The Tigers’ Approach to Rotation Depth

They’re called five-man rotations, yet virtually no teams make it through 162 games without relying on more than five starters. There are exceptions, as the 2003 Mariners proved, but on average MLB teams have used 9.9 starters each over the course of the past five years.

That’s why teams sign “depth” starters every offseason and it’s why the Tigers’ current approach stands out. Their front five looks good; Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Phil Coke and Brad Penny promise to keep the Tigers in enough games to make them contenders for the AL Central title. But unlike other teams, the Tigers aren’t stocking up on rotation depth — at least for now.

It’s especially noteworthy since Penny missed most of 2010 with a shoulder strain and that Coke has started exactly one big-league game. Though the left-hander started 77 games in the Yankees’ minor league system and  manager Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski are showing lots of confidence in Coke, he is far from a proven MLB starter.

Some clubs, including Coke’s former team and the Cubs, have loaded up on non-roster invitees with years upon years of experience in the majors. The Tigers’ invitees? They have combined to start all of 30 big-league games.

There’s more to depth than big leaguers, of course, and the Tigers’ system features a number of promising power arms, including an unusually deep group of young left-handers. Andy Oliver could be ready for a big-league role at some point in 2011, though he struggled through his first five big-league starts last summer and the Tigers have said they would prefer not to rush him. While southpaws Duane Below and Charlie Furbush could see the majors this year, it’s hard to imagine Jacob Turner, Drew Smyly or Casey Crosby contributing just yet.

When you consider that most teams rely on ten starters over the course of a season and realize that Oliver, who struggled in the majors, Furbush, who has spent one season above Class A and Below, who hasn’t reached Triple-A, are the Tigers’ next line of defense, it’s apparent that Detroit doesn’t have much depth behind its potentially formidable front five.

Compare the Tigers’ depth to a team like the Red Sox, who don’t have room for Tim Wakefield, Felix Doubront, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller or Junichi Tazawa in their rotation. Or the Reds, who will rely on Mike Leake, Travis Wood, Homer Bailey, Matt Maloney and Sam LeCure to fill two spots. The Braves have similar competition, with Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and Rodrigo Lopez battling for one spot and Kenshin Kawakami and a slew of top prospects providing insurance.

Detroit’s depth doesn’t compare, but it’s not an oversight on the Tigers’ part. They could have re-signed Jeremy Bonderman. Or they could have held on to Armando Galarraga instead of sending him to Arizona in January. Dombrowski knew other pitchers were available this winter and simply wasn’t overwhelmed by the options remaining once Penny signed.

“We had plan Bs and Cs and Ds,” Dombrowski said in January. “We always have different plans, but a lot of different people didn’t provide the upgrade that Penny did.”

The Tigers are comfortable with Penny’s health and confident in Coke’s ability to transition to the rotation, so they weren’t going to keep Galarraga around as a contingency starter, or sign someone for the sake of signing someone.

All rotations are susceptible to injuries and poor performance, and the 2011 Tigers are no exception. They will undoubtedly have alternatives if they need them, since pitching will be available this summer, as it always is. The difference in Detroit: Dombrowski moved what little MLB pitching depth he had out of the organization while rival GMs added starters in anticipation of the 162-game schedule.




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50 Responses to “The Tigers’ Approach to Rotation Depth”

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  1. SamW says:

    What’s the upside of this for the Tigers? Saving money or roster spots? It doesn’t sound like this is intended to be a strategy to develop younger pitchers. It doesn’t seem more efficient to use some kind of ‘just in time’ approach to signing stopgap starters.

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    • ballmich says:

      I believe the strategy is something more along the lines of: Guys currently in the Tiger’s system are just as capable as the re-treads available on minor league deals, so why waste the resources those guys.

      Also, the Tigers do have two NRI guys that are fringy, just not as many as some other ballclubs. Chris Oxspring and Enrique Gonzalez. And Gagnier, Weber and Brown were all omitted from the article, yet they are just as likely (and maybe moreso) than Below and Crosby. If Crosby is healthy, he’s at least two years away in my opinion. Smyly has yet to throw at any level, so we just don’t know about him.

      But really what this comes down to is that the Tigers love Oliver and Turner. If we need SP help this season, expect to see one if not both.

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  2. Josh says:

    I think the Tigers are deluding themselves. Penny is a high injury risk, Coke will more likely than not be a poor starting pitcher, Scherzer (while healthy so far) still has the violent motion scouts have been leery about, and Porcello is a 22-year-old with more than 330 major league innings already. Verlander is a workhorse, but the Tigers really do need insurance for the rest of that rotation.

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    • Zack says:

      The Tigers need to catch a few breaks to win the division. If Scherzer spends significant time on the DL and someone from the Porcello/Penny/Coke group flames out, the Tigers chances are shot anyways. Contingency plans would be a waste of resources.

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      • Josh says:

        Then why spend so much money on win-now players like V-Mart and Ordonez? Spending big money on veteran hitters but nothing on rotation back-up plans seems really contradictory.

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      • jklender says:

        They were rumored to be in on Marcum and a few other guys who would have nicely bolstered their rotation. After those deals didn’t pan out, I think Tigers fans can certainly breathe a sigh of relief that Dave Dombrowski and Mike Ilitch didn’t pull a Vernon Wells-equivalent panic move or repeat mistakes of the past by throwing cash at someone else undeserving.

        I tend to agree with the points others have made here regarding the team’s pragmatic wait-and-see approach. They appear to be prepared to make moves on the fly, and as with most teams they will only be successful if timing and a bit of luck works in their favor.

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  3. Zack says:

    I seem to be seeing too much focus on “most teams use 10 starters during a season” and not enough focus on “usually 90+% of a team’s starts in a given season are made by 6 or 7 guys.” While it’s true that teams typically have 9-11 guys start at least one game each season, 3-4 of those guys usually make just 1-3 starts each. I’d be interested to see data on what % of starts are made by an average team’s top-7 starters (sorted by games started). I would imagine this is especially true for contending teams ( 1) Teams that avoid injuries are more likely to contend and 2) Contending teams have less need/incentive to swap ineffective veterans for youngsters with potential)

    With that in mind, the Tigers are basically going with Oliver as their sixth starter and Furbush/2nd half Turner as their seventh. If the rotation falls apart/suffers injuries to the point that they need significant work from guys further down the ladder, no replacement-level veterans (Gallaraga/Bonderman/etc.) would be able to save this team’s hopes of contending.

    In sum, given how infrequently 8th and 9th starters are used, I don’t think playoff hopefuls would be wise to devote resources toward filling these rolls with replacement-level veterans.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      It’s looked like this over the past 5 years:

      # GS IP ERA
      1 33 218 3.60
      2 32 196 4.07
      3 29 170 4.52
      4 23 130 4.72
      5 17 94 5.04
      6 12 62 5.29
      7 8 39 5.72
      8 5 23 5.79
      9 3 11 7.20
      10 1 4 8.19
      total 162 946 4.47

      #1 represents the top 30 starters (in terms of innings) for a given year, #2 represents the next 30 starters (in terms of innings) for a given year, and so on and so forth. 5 years of data.

      Got the numbers from here: http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=sta&lg=all&qual=0&type=0&season=2010&month=0&season1=2006&ind=1

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        More readable:

        # GS IP ERA
        1 33 218 3.60
        2 32 196 4.07
        3 29 170 4.52
        4 23 130 4.72
        5 17 94 5.04
        6 12 62 5.29
        7 8 39 5.72
        8 5 23 5.79
        9 3 11 7.20
        10 1 4 8.19
        total 162 946 4.47

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        Okay, not more readable. Boo to fangraphs’ complete lack of formatting. Last try:
        # GS IP ERA
        1 33 218 3.60
        2 32 196 4.07
        3 29 170 4.52
        4 23 130 4.72
        5 17 94 5.04
        6 12 62 5.29
        7 8 39 5.72
        8 5 23 5.79
        9 3 11 7.20
        10 1 4 8.19
        total 162 946 4.47

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      • ballmich says:

        Interestingly, this is what Bill James has projected:

        # GS IP ERA
        1 33 226 3.46 (Verlander)
        2 31 205 3.56 (Scherzer)
        3 29 188 4.16 (Porcello)
        4 28 167 3.66 (Coke)
        5 22 121 4.31 (Penny)

        All better than the average for the past 5 years. Not that these are a certainty by any means. The real question is how confident are the Tigers that they can get better than 101 innings of 5.46 ERA from Oliver and Turner as the 6th and 7th starters. I think they feel pretty good about getting at least that, if not better. That hurdle is not very high. As for starters #8-10, 38 innings of 6.40 ERA… We have a slew of young arms that to throw to the wolves in which we could probably expect that level of performance.

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  4. RPS says:

    Re: Bondo and Armando, the vibe is that they would prefer whatever AAAA starter happens to be available when the need arises to those two. Given that neither is a good bet to achieve even 1 WAR over a full season, it’s hard to argue with the decision not to keep one in the pen just in case.

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  5. MK says:

    I think this is a possible mistake on Dombrowski’s part. In the past, the Tigers have had several “young veterans” at the AAA level. They didn’t make an impact on the Tigers, but have gone on to have success with other teams. Guys like Colby Lewis, Chad Durbin, and to a lesser extent Eddie Bonine, Chris Lambert, etc. He’s obviously expecting the young (cheap) guys to contribute this year if need be. I think Oliver is green, but the most ready of the bunch. Not sure where they’re going to get 3 or 4 more guys though….

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    • ballmich says:

      One of the things that have changed in recent years, is that Toledo and Erie rotations are pretty packed. There’s not a lot of room to stash fringy major leaguers in the minors. Toledo projects something like: Oliver, Furbush, Gagnier, Weber/Brown, and Gonzalez/Oxspring. Erie something like: Below, Brown/Weber, Kibler/Wilk, Putkonen, and Turner. As is, you are going to have guys at AA and Hi-A that probably deserve to be a level higher, but are blocked (unless we have a rash of injuries).

      The lack of fringy veterans is really the Tiger’s way of attempting to validate the resources spent on developing a pipeline of young pitching. And clearly they love Oliver and Turner. The others are fringy, but doesn’t hurt to use them instead of importing fringe from outside the organization.

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      • MK says:

        Excellent point. I wonder if the Tigers have reached the conclusion that bringing up someone like Charlie Furbush has a higher net gain than bringing up someone like sayyyy Tim Redding? Are you risking the chance that you might stunt a young players growth? Is being thrown into the fire a good way for a younger player to develop? Are these guys in the high minors already developed enough as is? It’ll be interesting to see who they call upon. Oliver and Turner obviously, and maybe a deserving “older” rookie like Gagnier.

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  6. Brian says:

    I’m not really sure of the point of this article. Is the point merely that the Tigers are addressing their rotation depth differently than the way other teams address their rotation depth. If that was the point of the article: well done, if kinda pointless.

    But, it seems to me that the implied point is that this is bad. But, the only support for that contention is that other teams do it differently.

    In 2010, 11 pitchers started games for the Tigers. Only 18 starts were from the non-primary five — 11% of the season. These were games started by Dontrelle Willis (8), Andy Oliver (5), Brad Thomas (2), Eddie Bonine (1), Phil Coke (1), and Alfredo Figaro (1). In total, these pitchers contributed 1.3 WAR; 1.1 WAR is Phil Coke who made 73 non-starting appearances.

    Just given that (not doing a comprehensive look at this), it seems that the Tigers are taking a rational approach not to waste resources for contingency starters.

    Seems like this article is not very thought out

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    • Brian says:

      Having now read Ben’s link to this article from MLBTR, it does appear that the only point is that the Tigers are taking an unconventional approach to depth. So, fair point, fair article.

      It will be interesting to see how it works out.

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    • MHead81 says:

      Well, if it “seems like this article is not very thought out,” it fits right in with the rest of the series. It still blows my mind that these are being posted here. This is yet another article that could be summed up in a paragraph, and preferably on another site. Watch:

      Behind Verlander, Porcello, and Scherzer, the Tigers have serious issues with pitching depth. Penny has been injury-plagued and Coke has only started 1 ML game. Galaraga and Bonderman are gone so if Detroit needs starters, they’ll have to come from within their system.

      This reminds me of high school when I’d drag out some teacher’s stupid concept for a paper over 3 pages just so it met the required word count when in all actuality I could’ve summed it up in 2 sentences. Why not just add their middle names, too? That’ll add a bunch more words.

      “On average MLB teams have used 9.9 starters each over the course of the past five years” is the only “stat” used. Where is the meat of this article? Why are you taking the reader’s time to read through all of this? Where’s the payoff to the reader for giving you their time? What information is presented that wasn’t already common knowledge to the regulars of this site? What insight have you provided to us that we otherwise might not have been aware of?

      “Come on, man!”– The Monday Night Countdown crew

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    • Phil Coke’s start was on the final game of the regular season and he only pitched three or four innings. I believe both of Brad Thomas’ starts came when someone got hurt immediately before the game. They weren’t even the type of injuries where you could call someone up tomorrow. I’m not completely sure on that, but my memory seems to remember that being the case. I think one game Dontrelle Willis got sick before the game and in another someone’s (Galarraga?) arm was hurting during warm-up and so Thomas got the start. I believe Bonine’s start came during a rain-induced double-header. All of those starts I think almost don’t fit the scope of the article because you can’t really “plan” for those. It was the Willis (who began the year in the rotation), Oliver, and Figaro starts that really are the ones that “rotation depth” would cover.

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  7. Colour me confused says:

    Why do folks complain about articles on a website that’s free of charge? It’s like criticizing a free beer because it’s a Stroh’s and not a Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. In the end, a free beer is better than no beer.

    “Come on, man!” – The Monday Night Countdown crew.

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    • MHead81 says:

      No, it’s not like complaining about free beer. Your analogy is a bit off. Beer, despite the quality (and assuming it’s not non-alcoholic), will still get you at least a buzz. In this case, it would be like having no beer and then being handed an empty can of beer, because I have nothing of use that I didn’t already have both before and after the exchange.

      I don’t dispute that articles like these have value… SOMEWHERE. It’s just not here. And although that comes off as an insult, it isn’t meant to. WHERE an article is found and its context is relevant to its impact. This isn’t the audience for these, and I’d bet that those reading who think it is have just found their way over from MLBTR. That said,if these had just been posted over there instead, those same readers would have found them anyway. Again, that’s not intended to be an insult.

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      • ballmich says:

        I like the beer can analogy. However, most states will give you a nickle for these cans, so it’s not like you’d have gotten nothing in this exchange. In my state, these carry a redemption value. This is just California’s way of saying, we’re going to charge you a five cent deposit fee, but when you go to recycle the can we’re going to hide the refund value and end up giving you WAY less than the deposit you actually paid. Plus, you pay sales tax on the deposit when you buy the beverage, which is the equivalent of paying tax on a tax. Go figure.

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      • MHead81 says:

        So, you’re essentially saying that a beer can has a value of 5 cents, which is worth more than this article’s 2 cents. If only there were a stat that converted a player’s contributions into monetary values. Seems it would’ve helped to illustrate the point of this article by explaining why the Tigers are not spending x amount for a pitcher who is expected to be worth <x.

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    • Brian says:

      I think the problem people are having with the article is that it fails to meet expectations in two ways.
      (1) More is expected of Fangraphs.
      (2) The article actually hints at an interesting question without ever broaching it or saying something of substance. It’s an interesting question whether this type of depth — reliance on inhouse prospects of varying stripes– would make an appreciable difference over reliance on has-beens/retreads/journeymen. This seems like it would be empirically testable. It would also be interesting to know how many starts are taken up by non-front 5 starters to know if this strategy would make a difference.

      So, I guess shame on us for expecting more and responding to a potentially interesting topic?

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  8. Eric H. says:

    Unreal what a tough crowd we have in the comments section. Jesus H! Go to another site, you halfwits.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Agreed, in part.

      THe disagreement that I have with the article’s conclusion is the perception/insinuation that DET will be in trouble if they experience injuries in the rotation.

      My disagreement would be that would be the case for every team.

      If a team is rtelying on their 7-10 starters to provide meaningful value over the 7-10 starters of other teams, and for that to be the difference between contention and not … they’re likely screwed already.

      I prefer to look at it like another poster did, something like “90% of a team’s starts come from the top 5 pitchers”.

      Their top 5 are pretty solid, when healthy.

      If they have replacement level+ pitchers in the minors, why acquire MLB fodder that will both occupy a roster space, occupy MiLB innings, but really only be of value if a starter gets hurt for an extended period of time.

      If MLB rosters were more than 25 active guys, that might make more sense. I suppose the 6,7,8 starters could serve as reliever until needed as starters, but it’s likely just as valuable to go with the guys that are already accustomed to relieving, and let them stay in that role for the season, rather than having to reshuffle the bullpen if one of the relievers is needed to become a starter.

      In the end, DET’s rotation is like everyone else’s … they need to stay healthy and productive for the team to be successful. I don;t see where they have more concerning aspects than most other rotations in the league.

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  9. Robert says:

    Wakefield 1.5 million,
    Doubront .4 million,
    Aceves .65 million
    Tazawa .55 million
    Miller 1.3 million

    Or the players mentioned for the Tigers for league minimum. It seems hard to justify spending .99 million or .5 million extra per player for a pitcher who will only make 10 starts. It also appears that a trade could be made at a low cost to get a pitcher that is the quality of Wakefield or Miller, who are interestingly the highest paid of the five.

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  10. Eric Cioe says:

    It seems to me the Tigers think that if anyone slips, then Oliver might be ready for real this time, or if that fails, that they’ve got Oxspring and Gonzalez to eat innings. Yeah, they both suck, but they can chew up innings. Oliver has upside. Turner has upside and might just be ready to make a cameo this season like Oliver did last season. Furbush has a little upside and he’s mostly ready now. Wilk, Below, Weber, Brown, all of those guys could conceivably pitch a game or three in the summer and not embarrass themselves. I guess I just don’t see the point in begging Bonderman to take a minor league deal when over a couple of starts those guys would be just as good. They’re already paid for, too.

    What was Galarraga? He wasn’t efficient enough to eat innings. What was Bonderman? How is Bonderman at this point any better than Oliver? Seems to me the approach is to call up high ceiling prospects if you need a couple of starts in July, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

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  11. Oddibe McBlauser says:

    Charlie Furbush and Duane Below (!) gotta be in the pool for awkward baseball porn names.

    OTOH, Duane Below is just masterpiece name period.

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  12. mister_rob says:

    I cant believe neither the article or the twenty something responses above me mentioned tom gorzelanny. Am I mistaken, or isnt he on the tigers now? He has lots of experieincing starting. and some moderate success recently doing so

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  13. Dwight S. says:

    I don’t really see what the big deal is, the Tigers prefer to use cost controlled prospects in case of an emergency versus signing washed up or never was veterans. What’s the difference? Plus if they were to keep Galarraga and/or Bonderman they would need to be in the BP and if an emergency start was needed they wouldn’t even be stretched out enough to start, so it would be a waste.

    The fact is that sure it’s highly unlikely that the Tigers will finish with only 5 starters but they have a few in the minors that they are comfortable with filling in and if they don’t work there is always starting pitching available through the trade market. Not a big deal.

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  14. smelly shelly says:

    Who cares about a 3rd place team to begin with?

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  15. momotigers says:

    After reading the article and the comments I decided to do a little digging. I wanted to find out how often each team needed to use a pitcher (or several) beyond their top five. Using baseballreference.com, I considered a team’s “core rotation” to be the five pitchers with the most GS. After that, I just counted the number of other GS for pitchers outside of these five.

    Obviously, not all of my rotations would be considered by true fans of the team as their ‘A’ rotation, but we’re just looking at the number of pitchers needed beyond the five most frequent starters. The complete results are posted here:

    https://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?hl=en&hl=en&key=0AneGbKwZj-xcdGVUWlV0dWl3UTlJa2NOcEs2dEgtZnc&output=html

    There were some interesting findings. First, the average for all teams was about 28 games (17.5%). The Rays were pretty solid last year. They only need 8 additional starts (5%) beyond their core rotation. By contrast, the Nats had 54 (33%) games started outside of their core. We all know which team was more competitive.

    Competitiveness does seem to be a factor. I averaged the six divisions. The first place team in each division need additional starters about 13% of the time; second place was 14.8%; third place was 15.4%; fourth was 20.9% and fifth was 22.4%. Of course, there’s a bit of a chicken and egg argument here. Do the cellar-dwellers use extra starters because they’re crummy and are looking for answers or does the need for extra starters turn in team’s season into a Pirates-esque scavenger hunt for starters? My guess is it’s a little bit of both.

    In conclusion, if you hope for your team to finish in 1st or 2nd place, it’s best if you assume that you’ll need 20-25 games started outside of your core rotation. Right now, the Tigers don’t have a strong contingency plan (Andy Oliver, I’m pointing at you), but I don’t feel that many other teams do either.

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    • ToddM says:

      Given the off-season approach and management’s recent history, I guarantee Jacob Turner makes starts in the second half of the season. The only way this doesn’t happen is if he’s hurt or the original five make all their starts in the second half (extremely unlikely).

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  16. jklender says:

    A year ago at this time I believe they had Bonderman, Galarraga, Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis, Bonine, and others to provide “depth”. Maybe Coke, Penny, and the youngsters aren’t enough, but I’d still say they represent an upgrade at the very least. I’d take my chances with that.

    Also, they are developing a surplus of young fringe outfielders with potential, which before long may be useful for any rotation acquisitions as necessary. (A la the Joyce/Jackson trade.)

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    • smelly shelly says:

      One man’s fringe is another’s gold mine.

      The Tigers would do well to package some of their guys that are knocking on the major league door for consolidation purposes.

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      • momotigers says:

        True, I think they have a lot of AAAA guys that could be excellent, inexpensive contributors on small market teams. Wells, Boesch, Dirks, Streiby, Rhymes, Sizemore, and Clete Thomas could all contribute to a big league team, but are blocked by better talent in Detroit.

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      • Scott Sizemore is not blocked by any better talent, and the Tigers are not done deluding themselves into believing that Strieby can play the Outfield, but your general point is otherwise correct and I agree.

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  17. Jay pacowski says:

    Does the quality and endurance of the bullpen come into play here? My impression is that you can go with this strategy if your long-relief guys can cover for an iffy injury-replacement (e.g., Oliver) who is inserted in the rotation for 2-3 starts. Or maybe that’s not relevant. You guys know best. Any thoughts? Paco

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  18. Keith_Allen says:

    Stocking up on replacement level pitchers doesn’t actually give you more rotation depth. It just gives you more questionable players on the roster. I’d rather have quality than quantity, so I really like what the Tigers are doing here.
    Moving Galarraga was the best thing for Galarraga AND the organization. Rick Knapp and Jim Leyland really couldn’t work with him anymore.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I agree. If you have 4 guys competing for a 2B job in spring training, then the real conclusion is that you don;t have a bonafide major league 2nd baseman.

      Having a bunch of 7th starters on the active roster doesn;t really seem to be all that productive. Especially, when guys can be called up during injury, or when relievers can spot start.

      If there’s a day off during the week, then the rotation can just keep humming on regular days rest if a short-term injury or missed start occurs.

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  19. mike23 says:

    I’d say it s a good strategy , and gives more patience for prospects

    How is this any different compared to what oakland is doing. 3 starters under age 25, braden is 27. Then a bunch of back rotation candidates in mccarthy, ross, outman, harden, cramer. With a deep bullpen

    Yet despite their ages and inury risks they seem to be optimistic

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  20. Colin says:

    I agree with the opinion that young 20 somethings with upside are probably just as good an option as retread SP available on the market. I really don’t think the Tigers lose anything by their strategy, in fact, I think they gain by getting their younger pitchers who are close to ready more minor league experience before they are fully relied upon. Not to mention they save money.

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  21. Tim says:

    This is going to look mighty silly when they pick up three guys on the waiver wire at the end of spring training. That’s actually quite a good strategy when everyone else is stockpiling – let other teams take on the injury risk and the spring playing time resources, scout well, and pick up the healthy guys who pitched well but didn’t get a spot.

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