his ability to learn the change up. However, this time it is a split finger that he is supposedly learning this spring. A split finger is an aggressive pitch and if there is one thing that Bonderman is consistent in it is aggression. A split would seem to fit his personality and style of pitching much more than a change up which is a feel pitch.

There are other reason for the Tigers to be bullish on Bonderman despite his spring struggles. His collapse (the past 1.5 years) can be traced back to an injury. In an almost a historical surgery (only Kenny Rogers has had the same kind of surgery to my knowledge) Bonderman did have to have a rib removed to improve his circulation. The fact that did pitch at all in the majors is really remarkable last year. His velocity seems almost all the way back now it is a matter of control which is usually the last thing that comes around after major surgery. It is telling that Leyland is telling Bonderman you need that 3rd pitch now to be an effective pitcher. That is coming off a pounding he took Friday in which his comments reflect that he thinks he is on thin ice just making the team. Reading between the lines, Leyland is telling Bonderman to work on that splitter and get that up to par in the spring. That working on the splitter is not going to be costing him a job on the staff and in the rotation at least to start the season. Detroit is going to be finding out right away if Bonderman can give them some league average innings, and if he can he be a huge boon to their chances of winning the division. Should that not happen look for the Tigers to move him to the bullpen where he can pick a few MPH on his stuff.

Dontrelle Willis: Dontrelle so far in Spring Training is effectively wild. That is not saying much considering how many prospects and roster filler makes up the early Spring Training lineups. Right now, Dontrelle is not being pounded which is a big step up. There is a changed approach with him as well. When he did get into a jam against Houston, in his last start, he said he trusted his defense. In the past that has not been the case. It makes me wonder if Dontrelle never trusted his defense, like a pitcher should, all the way back in his Florida days.

There is little question in his last year with the Marlins, their defense was very bad. Miguel Cabrera was the everyday third baseman, and Tiger fans can distinctly remember how awful Cabrera was at the hot corner. Hanley Rameriz did have a very bad year defensively at shortstop (though he is about an average defensive shortstop now), and Dan Uggla is a below average second baseman as well. Throw in a converted catcher playing LF, and that is one of the worst defensive left sides (and second base) in the entire decade. With Willis going down to injury and possibly being rushed back, it is little wonder if he started to think he needed to be perfect every time out. There is very little question that Willis does have more talent than either Bonderman or Robertson. If he can get back to that pitcher----well that is the real question is it not? It is a long time since that pitcher surfaces on a consistent basis. The stuff (at least most of it) seems to be there.

Another thing to consider is that he is coming back from an anxiety disorder as well. The problem with Dontrelle is that he gets too amped up at times. So the key, is going to be giving him as much as a consistent routine as one gets in the majors. And that consistency will be coming from being in the rotation. Coming out of the bullpen as a long man might mean he does not get any work for a month and then pitches 5 innings in 2 games over 3 days. Being in the rotation, pitching every 5th game, establishes that routine. Of course, if Dontrelle goes to the DL then all of this is moot.

Nate Robertson P: Unlike the other two rotation candidates, Robertson does not an injury (Bonderman) or head issues (Willis) that can explain away his decline. Of course saying Nate's struggles since 2007 have been struggling is being very kind. The fact is over the last 2 years , Nate is simply a bad pitcher. A move to the bullpen last year did not seem to help, and even what looks like a late season surge on the surface (1-3 3.75 ERA from 8/29 to the end of the season). It does not hold up on further inspection. Nate also had a WHIP in the 1.6+ range and barely stuck out more than he walked in 28.2 ip. Batters teed him up in that stretch to the tune of 300/380/381. About the only very good thing Nate did was keep the ball in the ballpark (2 hrs allowed during that period). Given his performance previous to that and 2008. That looks more like a stat fluke than anything else.

Some reports out of Lakeland have Robertson finding his slider again. That is a pitch that consistently left him last year. And I truly hope that Robertson is a better pitcher (though he could hardly be worse than he was) and he is having a very good Spring Training. Everything being equal he should be in the rotation. But I really do not see that happening heading north. Bonderman and Willis just have much higher upsides if they are right. Odds are one of them are going to falter and fall off into the ditch. Then Robertson will get his chance. Best case is that Robertson is a league average or slightly below league average starter. If Bonderman and Willis are right they are at least league average. The upsides of Bonderman and Willis are going to get the call to start the season, but I would not be surprised to see Robertson take over for one of them later in the year.

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