Springtime Storylines: Is Dontrelle Willis going to make the Tigers rotation?

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Tigers logo old.gifBetween now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Tiger Time:

The
big question: Is Dontrelle Willis going to make the Tigers rotation?

I’m still kind of dubious, but the fact that it’s the end of March and we’re even asking that question is pretty astounding.  Before spring training started the rotation seemed kind of set: Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer, Armando Galarraga, Jeremy Bonderman and, if Bonderman couldn’t cut it, Nate Robertson.

But then a funny thing happened: Galarraga got optioned to Toledo. Bonderman has struggled. Robertson has been pretty solid but Willis — the guy who told everyone at the beginning of spring training that he was terrible — has been nothing short of astounding. Well, maybe that’s putting it too strongly as spring training stats are beyond unreliable, but the ball is going over the plate, he isn’t walking too many people and guys are swinging and missing.  Today was a mixed bag — Willis was wild, but he recovered and his velocity was good — but the fact remains that Jim Leyland is going to have tough choice to make before the Tigers leave Lakeland.

And even if Willis doesn’t make it, at the very worst, a guy that everyone gave up for dead is going to walk off the mound this spring rather than be carted off, and that’s more than we ever could have imagined a mere month ago.

So what else is going on?

  • New young faces: Austin Jackson in center. Scott Sizemore at second. A lot of people thought that Johnny Damon (more on him below) would be the Tigers new leadoff man and that Jackson would start in Toledo, but a great spring from Jackson changed that.  I’m curious to see how he does. He obviously won’t be as good as his spring has indicated — he’s green and will get challenged once pitchers stop fooling around with him — but I also think that the Tigers sold high on Granderson, so even if he struggles it won’t be that big a falloff.  As for Sizemore, he’s had a rough spring. Lingering effects of the broken ankle? First real exposure to major league pitchers? Hard to say.  If he struggles early he could be in Toledo himself.
  • New old face: Johnny Damon. I’m not expecting good things here. Just because you read Damon’s home/road splits from 2009 a million times over the winter — .915 OPS and 17 HR at Yankee Stadium and seven
    homers and a .795 on the road — doesn’t mean the difference is being overstated. He’s losing the short porch in right. He’s gaining some hectareage he’ll have to cover in left.  Opposing third base coaches will be waving fat guys from second base on Damon’s noodly left appendage.  At least he’ll have the octopus to cheer him up. 
  • New thin face: Miguel Cabrera gave up the sauce, shed some pounds and came back to camp with his head seemingly screwed on right.  He hit .324/.396/.547 all puffy, hungover and, at least on one occasion, arguably drunk.  With his fresh and healthy new outlook, the guy may really hurt some baseballs this summer.

So how
are they gonna do?

Pretty good, I think. Their top three starters are better than the top three on the competition. I worry about the non-Jose Valverde portion of their bullpen, though, and between the youthful inexperience of Sizemore and Jackson and the aged fragility of guys like Brandon Inge, Carlos Guillen, and Magglio Ordonez there are a lot of things that could send the Tigers’ season sideways.  Still, I’m vibing optimistic for some reason, and I think they’ll contend on the arms and backs of Verlander, Scherzer, Porcello and Cabrera.  And if, as is sadly likely, Ernie Harwell departs the mortal coil sometime this season, I expect him to pull an Obi-Wan, become one with The Force and freakin’ will this team to the playoffs (alongside the shimmering spirits of Ty Cobb and Mark Fidrych) 

Prediction: Second place, AL Central, but I think they’ll be in it all year.

Bud Norris exits outing with right knee soreness

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Angels’ right-handed reliever Bud Norris made his 23rd appearance of the season on Friday, and after just three pitches, he was done for the night. He worked a 2-1 count to Marlins’ Dee Gordon in the eighth inning, then promptly exited the field after experiencing some tightness in his right knee. Neither Norris nor manager Mike Scioscia believe the injury is cause for major concern, and the 32-year-old right-hander admitted that it may have had something to do with his lack of stretching before he took the mound. For now, he’s day-to-day with right knee soreness, with the hope that the issue doesn’t escalate over the next few days.

While the Angels are lucky to have avoided serious injury, they’ll need Norris to pitch at 100% if they want to stay competitive within the AL West. They currently sit a full nine games behind the league-leading Astros, and haven’t been helping their cause after taking five losses in their last eight games. Friday’s 8-5 finale marked their third consecutive loss of the week.

 

When healthy, Norris has been one of the better arms in the Angels’ bullpen. Through 23 2/3 innings, he’s pitched to a 2.66 ERA, 3.4 BB/9 and an outstanding 11.8 SO/9 in 23 outings. The righty hasn’t allowed a single run in four straight appearances, recording three saves and helping the club clinch four wins in that span. This is his second setback of the year after sustaining a partial fingernail tear on his pitching hand during spring training.

Video: Max Scherzer sets record with 13-strikeout outing

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Max Scherzer is a force to be reckoned with. The Nationals’ right-hander delivered a season-high 13 strikeouts against the Padres on Friday, locking down his fifth win and his fourth double-digit strikeout performance of the year.

More remarkably, it was also the 53rd double-digit strikeout performance of Scherzer’s career, tying Clayton Kershaw for the most 10+ strikeout appearances by an active major league pitcher. Chris Sale is a distant third, with 43 to his name, though he’s been making considerable strides to catch up so far this spring.

Scherzer took the Padres to task on Friday night, whiffing 13 of 31 batters during his 108-pitch outing. He started strong, catching Allen Cordoba swinging on a 1-2 count to start the game and keeping the game scoreless until Ryan Schimpf unleashed a home run in the fourth inning. That was the first and final run the Padres managed off of Scherzer, who retired 14 consecutive batters following the blast and came one out shy of a complete game in the ninth inning. (Fittingly, Koda Glover polished off the win with a final strikeout, bringing the total to 14 on the night.)

It’ll take more than one stellar start to advance Scherzer and Kershaw on the all-time list, however. Their 53-game record ranks 13th, about 159 games behind second-place Hall of Fame hurler Randy Johnson and a full 162 games shy of the inimitable Nolan Ryan.