The Tigers Three Headed Monster

Originally published in the now defunct: Two On One Out | 18 March 2010

When you commit $64 million dollars to three pitchers over the span of two years, there are certain expectations that need to be met.

Take a look at the San Francisco Giants. Their three headed monster of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Barry Zito are making $54.05 million collectively in 2009 and 2010. Last year they won a combined 39 games in 98 starts and struck out 586 batters in 635 innings pitched. Those numbers are produced by, what some regard, the best top end rotation in the league.

Or take the St. Louis Cardinals, who have committed $52.75 million to Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Kyle Lohse. Last year the three combined for 51 wins in 94 starts. They struck out 461 in 639.2 innings pitched. The conclusion was two Cy Young runner-ups, and a pitcher who rediscovered his career.

We can even go as far as comparing this type of commitment to the New York Yankees, because when a significant amount of money is committed to three players, no matter how much it may be, the expectations are the same.
The Yankees are paying $89.9 million to CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte over this two-year period. Last year, the organization received a return investment of 46 wins in 99 starts, with 540 strikeouts in 631.2 innings pitched. Not to mention a World Series victory.

With all of that said; the $64 million that the Detroit Tigers committed to their three headed monster must be targeted towards Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Edwin Jackson (in 2010 it will be Max Scherzer). The three won 46 games in 99 starts last year. They struck out 519 batters in 624.2 innings.

How very, very wrong we are.

The three Tiger pitchers who are going to make more money than some of the best front-end starting rotations in baseball are none other than Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Robertson. Last year they combined for three victories in 14 starts and struck out 57 in 93.2 innings. They made $29.5 million dollars combined, and will make $34.5 million this year.

Simply sit back, sigh, shake your head, and laugh. Now let’s continue:

We won’t even bring up the question of why these players are making that much money. That is an old beaten dead horse that had served its purpose, decayed on the side of a farm and decomposed as fertilizer.

Jim Leyland shares those thoughts, evident by his quote on March 4 of this year: “The ideal situation is if people that have [big] contracts pitch for you. That’s the ideal situation. You know that. I know that. There’s no sense beating around the bush. There’s no sense asking leading questions about it, because you guys all know the answers to it.

“We have some contracts. You know that. You know I know that. You know the general manager knows that. Hopefully those guys are good—let me put it that way.”

How much do we really expect these three to perform in their collective walk years? After all, they will be free agents at the end of the year and for the most part, are being advised to save their paychecks. They will not be making this kind of money come next spring, even if there’s a cataclysmic turnaround for any one of them.

For Dontrelle Willis, his journey in a Detroit Tiger uniform has been less than satisfactory, for himself, the team and fans alike. Since his arrival in 2007 with teammate Miguel Cabrera Willis has battled injury, depression, anxiety, and worst of all, control.

He has started 14 games in the last two years. He has walked 63 batters in 57.2 innings. His ERA is nearly a run an inning. It’s a stat line you expect out of a flame-throwing single-A pitcher who comes to camp with no idea where his 98 MPH heater is going.

This is not something you want to see from a former Rookie of the Year, World Series champion, and 22-game winner. Actually that’s just being nice; this isn’t something you want to see from anyone who expects to perform at a professional level.

However, his performance this year has been very impressive. This spring he has given up 1 run in his 7 innings of work and has walked only 4 batters. He appears to have this determination that hadn’t been there previously. He appears (to quote Leyland, knock on wood) to have overcome his battle with anxiety.

And, at just 28 years old, there is still hope Willis can turn himself around. If he could just figure out what it was he used to be he could perhaps salvage what has turned into a very miserable situation for Detroit.

The same fate goes for Jeremy Bonderman, who despite all his hype and potential talent has never blossomed into the pitcher he was tagged to be. Nor has he played at the level expected of someone who signed a four-year, $38 million deal, after he posted a 14-8 record with 202 strikeouts in 214 Innings in 2006.

He has started 41 games in those three years since. He’s won 14 of them and posted a 4.96 ERA. Although he has been forced to deal with constant arm injuries since 2007, there is little chance anyone will take a chance on his arm, even at 27. He’s just never proved that he can be healthy and consistent enough to warrant a contract.

Unfortunately for Bonderman, who used to be able to hit 98 MPH with relative ease, he is no longer a power pitcher. If he is to succeed in this rotation, in any rotation, he is going to need to learn how to pitch to his strengths.

While he may be healthy this spring, it doesn’t mean he is effective. Although he has walked only 2 and struck out 6 in 5.2 innings, his sinker is not biting down when it reaches the plate and hitters are driving it deep into the outfield. In all he’s appeared in three games, starting one.

His ERA imploded to an 11.12 mark, marred by a disastrous six run first inning in Toronto, where he only recorded two outs. If he is to make the team, much less the starting rotation he is going to need to figure out a way to get batters out.

This is a complete contract to crafty lefty, Nate Robertson, who this spring with the help of former Tiger aces, Kenny Rogers and Frank Tanana, has rediscovered the bite in his slider, even though his velocity has dropped.

He threw his third consecutive effective start of the spring on Wednesday, and completed four innings in the Tigers win.

After a rough first outing of the spring where he walked 3 and gave up 2 runs in 1.1 innings, Robertson has struck out 8 batters in 9 innings while only walking 1 and giving up 2 earned runs.

His performances are commanding, albeit a little surprising coming from the 32-year-old left-hander, who has a career ERA of 4.92.

“Maybe he senses a sense of urgency to win a job,” Dave Dombrowski said.

Hopefully all three of these pitchers have that sense, but so far it appears that Robertson and Willis are the front-runners for the two remaining spots in the starting rotation.

If they can figure out how to produce consistently, the Tigers could be a very dangerous team this year.

If not, the pressure those contracts command will not remain a virus in the payroll next year.

The Tigers will be able to start fresh.

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