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Detroit Starting Pitching Depth Discussions

Starting pitching is an area of strength for the Detroit Tigers as they enter the 2013 season, and from a fantasy perspective, Detroit is one of the rare teams that has value one through five. Four slots in this rotation are sewn up, and it’s debatable whether there’s an actual battle for the fifth slot in the rotation. But whoever loses that battle obviously takes a hit to their short-term value. The Tigers didn’t really bring in anyone else to push for a spot in the rotation during Spring, so the picture is pretty clear.

The obvious ace of the staff is Justin Verlander, he of the 17-8, ERA 2.64, 1.05 WHIP, and 239 strikeouts. There’s really nothing to not like about Verlander going into 2013. His velocity hasn’t shown much of a dip over the years, and he was actually throwing quite a bit harder down the stretch last season. He just turned 30 in February, he’s got a potent offense behind him and pitches in a favorable park. It looks like he’s being selected in the latter part of the first and early part of the second rounds in typical snake draft formats, and for good reason.

The next three could be mixed and matched relative to order. As far as “stuff,” you probably slot Max Scherzer in as your number two, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Doug Fister get the ball behind Verlander. The other candidate is Anibal Sanchez who could get the nod just to substantiate the $80 million they handed him this past Winter. But the order doesn’t matter too much for fantasy purposes, it’s the results, eh?

Scherzer opened the season with a 7.77 ERA in April, allowing a .346/.438/.510 slash line to opposing batters. From that point forward, Scherzer went 15-4 with a 3.14 ERA and an eye popping 30.7% strikeout rate. He finished the season 16-7 with a 3.74 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 231 strikeouts. Because of the volatility Scherzer has shown throughout his career, it’s tough to project him, but I tend to like the Steamer projection of a 3.51 ERA, 24% K rate, and 1.21 WHIP. If he can produce at that level, he’s worth the 7th round pick you’ll probably have to use to get him.

Doug Fister remade himself as a Tiger. Once just a control artist without much in the way of swing-and-miss stuff, Fister’s strikeout rate has increased steadily over the past three seasons from 12.9% to 16.7% to 20.4% in 2012. If he can keep that level of performance, he’s not just a back-end fantasy starter anymore. Should he be able to give you 200 innings, he ought to come up with 160 strikeouts which should compliment an ERA in the mid-3.00 range and a pretty stingy WHIP somewhere south of 1.20. He’s not a secret anymore, but looking at CBS, he’s ranked 153rd overall, which could make him a bargain pick. In Yahoo, he’s coming off the board in the 12th.

Anibal Sanchez coming to Detroit probably hurts his strikeout totals enough to turn him into more of a fourth starter in a good fantasy rotation. He’s consistently posted ERA’s south of 4.00 four the past four seasons but he gives up his fair share of hits which typically puts his WHIP somewhere around 1.30. When he was striking out 22-24% of batters, he was really useful, but if his strikeout rate settles in around 18% in Detroit, then you’re looking at about 140 K’s over 180 innings pitched which just isn’t all too special. As far as projections go, ZiPS is rather bearish and Bill James rather bullish – so maybe split the difference and settle in somewhere around the Steamer projection which is a 4.10 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and a 17.5% K rate.

And finally, the “battle.” The Tigers have a nice problem on their hands to have two young pitchers easily capable of occupying the #5. Rick Porcello would seem to be the more likely choice given his major league experience, and coming off what was probably his best season in three years. But Porcello is kind of uniquely unfit for this Tiger infield that doesn’t boast the best gloves in the game. His 53% ground ball rate coupled with a very low strikeout rate might always elevate his ERA into an area that would be a drain on your fantasy team. Should he secure the 5th spot, expect an ERA around 4.40 a WHIP around 1.40 and he’ll be lucky to crack 110 K’s.

Pushing Porcello for that fifth spot is Drew Smyly. Over 143 minor league innings, the 23 year old Smyly owns a 2.57 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and a 9.7 K/9 rate. In nearly 100 major league innings in 2012, Smyly posted a 23% K rate with a 3.99 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. He flashed a terrific slider at times and gave fits to left handed batters, holding them to a .222/.283/.388 line. As far as fantasy purposes go, Smyly is much more interesting than Porcello — but obviously only if he wins the gig out of Spring. This is certainly a situation to monitor.

The Tigers invited Trevor Bell, Jose Alvarez, and Shawn Hill to camp on minor league deals but it’s probably because they have to give innings so someone other than their top six. Alvarez has the potential to make the squad in a LOOGY role and has started throughout the minors, so he’d give them some flexibility. But all three are likely to be emergency arms in case disaster strikes and don’t warrant any fantasy attention. But Hill is one of the last players still kicking around that played for the Montreal Expos, so there’s that.

Early Season Depth Chart (with Steamer projections):

Justin Verlander 17 8 3.5 224 206 210 61 1.19 8.44 2.44 3.47 4.5
Max Scherzer 14 7 3.51 180 161 178 56 1.21 8.9 2.82 3.58 3.3
Doug Fister 13 8 3.94 179 185 121 40 1.25 6.06 2 3.73 3
Anibal Sanchez 13 8 4.1 178 179 133 52 1.29 6.7 2.61 3.98 2.5
Rick Porcello 11 8 4.24 153 164 85 40 1.34 5.03 2.38 3.97 2.1
Drew Smyly 5 3 4.01 72 68 62 26 1.32 7.75 3.29 4.05 0.7