Justin Verlander knows exactly which past rotation he’d like the Tigers to model themselves after.
"Braves," Verlander said, without hesitation. "Obviously that’s three Hall of Fame pitchers – you can’t really ask for that – but that’s the rotation I grew up watching. I grew up watching the Braves, I grew up watching Smoltzie [John Smoltz] and [Greg] Maddux and [Tom] Glavine just go after it and [perform] in the postseason. Those three guys – nobody wanted to face them."
As Verlander says, no rotation can be expected to match the Braves of the 1990s and early 2000s. But after some poor early season performances, Tigers starters have rebounded and appear poised to enter 2011 with a relatively stable rotation. Rick Porcello and Armando Galarraga have had ups and downs in 2010, but no pitcher has turned his season around as completely as Max Scherzer.
"Max has been probably one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half," Verlander said.
In 17 starts since returning from a stint in minor leagues, Scherzer has posted a 2.20 ERA with 9.4 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9. Scherzer says his recent success – and the rotation’s – should continue into next season.
"Right now we’re pitching well," Scherzer said. "Verlander, myself, Galarraga, Porcello and Bondo [Jeremy Bonderman]. We’re putting a lot of quality starts up there and it’s good because we’re kind of feeding off of each other."
Scherzer, Verlander, Porcello and Galarraga can expect to keep feeding off each other next season, since all four are under team control for 2011. Bonderman is a free agent this offseason and though he has hinted at retirement, he could fit into the team’s plans for next season.
Instead, the Tigers may determine that Alfredo Figaro or Andy Oliver is ready to join the rotation. Figaro has pitched well at Triple A, though the 26-year-old has struggled in the major leagues. Big leaguers have also hit Oliver, but the 22-year-old has impressive numbers in the minor leagues over the course of his first pro season (3.50 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 3.2 BB/9).
Figaro and Oliver are closest to the majors, but the Tigers system continues to produce intriguing arms. Drew Smyly and Jacob Turner are not on the brink of contributing at the major league level, but the two top picks have the potential to start in the major leagues eventually.
Smyly, Turner and Oliver seem like youngsters, but Rick Porcello (who is actually a year younger than Oliver) is still just 21. Porcello also spent time in Toledo this summer, but he has pitched better since returning from Triple A. He doesn’t have the eye-popping strikeout numbers Scherzer does, but Porcello has posted a 4.44 ERA with twice as many strikeouts as walks since returning to the majors in mid-July.
Verlander says Porcello makes the baseball dance whenever they’re playing catch. Porcello's stuff has not translated into big league success this year, but it seems unlikely that he has reached his ceiling.
"I really don’t think Ricky has yet," Verlander said. "I still think even at his age, he can still pitch better than he is right now, and I know he’s been throwing well lately, but I think he’s better than what he’s shown."
That’s why Verlander likes this group for 2011 and beyond.
"We’re all under contract for a while, so I think the team envisions building around that and seeing what happens," Verlander said. "But if we can all pitch the way that we’re capable of, the sky’s the limit."
Galarraga, who pushed the limits of pitching perfection in June, likes the idea of pitching with Verlander, Porcello and Scherzer for a while.
"Porcello and Max, they’re really young, younger than me and have a lot of talent, so hopefully we’re going to have for a couple of years the same rotation."
The Tigers have money coming off the books this winter, so they could spend on a starter if they don’t want to rely on Figaro or Oliver to round out the rotation. They could choose to look into free agents, since Porcello is no sure thing and teams almost always call on more than five starters over the course of a season.
Verlander, Scherzer, Galarraga and Porcello have promise, but don’t provide the same certainty as, say, the Phillies’ or Giants’ starters. All the same, Verlander is cautiously optimistic about what this group can do in 2011.
"You can never really forecast," Verlander said. "But if you say we’re all going to be pitching really well, I think our chances to win the division are outstanding."
It won't be Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, but it should be enough.