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Back to the future


Back to the future
Times are getting tougher to be a fan of Detroit professional sports teams, save for the Red Wings. The Lions can't win a game. The Pistons are headed for a probable quick playoff elimination and offseason overhaul.

And barely more than a fortnight before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, the Detroit Tigers have done little to bolster their pitching.

That latter fact seems even more substantial than the others, given that the Tigers are closer to winning big now than the Pistons -- and certainly the Lions -- because of their potential to regain several star-power pitchers who lost form in 2008, including Justin Verlander (lost 17 games), Jeremy Bonderman (lost blood circulation) and Dontrelle Willis (lost the strike zone).

Baseball also affords extensive free-agent opportunities to close gaps quickly, if a team is willing to open the vault and compete with the gold standard set by the New York Yankees.

The Tigers weren't.

Really, they had little choice.

Trendy picks since winning an American League pennant three seasons ago, the Tigers lost 14 more games than they won last year, which harkened an offseason filled as much with curiosity as promise.

A new pitching coach, Rick Knapp, was hired to analyze and revitalize a flailing staff and perhaps find training-related reasons for its frequent injuries, including the surgically repaired returns of Bonderman and reliever Joel Zumaya.

Mostly, there was curiosity about what the Tigers would do to acquire new pitching blood.

The lone answer: Brandon Lyon.

Oh, the Tigers could have spent wildly to attract a front-line arm or two. They did make a pitch for Kerry Wood, who signed with Cleveland.

Instead, as they watched the Yankees award contracts totaling more than $243 million to CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Tigers quietly backed away.

They chose fiscal restraint and placed faith in past decisions regarding their broken-down major-league pitchers and a promising crop of maturing minor-leaguers, particularly relievers.

Those decisions could lead general manager Dave Dombrowski to dismantle part of the roster he so carefully crafted if they don't work.

But that was the only way to go.

The Tigers will get some consideration as an AL Central contender, partly because the division is so wide open, partly because they still have offensive punch aplenty, partly because a rosy glance at their pitching staff sees the Verlander who won 35 games in 2006 and '07, the Bonderman who won 50 games from 2004-07, and the Willis who was a reliable 200-innings man and finished second for the National League Cy Young Award four years ago.

Verlander, Bonderman and Willis are in their mid-20s. The Tigers are invested in them, for better or worse.

And with closer Todd Jones retired and starter Kenny Rogers apparently so, the Tigers found their inevitable youth movement already in place. The Gambler might be gone, but the Tigers are letting it ride.

The decisions are steeped in a 2009 payroll of about $130 million and an earnest belief that a few pitchers' rediscoveries can override the need to splurge more. That's why the Tigers never factored into talks for bigger-name closers with proven 30-save capability, such as Francisco Rodriguez, Trevor Hoffman and J.J. Putz.

Lyon will compete for the closer's role. So will Rodney and Zumaya. Beyond that, only left-hander Bobby Seay's role is fairly set in a bullpen that should get help eventually from minor leaguers such as Blaine Neal (26 saves, 1.21 ERA at Toledo last year) and 25-year-old Casey Fien and 26-year-old Josh Kite of Double-A Erie.

Except for the retirements, the Tigers' staff won't look markedly different than last year, even though pitching was the overriding reason they were sub-.500.

They will rely largely on decisions made years ago, centered on bounce-back pitchers who were in the World Series 27 months ago.

You might recall not much was expected of them that spring, either.


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: January 30, 2009

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